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Victims’ Voices of Josephine County, Story #2

Victims’ Voices of Josephine County

By K. David Smith

This column is the second in a series that aims to give the human perspective behind the crisis in criminal justice funding in Josephine County, Oregon. In May, 2012, the voters of Josephine County rejected a ballot measure that would have increased property taxes to partially replace lost federal subsidies that had long funded the operations of the County’s Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney, Jail, and Juvenile Justice Center. As a result, more than 90 criminal justice personnel were let go, jail capacity was greatly reduced, and many crimes went unpunished.

A second ballot measure, requesting a lower increase in property taxes, was similarly rejected in May 2013.

It is difficult to estimate what the impact has been, since the Sheriff (whose office patrols an area 25% larger than the state of Rhode Island) is no longer able to capture reliable statistics on crime in the County. Many victims no longer report crimes, or even call 911, since they know there are no Deputies available to respond. In many cases, victims trying to report crimes in progress simply reach an answering machine. By a rough estimate, crime in Josephine County has increased by perhaps 40 to 50 percent since May 2012.

Lost in the heated debate over property taxes, the pros and cons of various funding mechanisms, and the lingering bitterness over the decline of the lumber industry that forms the historical basis for the crisis… has been the voices of the actual victims of the crimes that are being perpetrated in Josephine County.

This column, which will be available online at the end of every week, will attempt to give these good people caught in a bad situation a place to speak out. Hear their stories. And then do what you can to make a difference.

***

They came here with the best of intentions.

The couple prefers to remain anonymous, so let’s call them Saul and Maria. Saul had had a successful career in Washington State and was looking forward to enjoying his “mature years” and pursuing his many hobbies. He also wanted to take a stab at being an entrepreneur and created a business plan to return something back to the community as a private citizen, starting a business that would employ people in need and pay them a livable wage.

Their two boys had been invited to come to Grants Pass High School, which at the time (Saul and Maria were told) was the best high school between the borders of Washington and California. First the older boy, then the younger, moved down from Washington to attend GPHS. Saul and Maria followed and found a house in Grants Pass. In 2010, Saul launched his dream. He developed a business plan, worked hard to get it off the ground, reaching into his own savings for the financing. His first upscale convenience store opened in 2011. He poured his energies into it, invested in state-of-the-art technology, hired six formerly unemployed people, paid them a fair wage that would help them get back on their feet. He intended to open four more stores around the County. He wanted to make a mark, give something back.

He knew little about the political and financial situation in the County. Why would he? Who spends much time thinking about such things, when they’re considering moving to a place? Especially when their kids are already there, finishing up high school. You move for the kids, you move for the mountains and the low cost of living and the lifestyle. If the taxes are surprisingly low, all the better. All the rest is something you find out about later.

Then the criminal justice levy came up for a vote, and was turned down. And suddenly, there was no ignoring the County’s politics, or its financial situation – or its public safety issues.

Petty theft is always a concern in retail. But the problem became so persistent as 2012 ticked along that Saul was spending more and more of his time dealing with criminal incidents. Instead of building and marketing his business, he was responding to police investigations, spending time in court, responding to subpoenas, and filing insurance claims.

Then his personal property was stolen – two collectible cars, worth nearly $30,000. Saul later discovered that the cars were taken to Douglas County via back roads, altered to make them unrecognizable, and sold on Craigs List. An organized car-theft ring is suspected. He tracked down one of the cars because the new owner found Saul’s name in the cockpit and contacted him to find out about its history. Saul has thus far not been able to recover the cars. By the time he obtained enough information to attempt to track at least one of them down and possibly get them back, he was diverted by more critical issues.

In January 2013, his business was robbed yet again. This time, the thieves stole an entire ATM machine – ripped it out of the floor and drove off with it. Less than a week later – while Saul was still trying to deal with this escalation in the crimes against his business – came the final straw.

Maria was assaulted in broad daylight by a thief who snatched her purse in broad daylight. Maria’s fingers were broken, and she was sent flying into the middle of the street. Maria is in her late 50s, and the violent handling had clearly hurt her badly.  She was in great pain, with a bloodied face and broken glasses and other injuries that were obviously severe enough for bystanders to call for an ambulance. She was rushed to the emergency room and given immediate priority. There, it was discovered that her right arm had been badly dislocated and the bone broken inside the shoulder socket, along with the broken fingers and serious damage to her left thumb. In the midst of treatment for these injuries, she went into respiratory arrest. She was lucky to survive. Even so, her right arm and left thumb have become completely immobilized. The road to recovery will be long. It isn’t clear as of this writing whether or not she will ever completely regain use of her arm or thumb.

Meanwhile, as Maria was getting medical attention, good Samaritans among the bystanders helped the police arrest the thief. The perpetrator turned out to be well known among the local law enforcement community – what the cops call a “frequent flier.” He had been in and out of jail at least six times in the previous two years, for charges ranging from robbery and theft to menacing, possession of heroin and marijuana, and repeated violation of parole. He had been in jail as recently as two months before the assault on Maria for theft in the third degree and possession of heroin. Upon investigation after his assault on Maria, the police found drugs in his possession, as well as stolen goods from two burglaries reported just days before.

The assault on his wife changed Saul’s outlook and priorities dramatically. His business had already lost thousands of dollars through shoplifting and theft. He had lost tens of thousands of dollars in valuable property when his cars were stolen. Those incidents were bad enough. But his wife’s sudden incapacitation forced him to re-evaluate his priorities in a sudden and radical way.

Saul put the business up for sale. His expansion plans went by the wayside. His dreams of “making a mark” and starting something special, creating jobs for people in need, becoming an entrepreneur while enjoying his hobbies in his semi-retirement… all were put aside. His wife was going to need his full attention during her recovery. Compared to that, the rest of his dreams would have to wait, perhaps indefinitely.

The business sold, to a family from California – but at a loss, in spite of record-breaking sales and all of Saul’s investments in advanced technology. Three of the six employees were able to keep their jobs; the others were let go, moving on with their personal plans too.

To Saul, there was little choice. “Our family and personal life have been affected in such terrible and overwhelming ways that I have had to make decisions on my priorities. I sold the business at a loss to focus on the most precious thing in my life: my wife and her long road to recovery.”

In spite of his many misfortunes, Saul remains a buoyant and upbeat person. He has redirected his efforts to “make a mark” by volunteering time and support for SOS, trying to raise the County’s awareness of what is happening and the effects that crime is having on real people and real lives around Josephine County. He remains generous with his time, money, and enthusiasm. The shame of it all is that his dreams of helping others help themselves, creating jobs for the jobless and serving real needs in the community, have been shattered by the repeated blows of a criminal class gone out of control. Any one of the incidents that Saul has gone through would perhaps have been recoverable. The persistent drumbeat of crime, capped by the traumatic assault on his wife, simply proved to be too much.

Welcome to Josephine County, Saul. We can only hope that your hope and goodwill are better rewarded in the future.

***

The author, K. David Smith, graduated from Harvard College cum laude in 1991. A former management consultant and healthcare policy analyst, he currently resides near Merlin, Oregon, pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at Pacific University. He is also the father of three young boys and an active member of Securing Our Safety. You can contact David at kdavidsmith.writer@gmail.com

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