Around 11:00 p.m. on June 3, 1932, F.T. Sullivan, a white steward for the Southern Pacific Railroad, was assaulted with a metal pipe during an attempted robbery. Sullivan was attacked as he slept while the train changed tracks at the railroad yard in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Curtis Manuel, a waiter in the dining car, reported hearing moaning from Sullivan’s sleeping car and discovered Sullivan in his bed, bleeding profusely and unable to speak. Sullivan’s skull had been crushed, and he was taken to the hospital in Klamath Falls and later transferred to a larger hospital in San Francisco.
James Garner, a Southern Pacific employee, told police he had seen Theodore Jordan, a 27-year-old Black man, board the train when it stopped in the same location a week before the crime, and that Jordan had chatted with Garner and other employees. On the night of the crime, Howard C. Short, a Southern Pacific yard man, reported seeing a man of Jordan’s stature boarding the train in the Klamath Falls yard. The locomotive fireman also described seeing a man board the train around the same time, and he described the man as wearing a cap and jacket. Jordan had previously worked for Southern Pacific and had been released from prison a month before the assault after serving a sentence for burglary. Based on this information, police went to Jordan’s home about two hours after the crime to question him. Finding he was not there, Klamath Falls Police Officer Ray Lyon continued to stop by every hour until he found Jordan walking near home at about 7:45 a.m. Jordan told Lyon that he spent the night at a house on Plum Street. Police went to that house and found it was vacant but contained a bed, mattress, and stove.
On June 5, 1932, Sheriff Lloyd Low, Chief of Police Guy Merrill, District Attorney T.R. Gillenwaters, and Deputy District Attorney D.E. Van Vactor obtained a confession from Jordan. He was charged with assault with the intent to rob, but his trial was postponed in case Sullivan, who had been unconscious since the attack, did not survive. Sullivan died on October 15, 1932, at which time the state amended Jordan’s indictment, charging him with first-degree murder.
Jordan’s jury trial began in December 1932 in Klamath County Circuit Court before Judge William M. Duncan. Gillenwaters represented the state, and W.P. Myers represented Jordan. The state called approximately 40 witnesses. Garner testified that he had seen Jordan on the train in the Klamath railroad yard a week prior to the crime. A police officer testified to seeing Jordan walking in the area of the railway yard about an hour before the crime, carrying a beer bottle and an object about 18 to 30 inches long. Local man Sears Gilbert testified that Jordan had tried to persuade him to assist him in robbing Sullivan, but Gilbert said he had refused. Gilbert testified that he was a cook by trade and a gambler by profession.
In the confession introduced by the state, Jordan said he assaulted Sullivan and then spent the night in the vacant house on Plum Street, before heading home early the next morning, at which time he was met by Officer Lyon. He said he burned the shirt he wore during the crime to hide any bloodstains and put on a clean shirt and coat he had stashed at the vacant house. The state offered into evidence burned buttons and pieces of cloth that police testified they had recovered from the stove at the vacant house on Plum Street. Officer Lyon testified that he had checked Jordan’s house throughout the night, but Jordan had not slept there.
Callie Timms, who had known Jordan for many years and whom Jordan referred to as “mother,” testified for the state. She testified that Jordan told her he was innocent after his arrest. She testified that she was then called to the jail and, with Sheriff Low present, Jordan told her “he did not do it, but he was in the middle of it,” and that another person had beaten Sullivan.
When the state tried to introduce Jordan’s confession as evidence, the defense called Jordan to the stand to testify about any coercion, “third- degree” methods, and threats that he said had been used in obtaining the confession. Jordan testified that his confession was the result of assaults and threats by Van Vactor and W.G. Chandler, a Southern Pacific operative. He showed the jury scars from the alleged abuse, which he said occurred mainly at the hands of Chandler. He testified that his teeth were kicked out and the abuse also included the use of a blackjack weapon – a leather pouch filled with lead – and an electrical shock-pad apparatus referred to as a “truth tester.” Jordan testified that the confession entered into evidence was one of seven confessions made under duress while wearing the truth tester and that none of the confessions were alike. He testified that police refused to believe his alibi. He testified that he and Chandler had a fight in the past relating to Jordan’s girlfriend and that Chandler had since harbored a grudge against him. Jordan claimed that Chandler targeted him, noting that Chandler had been involved in each of his three arrests and prosecutions. Jordan testified that he was offered a sentence of 15 years in prison if he pled guilty, but he had refused, maintaining his innocence.
