Dave Daniel knew there would be days like this. OK, weeks. Hell, months like this. But he never looked forward to charging from one end of his jurisdiction to the other, knuckles white on the steering wheel, tires kicking up gravel, siren howling like an angry baby.
Yet for all his best intentions and efforts, that’s exactly what the sheriff of Josephine County, Oregon, found himself doing, once again, on a brisk morning in April 2015. A 16-year-old girl, alone at home in the sleepy town of Wolf Creek, was cowering by the phone as someone attempted to break in. Daniel, short on deputies, raced up the interstate and into his county’s thick-forested northern end. He arrived in time to secure the scene — the burglar was long gone — and summon the teen’s parents home from work.
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That was all he could manage. As he began conducting a preliminary investigation, the radio crackled again — this time, it was a report of a stolen vehicle in another corner of the county. Daniel dropped what he was doing, hopped back in his cruiser and flipped on the siren. He sped off in the direction he’d just come from.
It didn’t end there. The following evening, two of Daniel’s deputies arrived at a mangled starfish of steel they’d later classify as a fatal DUI. And the morning after that, they rushed to a property where two men reportedly had been arguing over a trailer. They found one with a gunshot wound in his leg; the other was dead in the dirt.
The week, Daniel explained, was hectic, exhausting, frustrating. It also was completely typical.
“It literally happens all the time,” he said.
This was not Daniel’s game plan for Josephine County. He’d entered this office in 2015 with bright hopes and impressive credentials: a master’s degree in management, three years as an Oregon state trooper and more than a decade on the force in Grants Pass, the county’s largest city. One of his first actions as sheriff, he said, was to change the office’s motto from “Proudly serving our community” to “Protecting with courage and serving with compassion.”
But since he took over, that promise has proven all but impossible to fulfill. When times were good and Josephine’s timber mills were humming, the county used revenue from the industry to fund a police presence that was adequate for its roughly 85,000 residents. At its peak, the sheriff’s annual budget regularly exceeded $17 million, Daniel said. But as environmental regulations squeezed timber yields across the region, the department withered. Today, it operates on a budget that’s less than half of what it once was, with no detectives division, a downsized jail and deputies who patrol just 10 hours a day.
Josephine isn’t the only county in trouble. The federal government has been helping keep swaths of rural America on economic life support for years. Since 2000, it’s paid billions of dollars to 41 states hit hard by the timber industry’s decline. But that money, which has been decreasing steadily, could dry up soon. And if it does, Daniel and his department will be walloped by the fallout.
A countywide tax levy could help stave off a public safety emergency. But efforts to pass one have gone nowhere, thanks to a right-leaning populace ardently opposed to an increase. In fact, since 2012, a proposed levy has failed four times, most recently in May 2015. This year, it didn’t even make the ballot.
Residents, meanwhile, enjoy the lowest property tax rates of any county in Oregon: 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed value — less than a quarter of the state’s average.
“I think the community here supports law enforcement,” Daniel said. “They’re willing to say, ‘Go get ’em, guys!’ But they’re not willing to fund it.”
Daniel cuts a strong presence. He’s linebacker-thick and north of 6 feet, with a booming voice and salt-and-pepper crew cut. He keeps an engraved .22-caliber rifle next to his desk, and his office walls are cluttered with framed accolades for outstanding service. Yet discussing the future of his department often prompts the same vexed reaction: pause, deep breath, pause.
“Honestly, the organization being stretched is an understatement,” he said. “We’re on the rack being stretched.”
Josephine County was founded in 1856, after a small collection of prospectors found bits of gold in streams that vein off its two largest rivers. As word of the discovery spread south to California, hundreds of miners began pouring in, hoping to make their fortunes. They braved treacherous roads, unpredictable food supplies and long, frostbitten winters.
Basic infrastructure didn’t always keep pace with the demands of a growing populace. In 1857, when a would-be thief was apprehended after attempting to break into a general store, he was brought before the county’s justice of the peace.
