This story is why police are taught there’s no such thing as a “routine traffic stop.”
More than 23 years ago, a brutal murder occurred in Roseburg, and one seemingly normal traffic stop led to murder convictions and national headlines.
“I’m so happy that it happened very early in my career,” said Oregon State Police Lt. Doug Ladd, who now heads the Roseburg OSP office. “It was a very valuable lesson — you never know. You never know when a minor thing will become something major.”
Because the fact pattern of Donald James Fish’s murder includes so many eye-catching details — lesbian killers, a naked dwarf found dead, a prison escape — it’s garnered much outside attention. Recently, players in the case were interviewed for an episode of the Oxygen Network’s true crime series, “Snapped: Killer Couples,” which chronicles female killers.
“This was a story that had all the elements of ‘bizarre,’” said former Douglas County TV and radio broadcaster Dan Bain.
WEIRD GETS WEIRDER
On July 3, 1990, Ladd was a recruit working his last day of training, alongside Senior Trooper Monte Smith. They knew a man had been found beaten to death that afternoon under the Washington Avenue Bridge. The victim, a traveling portrait photographer, had been last seen leaving a bar the night before with two women.
They also knew to be on the lookout for teenagers hitchhiking on the interstate. Supposedly, a group planned to meet up in Southern Oregon to commit ritualistic suicide.
“That was another weird detail,” Smith said.
At about 7:20 p.m., driving north on Interstate 5 near the Douglas County Fairgrounds, Smith or Ladd (they weren’t sure who was first) noticed two boys hitchhiking on the opposite shoulder. They drove on to the Harvard Avenue exit and turned around, nearing the boys in time to see them pull away in an older blue sedan, which cut off several cars as it merged.
“We had no information on the suspect vehicle at that point. Our focus was on talking to the kids,” Smith said.
Ladd hit the lights and siren and pulled over the sedan for failure to yield. Along with the boys, the troopers found inside two women. The driver gave several spellings of a fake name. Ladd and Smith quickly gathered evidence of other crimes against the pair.
They discovered the 1964 Ford Falcon had been reported stolen the day before in Salem. They found proper identification for both women, Tracey Lee Poirier, 28, and Tamara Marie Upton, 26, and learned they’d both been to prison. Poirier had been driving on a suspended license, and Upton had a warrant for assault. Both appeared to have been drinking.
“The car was full of junk I remember,” Ladd said. “Clothing, beer bottles — stuff like that.”
Along with the hitchhikers, there was a black puppy in the back seat. The back bumper was smeared with what looked like mud.
Now with a more important matter to attend to, Ladd and Smith told the hitchhikers, brothers from California, to leave. Driving away, Smith remembers thinking it was a pretty good score for his recruit’s last day of training. “We thought we’d hit the jackpot.”
HIGH-FIVES ALL AROUND
Ladd remembers the brunet Upton as more stoic than her blond partner, Poirier, who wasn’t acting, in his estimation, like a seasoned criminal.
“I remember thinking, ‘What is she so upset about?’” Ladd said.
As they traveled past the taped-off murder scene under the Washington Avenue Bridge, one of the women asked what had happened.
Smith made an offhand joke.
“I said, ‘If I told you, I’d have to kill you.’”
Months later, during Poirier’s trial for aggravated murder, Smith testified that she had laughed hysterically at the joke.
“She thought that was pretty humorous — more humorous than I was expecting.”
Upton and Poirier were interviewed briefly at the jail and booked. It was while doing paperwork at the end of the shift that the trooper and his trainee learned the county’s Major Crimes Team was considering Poirier and Upton suspects in the death of Donald Fish. “It was high-fives all around,” Smith said.
VICTIM CARRIED CASH
The story that came out at trial is a grisly one.
While socializing at Reston Red’s Tavern, Donald Fish, 34, a Vancouver portrait photographer working out of the Roseburg Fred Meyer, had asked Upton and Poirier to a game of pool.
“He was a hotshot pool player,” said Dan Bain, who covered the story as a radio and later television news reporter. “He liked to play pool at the bars, and was pretty good.”
