The Lawless South

Feature: What happens when governments go broke? Look at Josephine County

Highway Oregon
Source: CJ Ciaramella
February 24, 2014

GRANTS PASS, Ore.—On the evening of Oct. 30, 2013, a car traveling down a highway south of Cave Junction struck and killed Jarred Houston, 21, and Robert Calvin, 41. Four months later, their case remains unsolved.

A week after the hit-and-run, Aaron Clouser, 39, was stabbed to death and left in the middle of the street. His case remains unsolved as well.

The murders have left the small town seething with anger, but there are barely any detectives around to work the cases.

Economic woes have forced county governments in rural Oregon to slash law enforcement budgets to the point where police are almost non-existent. In Josephine County, where Cave Junction is, there are two patrol deputies tasked with covering 1,600 square miles.

The sheriff's office issued a warning last year for those in "potentially volatile" situations, such as those protected under a restraining order, "to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services."

The Oregon State Police have shifted resources to the area to try and fill in the gaps. Some citizens have banded together into armed watch groups.

The rural areas in southern Oregon are lawless.

When the money runs out

Oregon Caves Cascade
Oregon Caves Cascade / Wikimedia Commons

I first heard of Houston and Calvin’s case in state representative Wally Hicks’ office in Salem.

I was talking to Hicks’ legislative assistant about what to cover while I was in town.

"Here, you should check out these constituent letters," she said, handing me a manila folder with a stack of letters from Cave Junction residents about Jarred Houston.

The letters—from cousins, nephews, brothers, and friends who felt like brothers to Houston—described a big-hearted guy nicknamed "Boo-Boo" who enjoyed the outdoors, wanted to coach high school wrestling, and planned on enlisting in the Marine Corps.

One letter was from a 10 year old: "The last talk I had with him, Jared said, ‘Are you wrestling?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I am probably going to be your coach.’ I said, ‘YES, that is awesome.’"

The letters also described a place spinning out of control. "They think this county is lawless so people do what they please."

Josephine County hit a series of economic roadblocks: The bottom fell out of the local timber industry; the federal government cut its long-standing subsidies to the region; and there was no tax base to fill in the gaps.

"The statistic I've heard is that there were 22 lumber mills in Josephine and Jackson County in 1990," Hicks said. "Today there are zero."

The sole remaining lumber mill in Josephine County closed last year.

For decades, county coffers were filled with money from federal payouts under the Oregon and California Railroad Act of 1937, commonly referred to as the O&C Act. Under the O&C, the government paid 18 Oregon counties portions of timber revenues on federal lands. Seventy percent of the land in Josephine County is owned by the federal government.

During the 1980s, loggers were cutting more than two square miles per week of old-growth forest in Oregon. There was an 11-year period where no property taxes at all were collected for county services, because O&C revenues covered the costs.

The decline started during the timber wars of the 1990s, but even then, the O&C counties averaged $70 million a year in federal payments.

Due to reduced timber yields, the payments were switched to direct subsidies in the 2000s, and then the housing market collapsed in 2008.

The housing market bust and recession rippled through Oregon especially hard. I saw the results firsthand: My mom worked for a lumber broker that had no prospective buyers or sellers, and my dad worked for a tugboat company that no longer had any barges of lumber to tug.

O&C payments were phased out entirely in 2012. When the feds terminated the payouts, the county floated a tax levy to cover a budget shortfall of $7.5 million. Voters rejected it.

Crime—especially petty thefts and burglaries—has spiked since the levy was shot down.

"We've got a fair amount of property crime," Hicks said. "Lot of property crime, actually. Daylight burglaries are pretty commonplace."

Drugs, too. Police officers seized more than two pounds of heroin in a January raid on a Grants Pass home, as well as eight firearms and several stolen ATVs.

And while the more urban parts of the state have lurched toward some semblance of an economic recovery since 2008, unemployment in Josephine County still hovers at just over 10 percent. That number holds steady in other logging areas such as Douglas and Klamath counties.

Small and medium-sized manufacturing has ticked up a bit, but Hicks says one-third of the local economy of Josephine County is transfer payments from government welfare programs.

Hicks plans on sticking closer to home in Grants Pass, where he and his wife are expecting their second child. He wants to run for Josephine County counsel. If victorious, he’ll have his work cut out for him.

You’re not in Portlandia anymore

Siskiyou Mountains
Siskiyou Mountains / Wikimedia Commons

Oregon exists in the minds of most Americans as the home of Portlandia, a place where quirky progressives ride bikes and worry if Whole Foods is too corporate. If you drive for a few hours in any direction, however, you’re out in the boonies.

Nina Strochlic warned liberal readers of the Scary Truth in an article for the Daily Beast headlined "Hold up hipsters: Stop obsessing over Oregon."