“As Josephine County had no jail,” author Edna May Hill wrote in a history of the region, “and the accused no money to put up as bail, his honor, the justice, released the fellow, compelling him to sign a note for fifty dollars to secure his appearance at the proper time.”
By 1875, the county was home to more than 1,300 people; that year, workers harvested 45,000 board feet of lumber. Production ramped up significantly in the decades that followed, and by 1962, when Oregon began tracking its annual timber harvest data, Josephine County yielded more than 200 million board feet — enough to frame more than 12,500 family homes. Annual production remained consistently above 100 million board feet throughout the 1970s.
These harvests, though occurring largely on tax-exempt federal land, were a crucial source of local funding. That’s because the U.S. Forest Service turns over 25 percent of revenue generated on its lands — primarily from timber sales — to their home counties. About half of Oregon’s 63 million acres are government-owned, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. And in Josephine specifically, that number is even higher — roughly 62 percent.
Revenue-sharing deals like this have existed for decades in dozens of states. But the agreement in Oregon has an added wrinkle: The state is home to 2.4 million acres of Oregon and California Railroad Revested Lands, which sprawl out across 18 counties. Activities on these lands, owned primarily by the federal Bureau of Land Management, pay back 50 percent to counties — twice the Forest Service’s rate.
The setup was a boon to counties — and their services — when harvest numbers were high. But it had a side effect: Over the years, public safety funds, like those in Josephine County, came to hinge on the presumption of stable timber harvests.
This became problematic in the late 1980s, when Oregon’s logging industry entered a nosedive — one brought on in part by a sweeping federal conservation initiative. The Northwest Forest Plan, signed by President Bill Clinton in the early ’90s, tightened environmental regulations across the Pacific Northwest in an attempt to protect the habitat of the northern spotted owl. Although Clinton promised his plan would “achieve a balanced and comprehensive policy” to preserve both logging jobs and forests, he also hinted that, when push comes to shove, one set of interests might outweigh the other.
“Where sound management policies can preserve the health of forest lands, sales should go forward,” he said. “Where this requirement cannot be met, we need to do our best to offer new economic opportunities for year-round, high-wage, high-skill jobs.” The resulting legislation, he warned, “cannot possibly make everyone happy. Perhaps it won’t make anyone completely happy. But the worst thing we can do is nothing.”
The plan became law in 1994. By 2008, the state’s harvest numbers had plunged to less than 4 billion board feet – less than half their peak. In a 2011 report, the American Forest Resource Council, a logging industry group, blamed the Northwest Forest Plan for the closure of 261 mills, the loss of 50,000 jobs and a shortfall of more than 9 billion board feet of lumber across three states. Its authors, criticizing the objectives Clinton laid out in the 1990s, pulled few punches.
The forest plan was “but a pale imitation of what was advertised,” the group wrote. “The human and economic dimension of the problem and the production of a predictable level of timber sales have been all but forgotten.”
On a bright Wednesday in May 2012, 39 inmates poured out of the Josephine County jail as television news cameras rolled. Some sprinted out, possessions folded into brown paper bags, whooping and smiling. Others looked incredulously from side to side, as if it were all too good to be true. They’d been charged with a variety of crimes — from drug possession to third-degree rape and robbery. But today, none of that mattered. They were free to go.
A local reporter interviewed a newly released inmate, Will Smith, as he sat on the curb, smoking a cigarette. Smith had been in jail for 20 days after being arrested for fourth-degree assault and felony possession of drugs and a firearm. He squinted against the sun, his expression a combination of giddiness and genuine confusion.
“I would expect to be one of the ones that don’t get out,” he said.
“Why is that?” the reporter asked.
Smith hesitated, then chuckled. “I’ve been a bad boy,” he said.
Authorities long had feared it might come to this. As timber harvests plummeted throughout the 1990s, the federal government stepped in to fill the gap. In 2000, Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which aimed to stabilize some of the federal payments on which Josephine County — and more than 700 others — relied. Thanks to the act, counties no longer needed large harvests to generate sustainable revenue; instead, the size of payments was calculated as a percentage of top historical averages. Oregon, by far America’s largest beneficiary of funding from the act, received nearly $150 million annually by 2005, according to Forest Service data. Josephine, for its part, collected millions of its own federal dollars — even as its sawmills fell quiet.
