Mystery of 100-year-old scrapbook solved: How an Ore. sheriff's office returned a family keepsake
Found in the evidence room without a case number, Sgt. Adam Slater created a Facebook post that led to the scrapbook being returned
By Tom Hallman Jr.
COQUILLE, Ore. — On the first day of 2023, detectives began the routine task of auditing evidence in the Coos County Sheriff’s Office.
The job, which takes place whenever a new commander assumes office, involves employees examining more than 10,000 pieces of evidence that fill rooms in two locations.
Every item – from a gun to a small battery to a pocketknife – must be checked. The case number on the item must be accurate and properly recorded so it can easily be retrieved, if necessary, for a trial or an appeal.
The recent audit, launched after Sheriff Gabe Fabrizio was sworn into office, was going smoothly until a few weeks ago when a detective came across a strange and puzzling piece of evidence.
Call it the case of the scrapbook.
Back in the day, a scrapbook was a commonplace heirloom, a family time capsule.
These big books with heavy covers were the place for grandma’s famous pumpkin pie recipe, birthday and holiday cards received in the mail, family photographs, important clippings cut from the newspaper.
These days, nothing seems so permanent, certainly nothing that will be passed from generation to generation.
Oh, we have hundreds of photos on our smart phones, but we rarely sit down with family members to go through them, and we certainly don’t leave our phones out on the coffee table for everyone to flip through during the holidays.
In the Coos County Sheriff’s evidence room that recent day, Detective Sergeant Aaron Whittenberg stumbled over such a relic, a leather-bound scrapbook that had no case number attached.
He couldn’t figure out why it was in the room. He flipped through the pages, looking for clues.
He read interesting newspaper pieces – one reported the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – and handwritten birthday cards. Dates on the cards told him this scrapbook was more than 100 years old.
By all rights, he could have thrown it out.
Instead, he asked the department’s public-information officer, Sgt. Adam Slater, for help in getting the scrapbook returned to its rightful owner.
Slater crafted a Facebook post mentioning two names he found in the scrapbook – “Mabel” and “Rutten” – and the location where some of the cards had been sent in Florida.
He hoped for the best.
To keep up on crime news, Windy Gardiner, the medical-records director at the Myrtle Point Care Center, reads the county sheriff’s Facebook page.
Two names in this newest post made her think of a resident at the center.
“I’m in charge of a resident’s history,” she explained. “I get to know them better, their family members and their lives.”
Doretta Rutten, soon to be 91, was one of the center’s residents, and Gardiner remembered reading in her file that her mother-in-law was named Mabel.
She checked with Rutten to confirm the information, learning that Rutten’s deceased husband, Bill, had been born and raised in Florida before moving to Coos Bay, where he met Doretta in the early 1960s. They fell in love and got married.
Gardiner told her about the scrapbook.
“She had no idea what I was talking about,” Gardiner said. “I called the sheriff’s office, and they made arrangements to bring the scrapbook to Doretta.”
Sheriff Fabrizio arrived last Thursday, scrapbook in hand, to meet Rutten.
“Most of us get into this job to help people and be a positive influence,” he told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “When you get a chance to do that, it’s a reminder of why we do this.”
He said detectives later learned from Rutten’s daughter that someone broke into Bill and Doretta’s home more than 20 years ago, and she theorized that maybe the scrapbook had been taken.
Fabrizio figures that somewhere along the line deputies found the scrapbook in connection with another case. Not knowing where it came from, deputies put it in the evidence room, where it was forgotten.
“That’s all guessing,” he said. “But the best guess is all I got.”
At the care center, Fabrizio watched Rutten flip through the scrapbook. Rutten paused at newspaper stories detailing the end of World War II, studied the greeting cards. She told the sheriff that a photo of a beautiful young woman in a wedding dress was her husband’s aunt.
Rutten, the memories flooding in, began crying.
“It was definitely pretty emotional,” said Fabrizio. “I’ll be honest, I teared up a bit, too. It was a great bright spot in some otherwise troubling times.”
Rutten realized some of the items predate the birth of her husband. His parents probably had passed the scrapbook down to him.
“It’s hard to explain what it was like to hold that book and touch those cards,” she said. “I know my husband would be tickled by all this.”
Rutten said she plans to make sure her youngest son gets the scrapbook after she dies.
Until then, she said, she will keep it in her room.
“It was part of Bill,” she said. “Having it with me brings Bill back to me.”