TOP STORIES: Cyclist killed in collision with DEA agent, ‘gold standard’ judge and rising

My work at Salem Reporter has left me with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

After two-plus years of nosing around, I continue to feel the community rallying behind us. The common sentiment? They demand the truth.

That’s about all I’ll say on that matter, because frankly, I feel that many journalists spend far too much time patting themselves on the back for doing their jobs. But I truly feel that we’ve slowly, but surely been able to build a unique partnership with the community that’s built on trust. For that, I feel blessed every day that I come to work.

You might have stopped for coffee at Ike Box or Isaac’s Downtown without realizing you helped pay the bills for disadvantaged young folks in Salem. The nonprofit Isaac’s Room got a federal grant earlier this year to help expand its downtown coffee shop – creating about a dozen new jobs for teenagers and young adults. Tiffany Bulgin, who founded the organization with her husband Mark, told me they have found success in teaching life skills and providing mentorship. She described how the loss of their baby motivated them to help kids in need, and the practices they now use to build on training teens to eventually work paid jobs.

I remember last year meeting Josh Lair, the Salem-based community outreach coordinator for Ideal Option, and how excited he was to tell me about the work they were doing to treat addiction with medication. After the program’s Salem clinic got a boost from the state, Lair talked with me about how they were now providing medication-assisted treatment to people incarcerated in the Marion County Jail with addictions to opioids. He said allowing them to go through withdrawal while in custody to help prevent them from seeking drugs when they are released can be the difference between life and death. 

When Salem police sent out a news release in March about a fatal cyclist collision, the driver’s name rang a bell. I recognized Samuel Landis as an agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Salem police later identified Landis as a DEA agent only after I began asking authorities for confirmation. The police agency recused itself from the investigation because it was partners in a drug task force with the DEA.

In the months that followed, Salem officials provided little information about the collision that killed Marganne Allen, 53, a beloved state official who was riding her bicycle home from work at the time. We requested record after record, some of which the city only turned over after we sought legal recourse to force their disclosure. Records showed Salem police shared photo evidence with the DEA minutes after the collision and then coordinated closely with the federal agency to manage what information went out to the public. 

Then came the neighbors on Gaiety Hill where the crash happened. They shared their accounts of tending to the injured cyclist as well as video – which showed the driver sped down Leslie Street, drove past a stop sign without stopping and into the intersection at High Street where the crash occurred. Over five months after Allen’s death, the agent was charged with criminally negligent homicide for his role in the collision. Readers to this day continue to to write thanking us for reporting accurately and in detail on these events.

Michael Campos-Kegley was skateboarding to work the morning of June 17 when he was killed in a hit-and-run collision. He was just 21 years old. His mother, Christy Gonzalez, described in heartbreaking detail her last interaction with her son, the moment she learned of his death and how she struggled to make sense of what happened to him. She said her son loved drawing and considered one day becoming a tattoo artist so he could turn his sketches into ink. He cherished his family and didn’t have a mean bone in his body. Earlier this month, Salem police told me they were still investigating Campos-Kegley’s death six months later. 

After former Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast announced his retirement in May, the Marion County Board of Commissioners appointed then-Lt. Nick Hunter to fill the role until voters decide the county’s top law enforcement officer in the next general election. I sat down with the new sheriff to learn about his beginnings in law enforcement, his diverse experience supervising three divisions and leading a SWAT team, and how he envisioned responding to community issues like homelessness, addiction and drug trafficking. 

My first column was my opportunity to write candidly about my own observations and interactions with the community. I got to meet dozens of families in July who had gathered at Northgate Park to catch up with neighbors and meet those from the government, community organizations and the press who are committed to serving them. One valuable exercise – we handed out sticky notes to plaster on two poster boards, which asked these questions: 

“What’s your favorite thing about your neighborhood?” 

“What’s one thing you would change about your neighborhood?”

The responses we got included two common themes that would consume much of my focus for the rest of the year: gangs and teen violence.

Charles Luukinen, 75, spent nearly a half-century working in the Polk County courthouse – as a prosecutor, a private attorney and as a judge. After retiring, he spent over a decade helping settle some of Oregon’s most complex and costly trials before they reached a jury. He died on Sept. 15. 

It was an absolute pleasure to get a secondhand account of Luukinen’s storied career from his colleagues. They described him as a larger-than-life phenomenon in the mid-Willamette Valley, a genius with an innate sense of fairness and a knack for distilling complicated matters down to common sense morals. I remember bursting out laughing at the stories they told about Luukinen’s quick wit in the courtroom – such as when people would occasionally wear shorts in the courtroom. “Are you going to the beach today?” he would ask.

I wrote my editor a 20-page memo earlier this year in which I made the case that serious violence in Salem was spiraling out of control, especially among teenagers. “There is an active gang war happening in Salem, and no one is talking about it,” I wrote. I had little doubt after going back and closely reviewing all the shootings, stabbings and group street brawls involving teens. I had a strong hunch, but I didn’t have the numbers to back it up.

That was until the following month, when Salem officials released their report on gun violence. Outside researchers found that shootings in the city doubled in the past five years, and the number of teenagers arrested for serious assaults has tripled in the past three years. The study also found that much of the recent violence has been concentrated in northeast Salem.

The report’s findings were grim, but sobering. Government officials and the community can now be informed as they work to curb shootings and pull the most vulnerable people out of a cycle of violence. Now that we have the data, there is plenty more work to be done – including at Salem Reporter.

In early November, I saw discussion on social media that a dead body had been found in a car in a northeast Salem neighborhood. After I asked Salem police for information, they disclosed that the victim was a 15-year-old boy but only described his death as “suspicious.” 

Following the release of the gun violence report, I circled back and pressed for answers about how the boy died. Two weeks after his death, police told me that he had been shot and killed. But they refused to identify the boy or provide any additional details about his death. This story unfortunately lacks detail, but I think it highlights how such vital details may not trickle out unless we go after them.

My list of top stories last year ended with Will Schultz, a 33-year-old man who died in the Marion County Jail. That story contained few details because the Marion County Sheriff’s Office provided almost none. The agency made the announcement a week after Schultz died – and only after we sought information about his death.

Little has changed since then, as Marion County officials are staying silent about the results of a nearly year-long investigation into Schultz’s death. But his former wife, Ashley Schultz, said investigators told her within days that they knew he had died of a fentanyl overdose and that they suspected other inmates of providing the drugs. His death raised questions about the flow of lethal drugs into the jail and how seriously those in charge of protecting inmates take their duty – questions we will continue to seek answers to.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.

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