The Secure Rural Schools Act was supposed to last for six years — enough time for counties to get their financial footing and for former mill workers to enter new vocations such as forest restoration, watershed care and the “control of noxious and exotic weeds.” But it has been extended repeatedly, sometimes at the eleventh hour. Counties – accustomed to the steady stream of federal funds — struggled to redesign their economies each time cutoffs loomed.
“Folks found it really wasn’t so easy to diversify in these rural areas, because there’s nothing there,” said Laura Cleland, spokeswoman for the Association of Oregon Counties. “You can’t just create industries out of thin air.”
The timber industry, meanwhile, showed few signs of recovering. In a 2012 report, the Society of American Foresters estimated that 19 percent of all mills in America’s forest sector had closed. Between 2005 and 2012, full-time wages in the wood products sector declined by $9 billion, according to the group’s analysis of U.S. Forest Service data. And in the western United States, a third of the full-time wood products workforce had vanished.
This foundering slammed Josephine County, whose public safety stash all but dried up. Around the time the inmates walked out of jail, the sheriff’s department was slashed to two patrol deputies and the district attorney’s office laid off about half of its lawyers. In one month, criminal investigations conducted by the Oregon State Police in the county increased by more than 600 percent.
That was just the beginning. As the months wore on, the county began a long slide into surreal lawlessness.
“Imagine a burglary being committed,” said Grants Pass Police Chief Bill Landis. “Arresting the person inside the residence and then handcuffing them, walking them outside and only being able to issue them a citation because you can’t lodge them in a jail.”
Landis is tall and unflinchingly polite, with a neat mustache and an athletic lope to his walk. He recalled another incident in which his officers chased down a stolen vehicle, spiked its tires and arrested the driver at gunpoint. That offender earned a ticket, too, then was sent walking down the same street.
Although Grants Pass has beefed up its staffing in recent years through a series of citywide tax levies, the county’s rural areas, home to a majority of residents, remain a “haven for criminals,” Landis said. Sheriff’s department records support that assessment: Since 2012, crimes reported in rural Josephine have risen by more than 50 percent a year, even as deputies scrambled to contain them. In the same period, the yearly cost of stolen or damaged property has climbed from $12,417 to more than $300,000 — a 2,300 percent increase. In the fiscal year that ended last June, 208 inmates were forcibly released due to staffing shortages in the jail. And between 2014 and 2015, calls for service have increased by 40 percent.
The problems have rippled out to state taxpayers: Compared with similarly sized counties, Josephine County receives more support from the Oregon State Police in the form of calls for service, according to state police records. Yet the added help has limits. Three months after the 2012 inmate release, a woman called 911 around 5 a.m. to report that her ex-boyfriend was trying to break into her house. Because no deputies were on duty, her call was rerouted to the Oregon State Police, who told her that no one was available to respond.
“Uh, I don’t have anybody to send out there,” the dispatcher said on the recorded call. “You know, obviously, if he comes inside the residence and assaults you, can you ask him to go away?”
The woman, left to fend for herself, was sexually assaulted. Following the incident, Gil Gilbertson, Josephine’s sheriff at the time, issued a press release advising domestic abuse victims to “consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.”
As residents have continued to vote down proposed tax levies, Josephine’s chaotic climate has intensified. Homicides have gone unsolved, thefts and vandalisms are a dime a dozen, and fire officials routinely have been called to active crime scenes — burglaries, domestic disputes — by desperate residents who lured them there by claiming they were reporting blazes.
Some incidents border on the absurd. In December, a man named Coen Beorn Ellenwood arrived home around 3 a.m. to find that his property had been robbed. After being told that no one from the sheriff’s office or the Oregon State Police was available to respond, Ellenwood continued calling the dispatcher — a total of 13 times in one hour. He finally was advised to come into the city of Grants Pass to speak with an officer in person. There, he was arrested — for improper use of 911.