With his pool skills, short stature and outgoing personality, Fish cut a striking figure in Roseburg, Smith said. “Everybody in town knew the guy.”
Poirier and Upton also had made their mark after only a short time in town. Poirier, originally of Roseburg, had recently finished serving a two-year sentence for stealing a car in Roseburg. It’s thought she and Upton were at Reston Red’s that night celebrating her release from prison.
Retired OSP Detective Mark Ranger learned during his investigation the pair had attempted to extort several men along the river using flirtation and threats of violence.
“They did some hanky-panky with a few guys,” he said.
It was never determined with certainty what happened to Fish after he and the women left Reston Red’s, but the following afternoon, Fish’s 4-foot-4-inch body was discovered in a shallow pool near Elk Island, his head smashed with rocks and his cash and traveler’s checks missing. District Attorney Bill Marshall, now a judge, called it a “caveman-style” killing with robbery as the motive. Fish’s bloody handprints were found all over the Falcon’s back bumper and inside the trunk.
Ranger said it’s likely Upton and Poirier had noticed Fish’s money roll at the bar.
“We know he had a lot of cash on him,” Ranger said.
A jury found Poirier guilty in July 1991, and she was later sentenced to two life prison terms, narrowly avoiding the death penalty. Upton pleaded guilty and was given life without parole.
The lurid case was noticed almost immediately by state and national media, and the talk of the town the rest of the summer.
“It was pretty unsettling,” Bain said. “This was a pretty tightknit community at the time, and everybody wondered what went on.”
The murder re-entered the public consciousness in 1998 when Poirier escaped from prison with the help of a female corrections officer she’s said to have seduced. Following an appearance on “America’s Most Wanted,” Poirier and the guard were captured that year in Rhode Island.
A MOMENT OF REMORSE
The story of Donald Fish’s murder, from Reston Red’s to Rhode Island, has been retold before in seamy true crimes shows (“Wicked Attraction: Lesbians and the Little Man,” “Deadly Women: Vicious Vixens.”) This month, a crew from “Snapped” interviewed Dan Bain, Monte Smith and Mark Ranger, along with Roseburg Police Chief Jim Burge (a young detective at the time) and Roseburg Capt. Jerry Matthews (a first-responder to the homicide scene). A representative for the Oxygen Network confirmed a crew was shooting in Roseburg, but said an air date for the program was not set.
Ten years after retirement, Smith, 59, now runs the Dog House hot dog stand at Kruse Farms. He’s also one of four candidates who have filed to run for a county commissioner seat on the May ballot.
Bain, 63, is now the marketing coordinator for Architrave Health in Roseburg.
Upton is housed at the Coffee Creek Correction Facility in Wilsonville. Poirier is being held in an undisclosed location, for her safety and the safety of others, according to a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Corrections.
Ladd, 49, now oversees 24 employees as the station commander of the Roseburg OSP office. It’s a position formerly held by Smith.
Ladd said the arrest of Poirier and Upton has stayed with him as an example of good preparation meeting good fortune.
“It was an amazing lesson for a young cop,” he said.
The lawmen believe they may have saved the lives of the hitchhiking brothers.
“It absolutely turned into a thrill-kill situation,” Ranger said. “They were in a euphoric state after they killed Donald. They were plain serial killers.”
The timely arrests also likely saved Fish’s family months of anguish waiting on a drawn-out criminal investigation, Ladd said.
“I’m glad we were able to bring some closure to Mr. Fish’s family,” he said. “This was a perfectly nice guy that was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
In the narratives that emerged in the murder’s wake, Tamara Upton was often portrayed as an accomplice of Poirier’s who got in over her head. Ranger remembers one unguarded utterance from Upton during his interrogation of her.
“She goes, ‘Man, I’m never going to drink again.’”
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at email@example.com.
It absolutely turned into a thrill-kill situation. They were in a euphoric state after they killed Donald. They were plain serial killers.
Retired OSP detective