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December 31st, 2003 Dan Cook | News Stories
 

WE GOT 'EM

The Top 30 News Events of 2003

     
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IMAGE: BASIL CHILDERS
Glancing furtively over our shoulders, we allow a sigh to escape. Yes, we are glad to see the last of 2003. Lampooned by Doonesbury. Bludgeoned by the jobless "recovery." Embarrassed by our basketball team and our police department (two organizations, by the way, that in most towns aren't on a first-name basis).

2003 began with the Portland Trail Blazers' best player setting a record--for longest suspension and highest fine--and with our schools winning national attention for an academic year that, thanks to the Salem Budget Hackers, looked like it would end at spring break.

These incidents were harbingers of the year that would unfold (or unravel) before our mystified and stinging eyes. As the state's assisted-suicide law came under attack by the feds, some of the city's leading citizens were following 'Sheed's lead and destroying their careers and credibility through acts that could only be described as suicidal. Meanwhile, science-fiction themes played out in the real world, punctuated by the specter of a deadly, staggering Holstein on the eve of Christmas Eve.

So it is these two themes--self-immolation and surrealism--that stand out as we rewind the year's top local news events.

Part 1: The UNWITTING ADVOCATES of ASSISTED SUICIDE

The defenders of our state's law allowing assisted suicide had their hands full in 2003 as U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, still stinging from last year's unsuccessful court challenge of the law, filed an appeal. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in May and has yet to hand down its verdict. But even as that battle was being fought in the courts, others in Oregon were dying publicly, with little assistance from anyone at all.

Bulldog Bites Self

Three years ago, Kim Kimbrough came to town to toughen up the flabby Alliance for Portland Progress. Like so many outsiders who come here, he never took the time to understand the city or the state. To him, it was just another cookie-cutter big city, like Atlanta or St. Louis, run by City Hall bozos who didn't understand the business of business. His theme song could have been "My Way or the Highway."

Kimbrough did engineer a much-needed merger with the moribund Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. But as the president of the newly blended Portland Business Alliance, he offended most of the players in the city with his Charles Bronson routine. By the time the PBA board pulled the plug on his act in early December, the organization was in near-complete disarray. Kimbrough plans to stick around town and do some consulting, though it's not clear who around here would hire him.

"He definitely had an antagonistic approach to his advocacy, and it was a new element to Portland politics," City Commissioner Erik Sten told The Oregonian. "Kimbrough's approach is very common in most big cities. Those just aren't cities I want to emulate."

The Professor Is the Madman

Michael Mooney offers a slightly different example of the fatal, self-inflicted wound. Mooney, president of Lewis & Clark College, was an accepted member of the city's elite. His was the quiet arrogance of the private club, and he fell victim to that sense of invulnerability that often ensnares those who surround themselves with sycophants. While Kimbrough did himself in by picking fights he couldn't win, Mooney's cause of death was unbridled self-confidence.

Mooney succumbed to the get-rich-quick spiel of an Idaho cowboy, Tod Tripple. He personally authorized $10.5 million in loans and investments of the college's cash in Tripple's oil-reclamation scheme. Although Mooney clearly exceeded his authority in so doing, he refused to seek counsel from his board and chose to ignore the advice he was given. When Willamette Week finally revealed his hushed-up misdeeds in June, it was too late to call 9-1-1. He escaped a no-confidence vote from the board but still realized it would be best to hie himself off to another locale--in this case Japan, where he accepted a position as a visiting professor with Waseda University of Tokyo.

Kroeker Croaks

The biggest local news event of 2003 began in the wee hours of May 5, when a white cop named Scott McCollister fatally shot an African-American woman named Kendra James as she tried to flee a traffic stop in North Portland. The shooting came to symbolize not only the dysfunctional relationship between Portland police and African Americans but the larger racial abyss that divides the city (see "The Death of Innocents?" on page 18). It would also prove to be the undoing of Chief Mark Kroeker, whose response to the shooting managed to piss off community members, rank-and-file cops, and his boss, Mayor Vera Katz, all at once. By the time he announced his "resignation" in August, he appeared to be begging for someone to put him out of his misery.

Kroeker left behind a bureau unfocused, uncertain of its role and starved for true leadership, much as it was in 1999 when he inherited it from his predecessor, Charles Moose, our pick for Comeback of the Year. Portland's ex-top cop emerged in Montgomery County, Md., during the sniper slayings that seemed to paralyze the eastern seaboard in fall 2002. He capped his surprisingly adroit handling of the sniper case with the publication of his first book, Three Weeks in October. Not Book-of-the-Month Club material, perhaps, but certainly our Mr. Moose qualifies for some sort of lifetime overachievement award. We'd bet the farm we haven't heard the last of Sir Charles, who's among the finalists for the chief job in Minneapolis. And no wonder: Not many cops can cry on cue.

