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Local Media Downplayed Former Prison Guard's Struggle Against RacismTim King Salem-News.com
Could a former Oregon prison guard's Hellish ordeal have been spared? William Coleman believes the answer is yes.
(SALEM, Ore.) - What is the responsibility of media? It is honesty? Is it timeliness? What about simply portraying everything known; is it a reporter's right to remove key facts from a story?
Statesman Journal coverage of former Oregon Corrections Officer William Coleman's ordeal of extreme racism and a falsified government case in Oregon's capitol city, leaves a sour taste, he says. A bitter pill indeed.
This guy was put through more moves by state agencies than most reporters would dare to believe, myself included, if I hadn't seen all of the evidence. I deal with this sort of material frequently, but nothing of this magnitude. Governmental retaliation in Coleman's case stemmed from racial discrimination allegations he made inside Oregon's oldest prison, and a whistleblower claim.
It is an incredible story. Coleman tried in vain to report what he saw as rampant, potentially deadly racism in Oregon's prison system, and for these reports, made through the proper channels, he paid and paid. He worked with a specific reporter from the local paper the entire time, and believes the lack of coverage, and essential refusal of the newspaper to publish serious relevant facts about racism in the Oregon Dept. of Corrections (DOC), directly impacted his long ordeal. He says in his mind, the coverage, or lack of it, raises many questions and calls to mind a number of possibilities, none of which are positive.
Coleman said, "The Statesman Journal was presented with facts in the case from the beginning. I have to wonder if there are certain alliances that caused that to take place."
There are several main points in the story; they will be expanded upon in coming articles here. William Coleman's story is also the subject of an upcoming book that I am writing.
William reported racism in the Oregon State Penitentiary; the reports were dismissed and he was retaliated against.
Obscene racist remarks in a magazine article delivered to a black inmate were reported to Coleman, who in turn delivered the information to his superiors. They dismissed the report, then a race was on to locate the magazine. The inmate who reported it was placed in "the hole" and his cell was thoroughly searched. The People Magazine in question was located by Coleman through extremely unique circumstances.
He took this magazine to Statesman Journal reporter Alan Gustafson, but it never made it into the newspaper. What did make the Statesman Journal, in headlines, were the allegations that would eventually be filed against Coleman, all of which were proven in court to be untrue.
He also told the reporter about a movie that white corrections officers played for the inmates called "Downfall", about the final days of Adolf Hitler. This he says, never made the cut either. In short, Nazi movies are a bad gamble in a racially charged prison full of violent men. Coleman says Jewish inmates didn't feel safe leaving their cells in the wake of the movie. How the Salem paper failed to find this newsworthy defies my imagination.
What would have happened if that occurrence had been a front page story? It seems like a fair and interesting question. To ensure fairness in this report, I wrote to Alan Gustafson, and asked the following questions:
Do you feel you did all you could in terms of telling this story, especially in light of the unanimous not-guilty verdict?
Do you believe the Statesman could have covered this differently and actually helped Mr. Coleman, who we now know was wrongly accused and has proven his innocence?
Do you plan to publish the copy of the People Magazine page with the racial scrawlings?
Was there any particular reason you didn't publish it already?
Do you plan to continue covering the case?
Alan Gustafsen replied: "I’ve written several stories about employment and legal issues involving William Coleman and Gregory Charles. I’m going to let the coverage speak for itself. If new developments occur that warrant coverage, I plan to write about them."
Mr. Gustafson took the time to reply, though the specific questions are unaddressed. To complicate matters, the Statesman Journal is a publication that charges visitors a fee via credit card, to look at past stories. Therefore tracking the history of the Statesman coverage in this case online is unusually difficult.
State Hospital Employment
Gustafson refers to Gregory Charles, and that brings up a point in the story that has not yet been divulged in my reports. Both Charles and Coleman worked for the DOC, and then later were employed as security guards for the Oregon State Hospital (OSH).
During Coleman's first 30 days of employment with OSH, he was assigned to work with Gregory Charles and veteran staff. Part of their daily assignment involved patrolling the historic Lee Cemetery in Salem, which had in the past, they were told, served as an escape path for escaped mental patients. The cemetery offers access to an entire neighborhood.
On the day in question, the two African American security officers observed an individual in the cemetery wearing a 'hoodie' coat, worn in a way that concealed his face, on a bmx bicycle, jumping or "bunny hopping" as Coleman says, over cemetery headstones. They were concerned over what they saw as a blatantly disrespectful act, and as they watched the individual from their security vehicle, he approached them.
"He started unzipping his jacket, I could only see his eyes, and I thought a gun was coming out next," Coleman said.
He leaped from the driver's side door without an actual firearm to defend himself, and brandished his radio in an effort to make the threatening subject on the BMX bike leave. It worked.
