Transcript: Matthew Bosek

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Applegate, CA is a small unincorporated area of Placer County in northern California.  It sits between Auburn and Colfax off Interstate 80 in the Sierra Foothills at an elevation of 2005 ft above sea level.  If you’re driving from Sacramento to Truckee, CA or Reno, NV you will pass it. It has a post office, a library, and a fire station with not one traffic light.  The population is a little over 1000 people. Most of the homes in this mountain landscape sit on acreage separated by pine and oak trees along with many different types of wild evergreen shrubs.  Deer and the occasional bear and mountain lion roam freely due to its proximity to the canyon below, which cradles the American River. It is what most residents would describe as a quiet peaceful community in rural California Gold Country.

But on the night of Aug 2, 1973 six gunshots rang out in a remote hillside garden shattering that peaceful tranquility residents had become so accustomed to.  People in the area thought this murder would be solved quickly but 44 years later the murder of Matthew Bosek remains one of the oldest cold cases in Placer County.  Who killed Matthew Bosek?

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Welcome to the first episode of Placer Unsolved.  Today we’re going to be talking about the murder of 79 y.o. Matthew Bosek who was killed while working in his garden on Aug 2, 1973 at around 7:40 pm.

Matthew Bosek didn’t live in a typical residence like most of us.  He belonged to a religious sect that is often described as a reclusive, quasi-monastic cult whose beliefs were based on astrology, celibacy, and metaphysical and religious teachings.  This sect was called The Esoteric Fraternity and he was the resident gardener, printer, and handyman.

Before we go any further here is a bit of history on the Esoteric Fraternity:

The fraternity was founded by Hiram Erastus Butler in Boston around 1890.  Hiram Butler was a controversial figure even amongst his fellow occultists.  He and other male Esoteric members were at one time accused of inappropriate behavior with female members as well as other shady dealings and because of these accusations Butler fled Boston in order to hide from authorities leaving his wife and children behind.  When he left, this forced his wife to put their children into an orphanage because she could no longer afford to care for them. She eventually was able to get the children back after working at a local dept store and saving up some money.

Butler eventually made his way out to the SF bay area where he continued to give lectures, write and publish pamphlets, and sell memberships for his society.  Here again he got into some trouble with fellow occultists and this time he fled to Applegate with about 12 other members where they purchased anywhere between 200-500 acres, depending on the reports you read.  Butler’s fraternity bought this land from the railroad magnate Leland Stanford in 1892 and the purchase was augmented by a land grant from President Grover Cleveland.

The land that they purchased sits on a rim that overlooks the North Fork of the American River.  On a clear day from the property you can see numerous dark green rounded mountaintops and ridges that go on and on until they eventually meet the sky.  If you look down into the canyon you can see portions of the American River flowing between rock canyon walls and river rock beaches. This land must not have been a difficult purchase for Hiram Butler once he laid eyes on it.  It is breathtaking. After the fraternity purchased this property they built a homestead that included an 18 room house, outbuildings, a little farm, and a printing press which they used to print Butler’s books. It’s said that they even dug and fired the clay to make the bricks with which they built their outbuildings.  Today, although reduced in size due to portions of it being sold off over the years, this property sits 1.3 miles from the Applegate exit off Hwy 80 in a secluded location with gates at the front and back of the property that hold many ominous signs warning people repeatedly to stay out.

Hiram Butler died in 1916 at the age of 75, which may have come as a shock to his fellow fraternity members since it’s reported that they believed Butler to be immortal.  There are different reports on the number of sect members but it looks like until Butler died the fraternity was at the height of its local membership numbers and that was between 12 and 40 people depending on which reports you read.  After Butler’s death the fraternity is reported to have slowly declined in numbers.

For the most part the Esoteric Fraternity has remained a small, celibate, quiet and reserved, what many would call cult, started originally by a man who seemed to be a bit of a shyster and a con artist.

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One year after Butler’s death in 1917 on the other side of the globe a 23 year old Russian man named Matthew Alexander Bosek fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution after both of his parents were murdered.  It’s said that he traveled across Siberia to Vladivostok and then he went on to SF by tramp steamer.