Lady Di Takes Her Medicine

You'd think an elected official like Multnomah County Commission Chairwoman Diane Linn would realize the mistake of offering a $138,000 annual salary to a librarian. (Why, that's almost as much as Paul Allen pays Derek Anderson to sit on the bench each game!) No one disputed that Linn had the authority to pay the director of the county library system as much as she wanted. But that didn't quell the tempest.

"You should have warned us!" her four fellow commissioners barked in August. "You'll put us over budget!" they scolded. "You can't pay someone more than $120,000 to run the library system!" they cried, salivating at the good press they knew they'd get and the public spanking that awaited Linn.

It's no secret this battle was as much about politics (Linn is hardly beloved by the other commissioners) as policy. But rather than back down and try to contain the damage, Lady Di swallowed a second handful of pills. A promise is a promise, she insisted. She found a fund she could tap for the extra $18,000: the virtually unused risk-management budget. So, when Molly Raphael started work as the new director of the county library system in December, it was for the $138,000 that Lady Di had dangled to lure her here from Washington, D.C.

In Over His Head

You can take a politician out of his geek job, but you can't take the geek out of City Commissioner Dan Saltzman. Viewed through the eyes of a former engineer, covering the city's open water supply on Mount Tabor is not only a smart thing to do, it's a logistical challenge that must make Saltzman's slide rule tingle. But in reviewing the structural formulas needed for such a massive public-works project, the commissioner forgot to factor in the emotional attachment of some of the city's best-connected residents to the open reservoirs. The year began with a citizen backlash to the reservoir burial plan, and although it took nearly 12 months, the public finally forced Saltzman to agree to take another look at the proposal. Saying he was still open to alternatives, he promised earlier this month to put together a panel to study the matter further.

Group Self-Immolation

Not content to destroy their own credibility, Oregon's legislators felt the need this year to take the rest of us down with them. While elected officials snoozed in Salem, alarmed citizens tried, with mixed results, to stem cuts in public services by supporting ballot measures mandating temporary tax hikes. In January, the state's voters defeated Measure 28, a referendum passed by the Legislature the previous year that would have raised several hundred million dollars through a temporary income-tax increase.

The measure's defeat set off alarm bells in Multnomah County, where school days were slashed from the public school year and teachers worked for 10 days without pay. Intense last-minute negotiations barely averted a teacher strike, and Multnomah County voters, as well as Beavertonians, subsequently passed their own local tax hikes to keep schools and services intact--but not before the crisis attracted the attention of cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who lampooned our shortened school year in his nationally syndicated Doonesbury comic strip.

Legislators awoke to reform the state's bloated Public Employees Retirement System only to fall into an even deeper sleep until August. At that point they roused themselves long enough to cobble together a woefully inadequate budget for the next biennium that relies heavily on a temporary income-tax hike to shore up critical services. And, in Oregon's own version of Groundhog Day, this tax is now headed for the voters in February.

Ball in Hoop, Foot in Mouth

The Trail Blazers ought to have their own suicide-prevention hotline. General manager Bob Whitsitt was put out of his misery in May after years of inflicting small cuts on himself. Meanwhile, any pop psychologist would tell you that those were cries for help and not acts of true stupidity on the parts of Damon Stoudamire, Rasheed Wallace, Zach Randolph and Bonzi Wells (see chart, opposite page). Even coach Maurice Cheeks tried to do himself in at the end of last season by petulantly complaining when management wouldn't let him talk to Philadelphia about working for the 76ers. (Wouldn't consciously accepting the coaching job with that troubled organization be considered self-destructive behavior?) Perhaps Cheeks isn't suicidal, however. His knack for blaming his shortcomings and mistakes on someone else is a sign of a strong will to survive.

Meet Me in Washougal

The Portland Seven provided us with another mass suicide in 2003. The Jihad That Couldn't Shoot Straight went down hard after Intel employee Mike Hawash pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in August. Their plan, as it unfolded in court hearings and documents, was to enter Afghanistan through China to join in the defense of innocent Muslims in the Middle East.

They were never able to reach Afghanistan and had to return to the United States, where their ill-conceived plot self-destructed. But their biggest screw-up took place prior to their trip to China, when they gathered at a stone quarry in Washougal for target practice and were spotted by a local sheriff's deputy.

