Lewis County prosecutors are charging an Alaska man with the coldblooded killing of an elderly couple in 1985. Long a suspect in the grisly mystery murders, 53-year-old Ricky Allen Riffe now goes to trial despite the lack of DNA and other key evidence.
The Riffe brothers relocated to Alaska in 1987, where Ricky found work as a heavy equipment operator. Before the move, both brothers resided in rural Lewis County, in an area roughly 20 miles southeast of Chehalis. Here, in the tiny town of Ethel, they allegedly kidnapped, robbed, and killed 81-year-old Ed Maurin and his 83-year-old wife Minnie.
Image Source Ed and Minnie Maurin were gunned down in 1985 just days before Christmas
According to charging documents filed last week in Lewis County Superior Court, the crimes were committed December 19, 1985, but the bodies weren't discovered until five days later, on Christmas Eve, when they were found dumped in the brush near a narrow logging road about a 30-minute drive from their home. They had each been blasted once in the back at close range with 12-gauge buckshot. Their missing car, the interior drenched in blood, turned up in the parking lot of local shopping center called Yard Bird's.
Several witnesses immediately came forward reporting that they had seen the couple's 1960's green four-door on December 19, most notably at the Sterling Savings bank. A teller reported that the Ed had withdrawn $8,500. "The kids are going to help us buy a car," Maurin had explained in a phone call made that same morning. The teller suggested a cashier's check, but Maurin insisted on cash. He arrived not long after the call, and was paid in $100 bills. The teller noticed a younger man in the backseat, but couldn't give a description.
That same morning, another witnessed reported seeing Ed Maurin driving with his wife in the front seat and "a younger looking white male with dark hair and wearing a dark colored stocking cap" in the back. A sheriff's deputy recalled seeing a similar looking younger guy driving the car alone later that morning, and another person saw the same character near the car in the Yard Bird's parking lot, wearing a green Army jacket and apparently carrying "a longer firearm partially covered by something white."
For years, that was essentially all the evidence investigators had. Then, in February of 1991, police got a tip from an informant that John Riffe had purchased two ounces of cocaine for $2,200 in December of 1985. A locked up drug dealer seconded the informant's story, and said the he had sold blow to Riffe before, but never in such a sizable quantity. Ricky, meanwhile, bought a commercial fishing boat in December, which surprised friends who knew him to be perpetually hard up.
Ricky Allen Riffe
Another man reported loaning a sawed-off shotgun to Ricky Riffe the year of the murders to use as a "cab gun" in his log truck. The man, who worked at the same trucking company as the brothers, said that he'd received a suspicious call from Riffe's wife on the evening of December 20. "You wouldn't believe what Rick's done," his wife reportedly said. Rick, according to court documents, took the phone, insisted nothing was wrong, and abruptly hung up.
The same man who loaned the shotgun recalled riding around with Riffe one day, and pointing out the Maurin home. He mentioned to Riffe that he couple was likely wealthy, since they owned a Christmas tree farm and their kids operated a logging company. As for the shotgun, after some pestering the lender eventually got it back from Riffe, but later tossed it into a lake. It has never been found.
Other witnesses came forward in early 2004, including a man who recalled seeing John Riffe in the backseat of the Maurins car on December 19. That person told police the brothers had threatened "his life and the life of his mother" if he came forward, and was only speaking then because his mother had recently passed away. Still, no charges were filed against the brothers.
The tipping point in the investigation apparently came last month. An equipment operator recalled getting stuck behind the Maurin vehicle near the logging road where their bodies were dumped. The car was crawling along below the speed limit and clogging up traffic on the country road. When he was able to pass, the man saw a "scuzzy" guy in the backseat, and sensed something strange about the older couple in the front. "The witness said his memory was a lot better back in 1985," court documents state, "but he can still picture the fear on the face of the elderly man." Given a photo lineup, the man picked three pictures but couldn't decide which was the scuzzy guy in the backseat. One of the pictures was John Riffe.
Altogether in the 27 years between 1985 and 2012, 16 unnamed witnesses -- some now deceased -- offered up some sort of information to police about the Riffe brothers' alleged involvement in the Maurin murders. While the eyewitness accounts are plenty, hard evidence is scarce. Most importantly, unlike many cold cases solved these days, there's no DNA evidence.
"It's a little unusual, to say the least," says John Crowley, Riffe's Seattle attorney. "I was expecting something to prompt the arrest, like a DNA hit, or a forensics or ballistics match, a new witness, or something. But there's none of that."
Crowley says Riffe was questioned about the murder three times by police over the years, and he always cooperated and denied involvement. Crowley notes that Riffe has no criminal record since moving to Alaska, and community residents there "spoke very well of his character." The attorney suggests small town rumors and hazy memories led some Lewis County residents to connect his client to the crime.
"The way memory works it tries to organize facts in a way that are sensible to a problem that is trying ot be solved," Crowley says. "Unfortunately, these people were truly innocent homicide victims. Naturally, anybody would want to help and solve this, so they remember facts that didn't exist before."
Riffe, silver-haired with a thick beard, had a bail hearing Tuesday in Chehalis. According to the Lewis County Sirens crime blog, a judge ordered him held in lieu of a $5 million bond. Crowley says Riffe will likely stay locked up until a jury decides his guilt or innocence.
"There's not any witness that says Rick did it or physical evidence that points to Rick having done this," Crowley says. "I don't know about his brother John, but Rick is innocent, I can tell you that."