"For all the hippies and hipsters of the western coast, go a bit east and the state turns into an expansive bastion of gun-toting, gas station-centric towns that are a stark contrast to the blue state’s progressive reputation," she wrote.

As I drove south down Interstate 5 from Salem, I could only hope that Strochlic’s warnings about the dearth of buildings festooned with historic register plaques would be enough to keep East Coasters contained in their muggy, trash-filled cities.

The broad Willamette Valley gave way to rolling hills where horses and cows grazed. I climbed over a series of winding mountain passes, where low-running clouds scraped the tops of the pines, until I dropped down into the Rogue Valley and Grants Pass, a town of about 35,000.

The local geography is peppered with place-names like Jumpoff Joe Creek, Indian Mary Campground, and Onion Mountain Lookout.

The Rogue River cuts through the valley and the middle of town, offering 35 miles of class-III whitewater runs.

This area exists as a vast, boring hinterland to the rest of the country, but it’s a place of staggering natural beauty.

Straddling the border between Oregon and California, the Klamath-Siskiyou region is one of the ecological treasures of the earth. The meeting of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California bio-regions has created a temperate rain forest with 36 species of conifers, more than any other in the world. Botanists estimate there are 3,500 different plants in the K-S, nearly 280 of which are found nowhere else. Nine native species of salmon and trout run its clear streams. Scientists list 12 at-risk and endangered species in the region.

To say the towns down here are "gas station-centric" is to miss the point entirely. As a sign over the main drag in downtown Grants Pass declares: "It’s the climate."


My first stop in Grants Pass was the county jail to interview Sheriff Gil Gilbertson.

With his wireframe glasses, crisply parted hair and grey, neatly trimmed mustache, Gilbertson looked like the archetype of a Western sheriff. To complete the impression, framed pictures of John Wayne hung on the wall in his office. On his desk there was a grenade with a numbered tag on the pin. ("Complaint department: Please take a number.")

Gilbertson has spent roughly forty years in law enforcement, including seven in Bosnia and Iraq with the State Department.

I asked how he’s getting by these days.

"One day at a time," he said. "We can’t keep up with all the issues."

When residents voted down the budget stopgap levy, Gilbertson’s office had to make drastic cuts. The major crimes unit closed, operations were reduced to Monday through Friday, eight hours a day, and the county jail was forced to release 39 prisoners due to lack of bed space.

The Sheriff’s Office has also had to increase "cite and release," where deputies ticket criminals instead of holding them in jail until their court date. The lack of resources doesn’t exactly encourage criminals to appear at their scheduled court dates.

Ken Selig, a long-serving police officer in the area who was laid off due to the budget cuts, formed North Valley Community Watch, a citizens watch group that includes an armed "response team" of 12 people who will respond to a non-life-threatening situation if called.

"Who else is going to protect you when your government can't?" Selig told Fox News.

The county District Attorney said it would not file a case based on an investigation by non-sworn citizens, and a Josephine County insurance carrier has urged the county not to get involved at all with the group due to liability issues.

Gilbertson has no problem with people exercising their Second Amendment rights. He was one of many sheriffs who sent a letter to Vice President Joe Biden last year informing him they would not enforce any gun laws they considered unconstitutional. But he doesn’t want shootouts going down in his town.

"I encourage citizen patrols, but as eyes and ears only," he said.

When I asked what he saw as a solution to the rising crime problems, Gilbertson said the problem was much the same as he saw in Bosnia and Iraq: not nearly enough jobs and way too many idle hands.

Lost in the Emerald Triangle

Applegate Reservoir in Jackson County
Applegate Reservoir in Jackson County / Wikimedia Commons

Cave Junction is about 30 miles southwest of Grants Pass down the Redwoods Highway. It’s not a one-stoplight town, but it’s not quite a five-stoplight town, either. It takes its name from the nearby Oregon Caves National Monument, a 15,000-foot system of caverns carved out of marble.

A few miles outside of town, among the fir saplings and blackberry brambles, on the side of the highway, someone has set up a large, wooden sign that reads "Justice for Jarred."

Over the past few months, family members and friends have been stationed outside of the city government building with similar signs, but on that day the streets were mostly empty.

I asked a barista at a coffee shack if she’d noticed any changes since the budget cuts in 2012.

"I’ve definitely noticed a difference since medical marijuana was allowed," she said. "I mean, I don’t care what people do on their own time, but it just seems like it’s brought in a lot of riff-raff."

Josephine County sits just above the so-called "Emerald Triangle," the largest marijuana-growing area in the country. The Redwoods Highway that winds through the triangle terminates in Grants Pass.