It took the various law enforcement agencies a while to link the quarry shooters with the Chinese tourist group, but once they did, the full force of the Patriot Act came down on the Seven. Can anyone explain how these poor souls dressed in Muslim garb thought they could squeeze off a few thousand rounds in a privately owned gravel pit without getting caught? Come to think of it, Michael Mooney probably can.

The Business of Self-Destruction

The corporate suicide rate continued to be brisk in 2003. Gardenburger, in its death throes for at least two years now, packed up its veggie burger tent in September and relocated 17 jobs to Utah. Several years ago, Gardenburger gambled big-time when it dangled itself before some food-company powerhouses as takeover bait. But no one bit, and the bleeding has yet to stop. In November, Louisiana Pacific chose Nashville as its new home base. LP, another once-powerful but now dying timber company, will move about 120 jobs out of the area. (Raise your hand if you'll miss hatchetman CEO Mark Suwyn.)

Another once-powerful tree-cutter, Crown Pacific Corp., celebrated the Fourth of July a couple of days early by filing for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Perhaps our favorite corporate obit concerned a techie called CenterSpan, which in May insisted that it was not going out of business but merely pausing until conditions improved--the first recorded case of a company declaring hibernation.

Perennial Suicide Bombers

2003's all-star cast included:

* Portland School Board member Derry Jackson found himself the subject of unflattering news coverage once again when WW in October revealed charges that he had attempted to use his School Board position to launch a new business. The state ethics board later cleared him of any wrongdoing, but the incident won't help his re-election odds.

* Taxpayer-rights advocate Bill Sizemore wasn't so lucky. In April, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Jerome LaBarre slammed Sizemore's Oregon Taxpayers United foundation with an injunction prohibiting it from using donations for political purposes. LaBarre accused the foundation of "extensive wrongdoing" and said the foundation "operated well outside the realm of what is expected of a law-abiding organization." Sizemore's group suffered further setbacks with respect to its initiative-petition activities.

* Former figure skater Tonya Harding found a new way to win attention by joining the burgeoning ranks of female pro boxers. At least she's finally discovered a sport where everyone expects to get beat up. Meanwhile, Tonya faces a threat of another kind: the loss of her Miss Congeniality crown to former Survivor cast member Lindsey Richter. The latter, who, like Tonya, calls Portland home, got in a tiff with a bouncer at a local night club last summer. She bit her opponent (style points for that!) but got off lightly by settling with the bitten bouncer out of court.

ATTACK of the 50-FOOT DONUT (And other truly weird movies of 2003)

It wouldn't be a year in Oregon without the weird and the wacky. Gus Van Sant, after all, made news in 2003 with a movie inspired by news stories from 1999. Here's our list of possible sci-fi flicks based on news from the past 12 months:

The Fall of the House of Goldschmidt

What are we to make of former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt? Since leaving Mahonia Hall in 1991, he's made a tidy sum helping corporations get the ear of elected officials. But at the end of 2003, his wheeling and dealing began to raise eyebrows. He lobbied on behalf of PGE management to oppose creation of a people's utility district prior to a November vote (the measure failed). Then he emerged as a "partner" with gazillionaire David Bonderman and his Texas Pacific Group, who have designs on keeping PGE in private hands.

Just as we were trying to digest this apparent conflict of interest on Goldschmidt's part, we learned that he was quietly accepting large sums from SAIF Corp., the state-run workers' comp insurer, for unspecified consulting services. The fallout from this disclosure led to the resignation of two top SAIF execs who had overseen Goldschmidt's loose but lucrative consulting agreement. Uncharacteristically, the state's No. 1 power broker has been ducking questions about these matters. But he'll have to start owning up in January, when, as Gov. Ted Kulongoski's nominee to run the state higher-education board, he will have to appear before legislators, who are sure to grill him over the SAIF contract.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The War of the Cadavers broke out in 2003. In the role of Goliath: Oregon Health & Science University. Playing David: Tigard entrepreneur Walter Mitchell. The founder of a little operation he dubbed BioGift, Mitchell strayed onto OHSU turf when he started soliciting cadaver donations for research purposes. When body parts are harvested (don't you just love that term?) and sold, the seller can make upwards of $300,000. OHSU had enjoyed a virtual monopoly on this specialized meat market before Mitchell set up his slab in Tigard. OHSU complained bitterly to the state about BioGift, but at year's end both competitors were, unlike the objects of their desire, still standing.