In another recent case, Kevin Michael Harp was charged with 27 counts of theft, six counts of burglary, three counts of car theft and two counts each of criminal mischief and possession of a concealed firearm and methamphetamines. He owns two properties in the county, and when police searched one, they turned up two truckloads of stolen goods. At the other, they found a 20-foot shipping container – also full of stolen valuables.
Then there was Merle Southard, whose ability to elude shorthanded deputies was so notorious around the county that he’d earned the nickname “Merle the Squirrel.” Locals – especially law enforcement personnel – give a knowing nod when the name comes up. Between 2004 and 2015, he was arrested and released more than a dozen times in Josephine County – for everything from assaulting an officer to possession of a destructive device. Joshua Sanders, his son, was cited six times in less than a year on charges ranging from theft to criminal mischief and possession of methamphetamines.
Staffing shortfalls don’t just enable crimes, said Chris Mallette, executive director of the Illinois Valley Safe House Alliance, a shelter for domestic abuse victims in Josephine County. They actively embolden criminals.
“The jail is like a revolving door,” she said. “They arrest them, and it can even be for a felony assault. They’re booked and released, and they can be back here within four hours.”
Mallette, like many others in the county, believes that crime rates are even worse than reported – that they skew low from dejection among community members who’ve simply given up on calling for help. Last year, her organization saw reports of domestic abuse jump up by a third. The sheriff’s response? She said it was to transfer the burden back onto her.
“The police are calling us to go pick women up because they can’t get out here quick enough,” she said. “We don’t get issued a badge, and we don’t get issued a gun. … We’re it.”
The Josephine County Courthouse, built in 1916, is an angular marble building with thick columns and an American flag snapping out front. It’s across the street from the local Republican Party headquarters – a squat complex with sun-bleached campaign signs that hang under a rust-hued awning.
In a spacious office on the courthouse’s first floor, County Commissioner Keith Heck spends a lot of his time determining how the cash-strapped county might brace for its uncertain future. Lately, it’s been a tough task.
“The ugly reality is that we’ll probably not be receiving any SRS (Secure Rural Schools Act) moneys in this new year,” he said. Extending what he calls the “life-necessitating money” guaranteed in the act has become an unattractive political prospect — a game of hot potato in Washington, D.C.
“We are at the whims, so to speak, of either those who have the chutzpah to see these bills through or not,” he said. “And right now, we’re not seeing too many people rise up.”
Some are trying. A coalition of U.S. senators — including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – recently asked their leaders to take up the cause. But it’s an uphill battle, especially given the convoluted political maneuvering required to keep the act’s remaining debris afloat each year. In fact, the Secure Rural Schools Act has limped forward, time and time again, through a series of tie-ons to unrelated legislation. In 2013, it was pork-barreled onto a bill that aimed to address a helium shortage; more recently, it was tucked into a component of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that extended millions in funding for home visitation programs among low-income families.
Think about that. The ideological calculus is perplexing, to say the least: Millions in government payouts are trickling into rural counties — which, in cases such as Josephine’s, are predominantly conservative and anti-tax. These payments, sometimes criticized locally as a form of government welfare, are enabling communities to hobble forward as their industries crumble. And it’s thanks in large part to “Obamacare.”
Some experts say the whole thing is teetering on collapse – the fan awhirl; the proverbial shit airborne and well-aimed.
After all, the Secure Rural Schools Act has “been a politically harder and harder lift each time,” said Mark Haggerty, a policy analyst at the nonprofit research firm Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Montana. “I know a lot of people have just kind of given up and said, ‘This isn’t going to happen anymore. We can’t keep asking for this money year over year.’ ”
With a serious fiscal cliff looming — the act technically expired in September, which means payments nationwide are likely to fall dramatically next spring — the question of who will foot the bill for Josephine County’s public safety remains. A collection of counties, including Josephine, believes the federal government is not living up to a promise it made in the O&C Lands Act of 1937 — that timber-rich areas be cultivated with the goal of “permanent forest production” and a “permanent source of timber supply.” And those counties are suing the Bureau of Land Management to make up the difference.
