PORTLAND, Ore. (WOMENSENEWS)–The suicide-killing rampage by an Oregon sheriff’s officer last February leaves questions about why early warning signs in 2009 went unheeded.
A particular matter of concern: the Portland Police Bureau’s decision to honor a request by the Sheriff’s Office of Clackamas County to keep the local district attorney’s office out of an internal investigation of the officer last year.
As has been nationally reported, on Feb.12, 2010, Clackamas County Sheriff Sgt. Jeffery Grahn, 46, killed his wife Charlotte, 47, two of her friends–Kathleen Hoffmeister, 53, and Victoria Schulmerich, 53–and then himself at a bar in Gresham, Ore., a suburb of Portland.
The family of Kathleen Hoffmeister filed a tort claim recently against Clackamas County for inadequately investigating instances of anger, abusive behavior and domestic violence involving Jeffery Grahn.
Both Charlotte Grahn’s family and the Schulmerich family have until Aug. 12 to file similar claims. Charlotte Grahn’s family is considering litigation, according to Walter Trapp, her brother.
For weeks after the shooting the Sheriff’s Office of Clackamas County denied there were warning signs of domestic violence in Jeffery Grahn’s personal life prior to the shootings.
Under pressure from local media, however, it made public documents that since have been widely reported on, showing allegations of domestic abuse just 10 months before the shooting.
In April 2009, the Sheriff’s Office was investigating possible officer-related domestic violence in the case of Jeffery Grahn and his wife after a tip from Chris Kipper, a friend of the family and a probation officer married to an Oregon State patrol officer. Kipper said she feared receiving a phone call one day "if something wasn’t done … with Jeff being reportedly suicidal … that the result could be Jeff killing his family and then himself."
Other Reports of Abuse
One of Charlotte Grahn’s sisters and her brother, Trapp, also reported incidents of abuse, including one in which Jeffrey Grahn held a gun to his wife’s head and another when he injured her badly enough that she was hospitalized.
Women’s eNews recently asked Dave Thomas, a retired Montgomery County Maryland police officer familiar with the case, to review how the Grahn case was handled. Thomas, now at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., trains police departments across the country about officer-involved domestic violence.
"We’re talking here about someone who is incredibly dangerous and agencies with prior knowledge," Thomas said in a phone interview. "The totality of it says even if he wasn’t physically abusing her–which I totally think he was–there was enough administratively to pull his badge and gun given everything that’s going on. He’s a danger to himself, to his family and to the community."
Jim Strovink, Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, has consistently told reporters that the county’s hands were tied because Charlotte Grahn would not talk with officers about specifics of the abuse.
A Portland police investigation showed Jeffrey Grahn had reportedly been drinking heavily, had threatened suicide, was suffering from depression and had cut off communication with friends. When Charlotte Grahn was interviewed she "pleaded the Fifth"–referring to the legal right of refusal to testify on the grounds of self-incrimination–when she spoke to investigators.
Thomas said Charlotte Grahn’s reluctance to talk to officers should have itself been a sign that Jeffrey Grahn fit the profile of a batterer.
"The fact that his wife says she’s pleading the Fifth Amendment," he said. "That’s a huge red flag that we have something seriously wrong here. If it’s on the up-and-up why is she pleading the Fifth instead of just saying that there’s nothing wrong?"
Portland Police Take Over
In early May 2009, the Sheriff’s Office requested the Portland Police Bureau take over the investigation, which led to Lt. Graham Phalen, of the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, meeting with the Portland Police Bureau’s Sgt. Margaret Bahnson, according to documents.
In an interoffice memo written before the killing rampage by Portland’s Bahnson to a police supervisor, Bahnson referred to Portland’s standard police policy that when investigating one of its own officers involved in a domestic violence incident policy is "to bring in our district attorney’s office."
"When I brought up the idea of bringing in Clackamas County DA’s office for this case Phalen asked that we hold off on that," Bahnson wrote.
"Thinking that I was not making my point clear I further explained the reason we included the DA’s office was to bounce ideas off each other, keep the investigation transparent and talk about charges or other legal issues," she wrote. "Lt. Phalen still asked that we hold off on including Clackamas Co. DA’s office."
Johns Hopkins University’s Thomas criticized as "ludicrous" the decision by Portland police to honor the request of Phalen to keep district attorneys out of the case.
Bahnson recently told Women’s eNews that, "Yes there were a ton of red flags, but there was nothing criminal he was doing that we could come up with." When asked specifically about the red flags, Bahnson said Grahn scored "very high" on a lethality assessment conducted as part of the investigation.
Ultimately, there were no criminal charges because of "insufficient evidence without further cooperation from family members," she said.
In June 2009, the investigation was closed and returned to Clackamas County. Subsequently the county elected not to deal administratively with Grahn, allowing him to keep his badge and gun.
In May 2010, in the aftermath of the killings, the Sheriff’s Office said it was standard protocol to submit internal criminal investigations to district attorneys for prosecution after sufficient criminal evidence emerged to suggest criminal conduct.
Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote disagreed. "Whenever there is a criminal investigation of a police officer, we should be involved," he told a local TV station.
In an interview several weeks ago–about five months after the killings– Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Strovink told Women’s eNews that, at the time of the shooting in February, the agency did not have a policy on handling officer-involved domestic violence.
"The county is presently working on a brand new policy addressing domestic violence," Strovink said, but could not elaborate on the new provisions.
Diane Wetendorf, a specialist in police-perpetrated domestic violence, says domestic violence within police ranks is a litmus test of law enforcement’s commitment to public safety.
Legal claims against the Sheriff’s Office have cost Clackamas County nearly $2.4 million over the last three years, with deputies guilty of crimes ranging from armed robbery to forging prescriptions to sex with minors. This past June, Clackamas County Deputy Darin Fox was convicted of having sex with three jail inmates; the second sheriff’s officer in six months arrested for having sex with inmates.
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Judith Spitzer is an award-winning journalist, columnist and features writer currently living in the Pacific Northwest.