Invasion of the Body Bulgers

Krispy Kreme Doughnuts targeted Planet Portland in 2003, training its high-fat gamma ray gun on a city that loves to sip and nosh. Readers of The Business Journal, the Portland Tribune or The Oregonian might have thought Bill Gates Jr. was moving Microsoft's entire work force to Portland, so intense was the coverage of the donut shop's opening. The Big O alone logged 90 stories and letters to the editor on the national caloric chain's arrival in Beaverton and Clackamas. Just what we need: a Krispy Kreme on every corner, right across from a Starbucks. The horror!

Invasion of the Booby Oglers

Then there was Angela, the woman who paraded around Pioneer Courthouse Square in August wearing a cardboard box over her upper torso and a sign reading, "Stop Staring at My Breasts!" Isn't that sort of like wearing a sign that says, "Don't Kick Me!"?

Invasion of the Booty Snatchers

Talk about your sci-fi plots: Bill Gates did turn his attention southward, deciding in August to demand shareholder justice from those wealthy land barons of Portland, the Schnitzers. As a shareholder in Schnitzer Steel, Gates vowed to save his fellow investors from the greedy ways of the Schnitzer clan by forcing a breakup of the insider-controlled board of directors. Never mind that throughout the recession Schnitzer Steel was among the few publicly held industrial companies to make money for its shareholders.

Waterworld II: A River Runs Around Him

Was he a man or--a merman? Or just another shameless self-promoter? Perhaps we'll never know. More likely, Christopher Swain will be one of those one-time news blips. Yet for the first half of 2003, Swain's swim of the entire length of the Columbia River galvanized Portland. Well, "galvanized" is a bit strong. He helped fill space during a few slow news weeks. Seemed he was out of the water more than he was in. Yet in July, Swain emerged from the river at Cape Disappointment, having stroked and kicked his way into the record books and our hearts.

Knight of the Living Large

Phil Knight (need we say "of Nike"?) took a few folks to school in 2003. Chief among them was claymation pioneer Will Vinton, whose Vinton Studios has struggled in recent years. Knight bought a big piece of the company in 2002. His stated intention was to prop up Vinton's foundering creative hobbyhorse. Along with his dough came Knight's son, who got a swell job at the studio. In one of those "this town ain't big enough for the two of us" scenarios, Knight eased Vinton out the door of his eponymous company in April.

Phil was also hot behind the berm on his home court out in Beaverton, too. Nike grew another shoe size in July with the acquisition of rival Converse for $305 million. Nike's stellar recessionary performance continued throughout 2003 as the company reported strong earnings and saw its stock climb from the low 40s to the high 60s by year-end.

The company added some key new jocks to its already powerful endorsement squad. The biggest catch was basketball phenom LeBron James, who signed a $90 million endorsement package in May. Nike also got tennis star Serena Williams to join the team just before Christmas.

Oregon's only publicly held billion-dollar-revenue company may have even preserved the corporate right to lie in press releases when it settled with activist Marc Kasky in September. He sued Nike in 1998 under a California false-advertising statute, saying the company fibbed in public about conditions in its offshore shoe fabs. Kasky charged the misleading denials were a form of commercial speech used to help sell more of its products and as such weren't protected by the First Amendment. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the lawsuit, prompting Nike to cut a check for $1.5 million to make Kasky go away.

The Creature Walks Among Us

Portlanders' hearts went out to Doug Baker in November when Oregonian reporter Tom Hallman chronicled his two-month search for his lost German shepherd, Fremont. The made-for-Disney story took a vengeful turn, however, when, after finding Fremont (thanks to a tip from an Oregonian reader), Baker sued the pet-sitter who'd been watching the dog when it escaped for $160,000--eight times what he'd spent on the search.

Attack of the Demon Rum

An impromptu street performance by a member of Portland's Northwest Classical Theatre was interrupted in late August when Shakespearean actor Thaddeus Carson got into a sword-brandishing scuffle with a policeman. Carson, in full costume, was said to be swigging from something in a paper bag as he waved his two-foot saber about. When an off-duty police officer interrupted Carson's street improv on the Terry Schrunk Plaza, Carson took umbrage at his critic. Result: Swordsman goes to jail, show goes on without him.