In addition to the bad blood between Chandler and Jordan, Jordan testified that he also had a complicated history with Van Vactor. He testified that Van Vactor had been his defense attorney for theft charges in 1924 and Van Vactor had gone on vacation before the trial, leaving Jordan without counsel and forcing him to plead guilty. “There is some double-cross here, your honor,” Jordan told Judge Duncan, when the judge interrupted to say that the 1924 charges were not relevant.
Jordan testified that he had been at Timms’s house until around 10:00 p.m. on the night of the crime. He testified he had then delivered a package, gone out to a club, and then visited with friends. Timms testified to Jordan’s presence at her home until approximately 10 p.m. Available records do not indicate whether the defense offered the testimony of any alibi witnesses.
The jury found Jordan guilty of first-degree murder on December 10, 1932, with no recommendation of leniency. Jordan addressed Sullivan’s widow, saying he was sorry for what happened but asking her to believe that he did not kill her husband. Jordan was sentenced to death, and his hanging was set for February 3, 1933. Fifteen minutes before his sentencing, Jordan attempted suicide by stabbing himself with a sharpened penholder.
On January 24, 1934, Judge Duncan granted a stay of execution pending Jordan’s appeal. Irvin Goodman of the International Labor Defense (ILD) council joined the defense team as Myers’s co-counsel. The Oregon Supreme Court heard Jordan’s appeal in September 1933 and affirmed his conviction on November 9, 1933. However, on February 13, 1934, the supreme court granted a rehearing after receiving thousands of letters from supporters of the ILD claiming Jordan had not received a fair trial and demanding his release. On March 28, 1934, the court again affirmed Jordan’s conviction.
The ILD continued to champion Jordan’s cause, sending delegations to Governor Julius Meier’s office in an effort to obtain clemency for Jordan. Governor Meier promised to appoint a special committee to reinvestigate Jordan’s case. Upon the committee returning a finding that there could be doubt as to Jordan’s guilt, Governor Meier commuted Jordan’s sentence to life in prison in 1934.
In September 1951, Governor Douglas McKay received an affidavit from Alice Gilbert Borden of Chicago. Borden’s affidavit said that her deceased husband, Sears Gilbert, had confessed to her in 1933 that he, not Jordan, had fatally beaten Sullivan. According to Borden’s affidavit, Gilbert, who was white, had made the confession in 1933 when he was on the way to a hospital with a bullet wound and believed he was dying. Gilbert survived the wound and died in 1937. Borden’s affidavit said that she could no longer rest peacefully knowing Jordan was in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Jordan was paroled in May 1954. In July 1957, police arrested him for stealing boxes of liquor from a Portland supper club. This parole violation caused Jordan to be returned to prison.
In July 1964, Jordan filed a petition for post-conviction relief on the basis that he had been deprived of a fair trial. Marion Circuit Court granted Jordan a new trial in November 1964.
After a three-day hearing regarding the circumstances of Jordan’s confession and trial, Circuit Judge Donald A. W. Piper found his confession to be inadmissible. Judge Piper dismissed the charge against Jordan on a motion from District Attorney Sam McKeen on April 19, 1965. Deputy District Attorney Bob Thomas later said that without the confession, there was nothing to link Jordan to Sullivan’s death. “We could show that Sullivan was killed, but not that Jordan had done it,” Thomas said. Jordan was released from prison on June 25, 1965.
While at least one legislative bill was proposed to compensate Jordan for his false imprisonment, available records do not indicate that Jordan received any compensation before his death in 1969.
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.