He eventually ended up in Applegate at the Esoteric Fraternity as their gardener, handyman, and printer in 1922 according to later newspaper articles from the 60s and 70s.

A couple of those newspapers reported his name as being Martin Bolek instead of Matthew Bosek.  Whether that’s an error on the reporters’ part or if he went by that name as well is unconfirmed but the Placer County Sheriff’s Office has only the name Matthew Bosek on file for him.

Bosek liked to spend his days meditating, and building and repairing things on the fraternity’s land.  He also very much enjoyed working in the sect’s garden which sat approximately ⅓ of a mile away from their headquarters.  From the back of the property you had to travel down a winding dirt path surrounded by trees and shrubs in order to reach it.  At the time of the murder the path was wide enough to fit a car. Today the garden can only be reached by foot as it’s become too overgrown with vegetation for a car to squeeze through.

The evening of August 2, 1973 in Applegate, CA was warm.  The high that day had been 100 degrees and the low that morning 68.  The sun set at 8:14 pm that night so it was still plenty light out while Bosek worked amongst the neat rows in his cucumber patch.  The only shade in the garden would’ve come from trees blocking the sun on the west side, which must’ve been welcoming site for Bosek and his dog after a long hot day.  

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At 7:40 pm that evening fraternity members reported hearing six gun shots ring out in what they describe as a “rhythmic fashion”; almost as if the shooter shot then aimed, then shot, then aimed and then shot again.

Upon hearing these shots one of the fraternity members, Fred Peterson, the fraternity’s president called the police and another fraternity member, Robert Silverstri, ran from their headquarters down to the garden where Bosek had been working.  Silverstri reported that it took him 10 minutes to get to the garden and when finally got there he saw an image that would forever be etched into his mind. There, on the ground, 51 years after he’d arrived at the fraternity and decided to make it his home, Matthew Bosek laid face down in the dirt, dead from three gunshot wounds. The victim had been on his knees holding cucumbers that he’d just picked from his garden.

Deputies determined that Bosek had been shot execution style, twice in the back and once in the back of the head.  Placer County detectives Arthur Ables and William Shelton stated at the time that there were powder marks on the back of the Bosek’s head which indicated the shooter was only 2-3 feet behind him.  

The victim had been shot three times with a .38 handgun and there were four casings left behind.  Law enforcement stated that nothing had been taken from the victim; he still had his wallet and his keys on him and his truck was still there at the scene.  In fact, there actually were items left behind at the scene that were not the victim’s. But none of these items contained any fingerprints or DNA. What were these items that the killer left behind?  And why did he or she leave them there?

It says in one of the articles that Bosek was shot with a. 38 revolver.  For those of your familiar with firearms you know that when you shoot a revolver you have to manually empty the bullet casings from the cylinder after you shoot the gun.  Compare that to when you shoot a semiautomatic the gun ejects the casings each time you fire the gun. If this killer used a revolver to kill Matthew Bosek, as the article states, why did he leave his casings behind?  Why wouldn’t he open the cylinder and drop the casings into his hand and then place them into his pocket rather than dropping them onto the ground? Did he do this out of habit like he would’ve done while practicing at the gun range?  Shoot, dump the casings, and then reload? Did he reload in case he encountered someone while he was trying to escape? Or did he just not care if he left the casings behind because he knew there were no fingerprints on them?

A .38 revolver holds six bullets.  There were four casings and three slugs recovered.  The fraternity members reported hearing six shots. What happened to the two missing casings and the other three slugs?  Did the killer only pick up two casings leaving the other four? Or did he drop four of them in his nervousness? If the fraternity members really did hear six gunshots, did the killer miss three of his shots?  He couldn’t have missed his first shot or else Bosek would’ve turned around to see who was shooting at him.

Bosek was shot once in the back of the head and twice in the back.  Placer County Sheriff says the only powder marks found were around the bullet hole in the back of Bosek’s hat.  According to detectives at the time, that meant the gun was 2-3 feet away from Bosek’s head when that shot was fired.  So was that the final shot? Was he standing further away when he shot Bosek in the back twice and then he walked up and fired the last shot to the head from close range?  