The Man Who Came in From the Fog

For years, Andy Wiederhorn has escaped any serious sanctions for his role in the collapse of Wilshire Financial Services Group. That could change, thanks to Lawrence Mendelsohn, his longtime business partner who helped him form a new firm, Fog Cutter, when they got the boot from Wilshire in 2000. The feds continue to believe that Wiederhorn played a role in the collapse of Jeffrey Grayson's Capital Consultants Inc., which, when it went down, took with it millions of other people's dollars. Mendelsohn left Fog Cutter in mid-2003 but couldn't lose the feds, who finally got him to plead to an old tax claim. Now, the feds say, Mendelsohn's in the clear on the CCI scandal, but they're still pursuing Wiederhorn. And they're hoping Mendelsohn is the key to bringing his ex-partner down.

The Death of Innocents?

If 2003 is typical, about 5,800 Multnomah County residents will have died during the past 12 months. The local obituary pages included the name of midnight bicycle riders Orion Satushek, 27, and Angela Leazenby, 26, who were killed in June by a drunk driver whose license had been revoked. There was Marty Jennings, the Oregon Symphony fiddler who had it all and, at the same time, had nothing and overdosed on smack in July. And, of course, there was songwriter Elliott Smith, who technically was no longer a Portlander but whose October suicide shook this city nonetheless.

Of all the deaths, however, three came to symbolize events that will, over time, distinguish 2003 from other years and underscore disturbing fissures in the foundations of our city and state.

Kendra James, Douglas Schmidt and Jessica Kate Williams were far from perfect. Each contributed to the situations that led to their deaths. Yet the senseless and cruel extinguishing of their lives transformed them in death into agents of change whose passings had widespread consequences in our community.

The killing of Kendra James stands out as the most powerful news story of 2003. This is what most witnesses agree happened: A policeman stopped the car in which James was a passenger at about 2:40 am on May 5 in North Portland. The alleged infraction? Failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign.

When the policeman forced the driver to get out of the car, James moved behind the wheel. A second policeman jammed himself into the car and, holding his gun to James' head, ordered her out. The policeman was white. James was African-American. She gunned the engine. He shot her dead. The explosion of outrage that swept through North Portland in those initial days became an inferno that eventually consumed Police Chief Mark Kroeker, forcing him from office in September.

Kroeker's insensitive treatment of the family, friends and community that knew and loved James was emblematic of all that was wrong with his tour of duty in Portland. By defaulting to his hard-wired reaction to any criticism that could possibly reflect on him, he squandered an opportunity to learn from the tragedy and opened the door for his replacement, Derrick Foxworth, who knows what it's like to grow up black in Portland, to try his hand at healing the wounds.

Douglas Schmidt, 36, was dubbed the poster child for the victims of slashed state services. Schmidt's epileptic seizures were controlled by a drug he received through a state health benefits program that died due to budget cuts. Schmidt suffered a seizure in March in his Portland apartment, only a week after his medication ran out. He never regained consciousness and died in November. His hospital bills will probably top $1 million, according to his family. The cost of the drug prescribed for his condition? Thirteen dollars a day.

Proponents of a more robust budget seized upon Schmidt's plight as an illustration of the human suffering caused by legislative inaction and voter avarice. The tax-cutter crowd refused to be intimidated by the death of one unemployed epileptic. "How do we know his $13-a-day seizure medication would have prevented the fatal seizure?" they asked.

In the aftermath of Schmidt's death, other facts emerged. Schmidt hadn't aggressively pursued other means of obtaining affordable medication when his state aid ran out. Schmidt abused alcohol, which he shouldn't have done when taking his drug. Schmidt apparently turned down financial help from his family. Yet there's no denying that cuts in Salem did prompt the state to cut off his drug supply. His medication did run out. He did have a seizure, and he did die.

The violent death of 22-year-old Jessica Kate Williams at the hands of a gang of homeless street punks brought home another long-neglected reality: Living on the streets is really about dying on the streets. Williams' body was discovered May 23 underneath the Steel Bridge. The friendly, childlike woman from Gladstone had been beaten, tortured and set on fire, an autopsy revealed.

Her parents conceded that they knew she was associating with a tough element. But efforts to restrain her were fruitless, they said. At age 22, despite her limited intelligence, she had a right to make her own choices. As the case unfolded, it quickly became clear that Williams had made some disastrous ones. Police said her murderers were a dozen homeless youths who lived as a street family and whom she considered friends.

Williams' murder was apparently dictated by ex-con James Daniel Nelson. Her crime? She reportedly told a lie about someone in the "family," violating a group rule. By year's end, six of the 12 indicted for the murder had pleaded guilty. But their crime went beyond the taking of one life. A town that for years reached out with concern and support for homeless youths began to question whether they were beyond salvation, and deserving of more force--and less compassion.

 
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