Asked if residents might ever adjust their expectations and approve a measure to raise taxes, Sheriff Dave Daniel says he doubts it. So does Heck, the county commissioner. Too many failed attempts in the past. Too little faith in the local government. Too many years on the government dole.
“For so long, we were just dependent on the almighty federal dollar,” Daniel said. “And I think it led to a feeling of entitlement.”
What would it take to change minds — a costly accident? A ghastly crime?
The “really, really bad has happened,” Daniel said. “And it’s not changing anything.”
On a sweltering afternoon last June, Ed Pinkham wasn’t exactly sure what he was looking at.
The retired schoolteacher, returning home from an errand, had just rounded a corner on a road in rural Josephine County. He saw a wrecked Chrysler PT Cruiser, a scuffle, a minivan peeling away. Pinkham began piecing it together: This man in front of him – shirtless, torso spattered with blood – had just missed an opportunity to carjack the van’s driver. Now he turned to face Pinkham, looking intent on not repeating the error.
“I’m delirious,” Pinkham recalled him saying. “And I want your car.”
There was no time to react. The man dove through Pinkham’s driver-side window, crawled across him and began kicking him in the ribs, he said. The force of the entry damaged Pinkham’s door and cracked the windshield. Pinkham, trying to fight back, was struck in the head. He felt the kicks get harder, then fell out of his car’s open door and onto the hot pavement.
Another driver had arrived behind him, and now the two of them began scuffling with the carjacker. Together, they managed to turn off the ignition and pull Brian Killian, a wanted felon, onto the street. He attempted to flee, but the man who’d just arrived chased down Killian and tackled him, Pinkham said.
Sirens now: an ambulance, not the police. Not yet. When the paramedics pulled up, Pinkham said they quickly took stock of the situation and entered the fray, pinning Killian to the ground. Everyone waited for the police.
According to court records, Killian had just fled the home of Jerry and Joann Jackson, an elderly couple whom he’d attempted to rob. When he realized their house wasn’t empty, a series of charges filed against him allege, he stabbed them both to death, killed one of their dogs and wounded the other. He’d fled the scene in their car, the PT Cruiser, and was headed into the county’s forested folds when he crashed it and encountered Pinkham.
It wasn’t Killian’s first offense. Since 2008, he’d been arrested six times across Oregon for charges ranging from drug possession to robbery. In November 2014, he was booked for stealing a car in Josephine County, held in jail for two days and — despite being on probation — released for budgetary reasons.
On June 11, four days before the Jacksons’ killings, Killian was accused of stealing two more cars — and crashing one of them. The court records say an officer signaled for him to stop, but he got away.
Sheriff Dave Daniel believes the Jacksons still would be alive if his office had been at full strength.
“If there’s cops on the road, you can stop that stuff,” he said. “You get complaints. You can get people there and get people maybe to intervene. But that’s just another case that’s obviously hit home to our county, where there’s lack of law enforcement presence. And because there’s a lack of law enforcement presence, you end up with people being killed.”
Daniel has vowed to continue policing — even as yet another fiscal storm cloud darkens, even as residents seem unwilling to open the umbrella. That fight weighs on him and his deputies, though — when they scramble from scene to scene, when they have to prioritize one crime over another.
On their way out of Grants Pass, before crossing the Rogue River, they routinely drive under an arch that houses a city slogan. Lit up at night, it’s supposed to be inviting: a lure for retirees hoping to settle down someplace beautiful. A boast about the gorgeous summers, the emerald rivers, the dollops of cloud slinking through nearby mountains.
But these days, the slogan feels more like a warning, a gloomy hint of the rural county’s dangers:
“It’s the climate.”
Byard Duncan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Center for Investigative Reporting is a content partner for the E.W. Scripps Company, which owns this broadcast station and website.