Detectives theorized that the shooter took off on foot since Bosek’s truck was still at the scene.  Bosek’s dog had also apparently run back to the fraternity headquarters after the shooting. So if this person escaped on foot he couldn’t have run back toward the headquarters along the trail or else he would’ve run into Robert Silverstri.  He had to have run the other direction on the trail or climbed through thick brush up or down the mountain, which seems incredibly unlikely. I asked Placer County Sheriff if they found any footprints in their investigation and they told me it was a well-used garden so there were many footprints found at the scene but none were investigated.

All of the newspaper reports from back then say that Bosek was a well liked person with no known enemies and that he was friendly toward outsiders.  Detectives appealed to the public at the time asking for information about a land transaction that he had been involved in in West Lake Tahoe. Investigators were told that Bosek traveled numerous times from Colfax to Tahoe via Greyhound bus for this land deal, so they were looking for the two men Bosek was involved with, as well as the land itself since they could find no record of it.  Today Placer County Sheriff states that they eventually did track down the other party in this deal and it was an elderly female he’d entered into a private contract with but that she has since died and there is no record of any disputes with her in the original report.

The reporter who wrote the original article stating that the transaction was between Bosek and two men has also since passed.  So I tracked down one of his sons to ask him if there were any notes that his father may have kept regarding this case but I was told there are not.  So that leaves us to wonder, why was this originally reported as two men being involved in the transaction with Bosek, only to turn out to be an elderly female?  Was this a miscommunication between law enforcement and the reporter? Or did his fellow fraternity members believe that the transaction actually was between Bosek and two men?

Bosek’s fraternity was understandably very anxious after his murder about their own safety and eager to have the crime solved so they hired armed guards for a period of time and they also took out ads in northern CA newspapers offering a $10K reward for information leading to the capture of his killer.  Placer County Sheriff interviewed dozens of people back then but today they say that any suspects they had were eventually ruled out.

The original detectives who worked on this case have both since died.  There were two investigators who worked on this and other cold cases after receiving a grant from the DOJ back in 2008 but that money has since run out and those two investigators are no longer on this case.

In a Sac Bee article written about the fraternity one year before Bosek’s death, it’s mentioned that Bosek is the resident handyman and gardener of the sect and that he was not there at the time of the interview because he traveled extensively.  Where was he traveling to? Were these just the trips back and forth to Tahoe or were there other unknown destinations? Placer County Sheriff today states there are no mentions of those travels in his file.

I reached out to one of the two remaining members of the sect who still live at the same property but did not receive a response back.  I was able to speak with a young woman who says she lived with the sect for a few years in her late teenage years and that the current head of the sect is still the same Fred Peterson who’s now in his late 70s but that he does not speak to women.  I asked her how she’s been able to communicate with him and she gave me the impression the other man in the sect or his son would speak to Mr. Peterson for her.

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Because of the practically non-existent publicity regarding this case outside of Placer County there are not a lot of theories about it floating around online.  And finding a native Placer County resident who is old enough to remember this case proved almost equally as difficult. But after a little digging, I was able to prevail in finding both.

The first theory I found was online in a forum where people were talking about a book they had read about the Zodiac Killer.  Evidently the author of this book believed that the Zodiac Killer killed Matthew Bosek as well as a hitchhiker from Vacaville who was found murdered around the same time in the Gold Run area, which is about 16 miles east of Applegate on Interstate 80.  I initially wrote this theory off and I still do since I believe the killer had to have been familiar with this area and garden but what’s interesting is I did find, after a little bit of research, that there actually are a few murders in the Tahoe area that many people, including some law enforcement, believe were committed by the Zodiac killer.  This author obviously was one of those people and he believed that it wasn’t farfetched to think that the Zodiac could’ve murdered both Matthew Bosek and the hitchhiker from Vacaville.

