“Old-Growth Murder” Revisits the Unsolved 1987 Killing of a French Bicyclist on the Oregon Coast

Alain Malessard was mysteriously slain Thanksgiving weekend at the Neskowin Creek Campground.

Old Growth Murder (Courtesy of Anchor Pictures)

Alain Malessard was a cheerful young Frenchman who’d saved up for his dream to bicycle all over America. But after completing the Canadian half of his tour, he died shortly after entering the United States (during Thanksgiving weekend in 1987, at the Neskowin Creek Campground on the Northern Oregon Coast).

Filmmaker Tom Olsen Jr. first learned of Malessard’s death through a story in The Oregonian pleading for someone to investigate the murder. In his subsequent 10 years of research, Olsen didn’t find much in the way of useful DNA evidence, but he did direct Old-Growth Murder, a documentary about Malessard currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Tubi.

At first glance, Malessard’s murder just seemed to be another story of indifferent police work. But Olsen’s investigation led him to a more complex narrative connected to Darelle “Dino” Butler, a Portland-born Native American activist who was acquitted after the 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota that left two FBI agents and another man dead.

Butler was also accused of murdering Donald Pier, a dealer of Native American artifacts and a rumored grave robber (in this case, Butler was again acquitted). Olsen says Butler’s story could have been a documentary in and of itself—except that the relevant law enforcement officials were even less cooperative than they were regarding Malessard.

With the murder of Malessard, police had yet another chance to tie Butler to a crime. The only problem was, Butler had no reason to kill Malessard. No one did. By all accounts, he was a friendly man, and the autopsy suggests he was taken by surprise with a blow to the back of the head from a mysterious, as yet unidentified implement.

In a typical true crime story, this is the part where someone discovers critical, previously unseen evidence, but Olsen’s attempts to verify existing evidence create more questions than answers. Yes, he learns that the crime scene was tampered with, but why? Police didn’t take timely photos of the crime scene; did they reorganize the campsite’s clutter? Or was it the culprit trying to cover their tracks?

Old-Growth Murder is firmly planted in history, but the story it tells of Oregon’s not too distant past raises uncomfortable questions about whether policing in this state, or anywhere, for that matter, has improved. After all, it’s troubling and unsurprising that the investigation focused on fern harvesters who happened to be nearby, and also happened to be predominantly Native American.

Ultimately, the film leaves viewers with the impression that murder is oftentimes just a cruel stroke of nonsense—especially when Malessard’s parents visit the land that killed their son, and Robert Thompson, the Oregon State Police investigator for Malessard’s case, explains the failures of the investigation (and wonders how modern technology might have affected the outcome).

A year after Old-Growth Murder’s premiere, there still haven’t been any new developments in the case. The film suggests that is unlikely to change. Today, all that is left of Malesaard are unanswered questions and a memorial at Neskowin Creek Campground.

SEE IT: Old-Growth Murder, not rated, streams on Amazon Prime and Tubi.

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