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Man convicted in 1999 ranger killing dies in Oregon prison

September 28, 2021 GMT

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A 75-year-old man died Monday in hospice care at the Oregon State Penitentiary while serving a life sentence without parole for the kidnapping and shooting of two Oregon park rangers in 1999, officials said.

Corrections officials did not specify Larry Gene Cole’s cause of death. Corrections communications manager Betty Bernt said in an email that the department “cannot provide any additional protected health information.”

Cole was convicted in Tillamook County Circuit Court in 2001 for forcing park rangers Danny Blumenthal and John I. “Jack” Kerwin to hike into a grove of trees at gunpoint before shooting them in the head and driving away in Blumenthal’s pickup truck, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.

Kerwin, 53 at the time, survived after doctors removed two bullets from his jaw. Blumenthal, 50, died after being shot three times.

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In Cole’s trial, Kerwin testified that he begged for his life while a hooded gunman bound him and stood over him. He said the man took their wallets and the truck keys, marched them up to Cape Falcon Trail and shot them.

Police arrested Cole hours later while he was driving Blumenthal’s truck. Cole claimed he knew nothing and testified that he moved around the South robbing methamphetamine labs and had just arrived in Oregon to rob a meth lab with associates in Tillamook.

Cole told the jury he was framed. He said a man he had been camping with at the state park left the camp on the morning of the shootings and returned later, agitated. Cole said the man handed him keys and told him to drive a pickup truck to Portland.

On April 26, 2001, a Tillamook County jury found Cole guilty of 20 charges related to the shootings. He entered Oregon Department of Corrections custody in July 2001.

Cole’s attorney emphasized during closing arguments that there was no physical evidence linking Cole to the crime scene. Bill Porter, the Tillamook County District Attorney at the time, called Cole’s explanation “blatantly ridiculous” and said Cole shot the men simply because he was “cold, wet, hungry and didn’t want any witnesses to the robbery.”

Cole was among the FBI’s most-wanted fugitives 25 years before he was convicted in the park ranger case.

In 1974, Cole and his wife kidnapped Virginia real estate agent Betty Van Balen at gunpoint while she was showing them properties in Roanoke, Virginia, according to a 2001 Oregonian story.

Cole then demanded $25,000 in ransom from Van Balen’s husband, Frank Van Balen, the owner of a fiberglass plant where Cole had worked. Van Balen met Cole and his wife in the Appalachian Mountains to pay the ransom. After taking the money, Cole and his wife escaped in Van Balen’s car.

Later in 1974, a federal judge in Roanoke, Virginia sentenced Cole to 25 years in prison for abducting Van Balen. Cole was released on parole in 1984.