Since the Zodiac was known to commit some of his crimes in the Vacaville area the hitchhiker seems more likely since she was picked up in Vacaville and then dumped in Gold Run.  But Bosek doesn’t seem to be a good possibility for a Zodiac victim. First, despite much speculation, there are no confirmed Zodiac murders or attacks in Placer County; and second, the remote location of the fraternity’s garden would lead one to believe that Bosek’s killer had to have been familiar with this area and garden.  Remember, this fraternity owned quite a bit of land back then so the garden was a third of a mile away from their headquarters. It wasn’t a few steps away from easy access parking or right next to any homes. You had to hike in no matter which direction you came from and the only way to drive in was from the fraternity’s headquarters.

Nowadays there are many hiking trails in the area and I’m told that some of these trails existed all the way back in the early 1900s.  But even today this garden is not easily accessed. It’s a 15 minute hike if you’re coming from the fraternity headquarters and more than a one hour hike from the other direction, some of it strenuous and uphill.  Could Zodiac have been a hiker who knew these hiking trails and had come across Bosek and others working in the garden at some point in time? It’s possible but remember the Zodiac was described as being a big man, sometimes obese, a big man at 6’2 250-300 lbs.  He was never described as being muscular or in particularly good shape. And it seems like there were many other ways for Zodiac to come across potential victims, with much easier access, without having to hike an hour into an area he’s probably not familiar with.

The next theory was mentioned by a local person who thought the murderer was believed to be two violent parolee transients in the area at the time but the problem with this theory is Bosek’s wallet was still on him and his car was still there.  Why would a couple of parolees leave his wallet and his most valuable possession – his car? The Sheriff’s Dept. also states that there were never any transients who were suspects in this murder.

While researching newspaper articles from around that time I came across a young hitchhiker from New York who’d been picked up on hwy 80, shot and killed, and then dumped on a walking trail in Granite Bay.  They did eventually catch his killer and it was an AWOL marine whose parents lived in the Granite Bay area. However, the sheriff’s dept. says this killer was never a suspect in Bosek’s murder.

Another theory believed by some at the time was that the Bolsheviks had been looking for Bosek for 50 years and they’d finally caught up to him and killed him.  The problem with this theory is why, at what some would argue was the height of communism, would the Bolsheviks bother looking for an old man who’d escaped Russia 50 years before and who was now leading a quiet life in a remote religious sect?  Was Bosek really some sort of spy? Is this why he traveled so extensively? I couldn’t find anything to support this theory and when I asked Placer County if there was ever any suspicion on their part that the Bolsheviks could’ve committed this crime they told me very specifically “none whatsoever”.

Another belief held by some is that someone from his sect did it. Were any of his fellow sect members suspects?  Were any of them tested for gunshot residue? Remember, Placer County Sheriff said that all suspects were eventually ruled out so I’m guessing if any of the sect members were tested for gunshot residue and they had tested positively they couldn’t have been ruled out as a suspect.  Also, someone who is careful enough not to leave their fingerprints or DNA on any of the objects left behind is probably going to make sure there is no gunshot residue found on them.

There are no reports of disputes between Bosek and anyone else, much less with his fellow fraternity members, of which I believe there were five at the time including him, a couple of them being elderly women who most likely would not have been able to escape quickly through that mountain terrain.  It is curious though, being in such a rural area why did Peterson, the fraternity’s president at the time, immediately call police after hearing the gunshots? Nowadays in rural Placer County it’s not uncommon to hear gunshots occasionally and residents don’t call the police when they hear them. Was it less common to hear gunshots back then in this particular area?  Perhaps, but it’s still a question I would’ve liked to have asked Peterson had he been willing to speak with me.

One of the last theories is that Bosek had come across a pot farm and was killed because of it.  Pot was already illegal in 1973. There was an attempt in 1972 to decriminalize it but it was defeated.  I asked Placer County Sheriff if there was ever any suspicion that Bosek had come across a pot farm and they told me a pot farm was only mentioned once in the report and it was by someone they interviewed who stated they traveled from SF to Iowa Hill to purchase pot.  

The final theory regarding this case is that the murderer was a religious nut who did not like the fact that there was a strange cult in their area and decided to kill one of their members in order to try to scare them off.  Placer County was and still is today one of the most conservative counties in California. Nowadays it probably isn’t that big of a deal to be in what many view as a cult but what about back then? Would it be enough to send someone over the edge to murder one of their members?

