Tracking a Killer

Tracking a Killer

A Creighton alumnus’ life is forever changed after stumbling across newspaper clippings of his grandfather’s murder.

By Nichole Jelinek

During his 84 years, one man has lived as Frank Dryman, Victor Houston and Frank Valentine. To Clem Pellett, DDS’80, Dryman (his real name) is the man who murdered his grandfather, and forever changed life for him and members of the entire Pellett family.

In 1951, Clarence Chester Pellett, 59, a husband, father of six and a well-liked owner of a small café in Shelby, Mont., offered a ride to a young man who was hitchhiking in the cold weather. During the ride, the then 19-year-old Dryman would shoot Pellett seven times, mortally wounding him, and then flee in the stolen car to Canada.

A manhunt ensued for the suspect, described as a James Dean look-alike. Dryman was caught, confessed and convicted. He was sentenced to death by hanging, which was to be carried out on June 1, 1951. The Galloping Gallows, as they were known, would be trucked from Missoula to Shelby and constructed on a hill outside the small Montana town.

Following the sentencing, a committee formed seeking clemency for Dryman and fighting against what they called frontier-style justice. Over the next four years, the Dryman Clemency Committee, along with an attorney connected to the Communist Party, would file four appeals to the Montana Supreme Court. In February 1955, a change of venue for a second trial was granted and Dryman was sentenced to life in prison.

In January 1969, Dryman was granted parole and allowed to leave Montana to live in California with his brother. Less than a year later, he stopped reporting to his parole officer and disappeared. In 1972, the state of Montana and the FBI declared Dryman a fugitive and issued warrants for his arrest.

During the next 38 years, Dryman would work, volunteer and marry, living hidden in plain sight. He is known to have lived and worked out of his truck in the U.S. Southwest, under the alias Victor Houston. In the late 1970s, he lived as “Vic” in Arizona and ran a wedding chapel. He was known as a charming deacon, was on the board of the local Moose Lodge, volunteered for local civic clubs and graduated from the sheriff’s citizens’ academy. He had married, for the fifth time, and the couple had a child.

Clem Pellett, an only child, was born two years after the murder of his grandfather. His father, Marion Pellett, DDS’55, was the youngest of the six Pellett children. Clem says the murder of his grandfather deeply affected and splintered the family.

“The loss was so painful for my father that he never spoke of it,” says Clem. Marion died in 1968 when Clem was 14 years old.

Clem would know nothing about the murder of his grandfather until 2009, when his mother died. While going through her keepsakes, Clem discovered a box of old newspaper clippings. He was shocked at the headlines: “Foul Play Suspected,” “Murderer Sentenced To Hang,” and “Whatever Happened To The Infamous Frank Dryman, The Cold-Blooded Murderer?”

In 2010, Clem was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and during his treatment and recovery, he began to further research his grandfather’s murder. What started as a hobby to fill time eventually turned into much more.

“My extended recovery allowed me to focus on my cause célèbre full time, not just between patients, and made it possible to coordinate all of my research,” says Clem, who had graduated from Creighton’s dental school in 1980 and had been working as an oral surgeon in Bellevue, Wash. “I couldn’t deny these series of events.”

Clem made a full recovery, and although he briefly returned to oral surgery, he eventually decided to retire and take on a new role as a private investigator on the Dryman case. His search led him to the Montana Historical Society, where he requested records from the Montana Department of Corrections and parole board.

“I discovered that Dryman had never been recaptured, and I set out to find out if he was still alive,” says Clem.

With the help of a private investigative team, Clem tracked down a man known as Victor Houston, who was working as a sign painter around Arizona City, Ariz. The unique “L-O-V-E” tattoos on Houston’s right hand were a tip-off. They matched Dryman’s description in the 1972 police report.    

When Montana’s longest running fugitive was captured on March 20, 2010, there was an avalanche of news coverage and interest in the case. The A&E Channel produced a documentary (“The Kid with the Hollywood Haircut”), and news sources such as CNN, CBS, the Huffington Post and the Washington Times profiled the story.   

For the Pellett family, there was a sense of closure. Old family wounds, created by the murder, began to heal. With the support of his wife, Cynthia, Clem agreed to meet with a then unknown cousin, Dorothy, who had reached out to him.

“I can still see Dorothy with her arms open, tears streaming down her face,” says Clem. “We embraced, sobbed and then smiled.”

For Clem, there were other new beginnings. He sold his health care practice and pursued his dream of becoming a writer and private investigator. In 2012, he graduated from Boston University with a certificate in private investigation. He is also a public speaker and author.

His presentation, “Montana Justice,” focuses on the affirmation of family and belonging, and his fictional book, Dastardly, is based on his research in the Dryman case. Although the novel is fiction, it is based on some of the actual events and real witnesses Clem discovered during his investigation.

Clem says that he has found his research, writing and speaking engagements to be therapeutic.

“I’ve come to know my grandpa Clarence,” says Clem. “My research transformed from an interesting history lesson to seeking justice for him and my family.”

Upon his capture in 2010, Dryman’s parole was revoked and he was sentenced back to life in prison. He is now an inmate at a geriatric Montana State Prison infirmary in Lewiston, Mont. In May 2015, Clem and his family again gathered for another of Dryman’s parole hearings to share their story and their pain. Clem says he has never seen remorse or empathy from Dryman. Dryman’s 2015 parole was denied, and his case will be reviewed again next year. Clem plans to attend, and will once again speak on behalf of his grandfather.

Clem is currently interviewing screenwriters and planning to produce a nonfictional film about the Dryman case. He also continues to put his investigative skills to use, speaking for those who no longer have a voice.

“My P.I. work has revealed that Dryman was likely involved in circumstances surrounding multiple persons who went missing while he was on the lam,” says Clem. “I’m working to reopen these cases.”