In an old-school diner at the edge of town, the kind with a lunch counter and high-backed stools, I bought a copy of the local newspaper. Among the columns about buying your first horse and distemper outbreaks among local wildlife, there was perhaps the greatest newspaper crime blotter in America.

In addition to the usual rural disputes, the blotter noted several property crimes that were not responded to because they were "B.A.R."—beyond available resources.

The back page of the paper was filled with letters eulogizing Houston, many of them the same as the ones I read in Hicks’ office.

"Jarred always wanted to be out in the wilderness," Houston’s sister Sarah told me. "He would always be pointing out little details. We’d be going along, and he’d stop and say, ‘Look up in that tree,’ or walk over to pick up some rock on the side of the road. It blew my mind how he saw that stuff. He appreciated life."

In addition to the letter-writing campaign, Sarah Houston, 25, and nearly 100 others held a march through town on Jan. 18, down to the scene of the murder and back.

"Nothing in this town has ever shaken us like this … and I’ve lived here my whole life," 25-year-old Ishta Maanamaat told a local news agency.

After one event in December, Houston and group of friends retired to a local bar, where Houston ended up getting in an argument with a man.

"He actually threatened me and told me to meet him down on Millie Steet, where Aaron Clouser was found dead," Houston said. "He told me, ‘I'll take care of you, too.’"

Houston’s mother called the police, but they never came.

A total of $8,000 in rewards is being offered by local groups in exchange for information leading to the arrest of Jarred Houston and Robert Calvin’s killer.

Houston said her brother’s case isn’t at a standstill. The lead detective at the Oregon State Police dedicates two days a week to the case and, she said, is "taking the case pretty personal."

In the meantime, Houston said she’s planning another march.

"We're not going to stop until the person who killed my brother is behind bars," she said.

Deliverance in Oregon

Illinois River
Illinois River in Josephine County / Wikimedia Commons

After leaving Cave Junction, I drove back to a brewpub in Grants Pass, where a community group called Securing Our Safety was meeting.

Around 30 people were listening to updates from other group members while children ran about in the back of the room.

The group describes itself as "a non-profit, citizen-led organization dedicated to the mission of providing for a secure, stable, and sustainable future for Josephine County."

S.O.S. has 11 different committees and a 600+ email list working on various projects to restore county funding and improve services. One committee is focused on getting new levies on the ballot for the next election. There’s a 5K fun run coming up to bring in funds for local law enforcement. Another was organizing an art auction that would end up pulling in more than $5,000.

Among the other projects: redirecting lottery revenues back to the county and reopening some mines in the area.

There’s potentially a fortune of rare minerals under the hills in the county, including tellurium, which is used in solar panels. But any such proposals will undoubtedly face fierce opposition from environmentalists. The running joke among committee members is that Josephine County is "the richest most broke county in Oregon."

Carl Raskin, 76, stood and delivered his update. He’d been working on a $1 a month levy to fund the county animal shelter. Currently, the Josephine County Animal Shelter is operating at one-third of its old budget and only has one animal control officer to handle the entire area.

Raskin said things had been going well, but then the other local animal groups had announced they wouldn’t support his levy, effectively torpedoing it.

His voice broke when he addressed the crowd.

"I’m having trouble sleeping at night, I’ll tell you," he said. "There’s only about eight of us working on this, and it’s not getting the support it needs. I need some help."

Raskin’s petition sheets were quickly handed out among the group, who promised to gather more signatures.

When I approached Raskin, his eyes were still red and watery. He’s lived in the county about 50 years. "We want a better thing," Raskin told me. "We don’t want to be the Deliverance of Oregon."

After the meeting concluded, I spoke to Josephine County Commissioner Keith Heck, who’s lived in the area for 17 years.

Heck and other county officials worry that if things continue on their current path, property values will drop, insurance costs will rise, criminals will continue to flock to the area, and any economic growth will stagnate, if not recede. Josephine County is approaching an event horizon, and if everyone doesn’t pull together, it might be a long, long time before it recovers.

"We have to make our own way, and that’s a hard pill to swallow for a lot of people, including me," Heck said.

Indeed, the general consensus in the county is that the feds welched on the O&C Act. It’s a source of deep bitterness.

"The government is treating us just like they did the Indians," Gilbertson told me back in his office. "They made an agreement and then turned their backs on us."

Questionable analogies aside, distrust of government is another big problem in the county, according to every official I spoke to. Heck’s involvement in the group is an important olive branch in that regard.

But overall, Josephine County is doing relatively better than some other areas in the state. Curry County only has one patrol deputy. Columbia County is going to shut down its jail. And neither has a citizens group like SOS.

I asked Heck what motivated the people in the room to work so hard with such grim prospects for the future.

"This is home," Heck said. "This is where they live. If they don’t do it, who will?"

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