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That’s about it for the theories I could find online or in speaking to Placer County residents.  Dateline’s Josh Mankiewicz once quoted a veteran LAPD homicide detective as saying, “You can classify almost all murders under three motives:  money; love; pride..” I’m sure this detective wasn’t talking about the murders committed by psychopaths who often choose their victims at random.  I think it’s safe to say Matthew Bosek probably wasn’t murdered because he was involved a love triangle, since he was a 79 y.o. man from a celibate religious sect.  And random murders are incredibly rare, especially in a remote location that takes a lot of effort to get into and isn’t well known by a lot of people. So if we’re going to disregard random killing as being a motive and believe the words of that veteran LAPD homicide detective, that really only leaves two possible motives for this murder:  money or pride. Investigators at the time stated Bosek was well liked by everyone and had no disputes with anyone before he was killed. Could someone who held a grudge against Bosek for whatever reason have hidden his disdain and anger towards Bosek from everyone, including detectives? Or is it possible people knew but just didn’t want to get involved?  And why was Bosek buying the land in Tahoe? Was he planning on leaving the fraternity? Or was this just an investment property for him?

If we look at money as being the possible motive, could there have been more to that private land transaction in Tahoe that investigators weren’t aware of?  Why did it change from originally being two men involved in this land deal to an elderly female? Fred Peterson today does not speak to women due to his religious beliefs.  Was this common practice amongst the fraternity members when Matthew Bosek lived there? Did Matthew Bosek also not speak to women? If not, then how would he have been involved in a land transaction with one?  Could it have originally been two men and then one of them asked their mother or grandmother to say she was actually the second party in this land deal after they killed Bosek?

Cold case statistics tell us that, sadly, we will most likely never know the answers to any of these questions.  According to a study done by the Rand Corporation, only 1 in 20 cold cases results in an arrest and only 1 in 100 results in a conviction.  That’s a 5% clearance rate and only a 1% conviction rate.

I can kinda see why Placer County never solved this case.  What do you do when the victim doesn’t have any enemies, he hasn’t had any strife in his life that anyone’s told them about, no disputes with anyone and he ends up murdered execution style in a remote area while gardening peacefully near his home?

The newspaper articles stated back then that detectives did a thorough investigation but they were still unable to bring this killer to justice. For anyone with any sense of justice that is incredibly frustrating, as it must be for anyone with a loved one who’s been murdered, and as it must be for detectives who work day in and day out on these cases.  One thing I did before I finished researching this case is I went to go visit the grave of Matthew Bosek. And as I stood there it occurred to me that this is not just an unsolved murder. This was a man who seemed to be a happy person, who enjoyed gardening and traveling and his life at the fraternity and someone stole that from him. Someone took that from him before it was his time to go.  So I think we owe it to him and to his friends who are left at the fraternity to help bring his killer to justice. Someone in Placer County and maybe even beyond knows who killed this man. And maybe the killer has since passed on himself. It doesn’t make it any less urgent to bring this killer to justice. His friends deserve answers and Matthew Bosek deserves justice.

{Uplifting sentimental music starts}

So if you have any information on the murder of Matthew Alexander Bosek please call Placer County Sheriff’s Dept at 530-886-5375.

If you have theories or questions you’d like to discuss you can like our Placer Unsolved Podcast page on Facebook.  There you’ll also find hints and clues as to upcoming episodes. You can also find those on Instagram and Twitter as well.

Matthew Alexander Bosek was given a Russian Orthodox funeral and buried where he’d always wanted to be buried, at the Newcastle Cemetery just a few feet away from a peaceful cactus garden.  The hiking trail and the garden where he was murdered still exists today and both are aptly named the Assassin’s Trail and the Assassin’s Garden. Sadly, at the end of this trail also happens to be the location of where Justine Vandershoot, another Placer County resident, was found in a shallow grave in 2003.  But her murder, thankfully, has been solved and was not related in any way to the murder of Matthew Bosek. If you do decide to hike this trail please be prepared for an uphill hike and behave yourself as there are cameras around and the surrounding property owners keep a careful watch on the trails and their properties. They do not appreciate lookie-loos.

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