You see, the man on the bike as it turned out, was a convicted 43-year old child molester and drug convict who had himself served time in the Oregon prison system. His "job" is to lock the Lee Cemetery at dusk. In all likelihood, he was approaching Coleman's vehicle to advise them that he was going to lock the place, but the way it went down was sketchy at best. This isn't in the best neighborhood of Salem and the cemetery itself has a long history of police response.
As Coleman and Charles sat in their vehicle attempting to make sense of what had just taken place, a Salem Police car rolled up and basically blocked the state of Oregon Taurus security vehicle so that it could not move. Coleman exited his vehicle to ask the Salem Police officer what was going on. The officer screamed at Coleman to "get back in his vehicle". Coleman was not allowed to speak. This went on. Soon more police and Coleman and Charles' supervisor arrived on scene.
The guy on the bike, the pedophile convict, apparently spoke at great length to the Salem Police officer. The two security officers didn't actually realize that it was the individual on the bicycle, as he had taken off the hooded coat and menacing look from earlier. Before long Coleman and Charles were told by their supervisor to walk back to the Human Resources office. The two Oregon State Hospital officers were fired.
Beyond Character Assassination
Coleman would not learn for several days that the individual on the bike who left the cemetery after being scared away, called 911 to report that two black men were in the cemetery and one was giving the other one oral sex. If you saw either of these men, both married with children at home and absolutely heterosexual; you would wonder what went through the mind of the Salem officer who initially rolled up on scene.
Interestingly, the police report shows exactly what Coleman describes; the officer never once informed Coleman and Charles what they were under suspicion of. There is no statement from them not a single word. There is no reference to the accusing party being a person with serious convictions on his record. The opinion of the two black men was unrecognized.
By all appearances, this was strictly a one-sided police investigation with a motive of discrediting two black security officers, with a report from a drug convict child molester.
Before Coleman got his hands on a copy of the Salem PD incident report, he received a phone call from a person he knew at the Oregon State Prison. That individual told him that a Salem Police officer had visited the penitentiary to show DOC officials the report stating that a sex act took place between Coleman and Charles at the cemetery that day.
This was the first word Coleman had heard of this baseless allegation from a sex convict. He had actually been fired, but never once was this crazy allegation against two respectable men revealed, until now.
All of this information was provided to the Statesman Journal, but consistently the "official" word seemed to dominate the story. Coleman's points were seldom if ever raised.
This burly former corrections officer is a man of steel, nothing less seems fitting, and it was very difficult for both he and Gregory Charles to have this false report from a child molester, as they discovered the police witness to be, basically follow them everywhere they went. Their families suffered and marriages were strained, and worse.
Neither men are what you would consider 'anti-gay' in any way, but in Coleman's words, "There is nothing worse anyone can do than try to change the perception of who you are in this world."
Chance to Move Forward, Missed
After years of attempting to shed light on racism in the DOC and the Oregon State Penitentiary, William had found a new job and things at the State Hospital initially seemed promising. It seems clear that many officials were simply glad to have him out of the DOC. People in the DOC who may soon start their own march toward the chopping block of Oregon courts, or even more likely federal courts, probably weren't glad that the Salem officer made the totally unbelievable charge of "oral sex" become an issue at the Oregon State Penitentiary.
This latest assault on William Coleman's character, seemingly so ridiculous, put him back on the warpath. He is a fighter, and a winner as it turns out. Had the Salem officer simply dismissed the cemetery incident, life would have gone on, the racism in DOC would remain buried, and Coleman wouldn't be lining up to sue the pants off all the agencies named in this article, with a unanimous not guilty verdict telling the real story of his years of government harassment; which is exactly what this all boils down to.
William filed a lawsuit against the Oregon State Hospital on July 1, 2009. Marion County District Attorney prosecutor Bryan Orrio, filed a 15 count indictment for tobacco smuggling against Coleman July 1, 2009.
Talk about indictments... the document also clearly shows that Orrio actually filled out the very serious 15 criminal counts several days earlier, on June 25, 2009. Perhaps for some reason Orrio didn't consider how extreme he would make the obvious act of retaliation appear.
The charges? Smuggling cigarettes into the prison: racketeering. They couldn't even come up with something that sounded bad in my opinion, though 15 counts of anything looks bad on paper. Orrio's witnesses were two documented white supremacist inmates. Orrio forgot to tell the jury about his witnesses affiliation with a neo Nazi gang, the Hitler movie, as well as the magazine with the racist comments.
But William remembered to tell them. The information he offered was fully corroborated by his single witness.
When the jury reconvened, the 12 offered fifteen not guilty verdicts. "Not guilty on all counts". The police report on the alleged "oral sex" incident never went anywhere, except to the prison to be circulated among Coleman's enemies.
What did this 'not guilty' verdict merit in the Statesman Journal newspaper? A small paragraph on page 5. Front page headlines when accused; a small mention when acquitted. In Coleman's view, this local media coverage or lack of it, absolutely affected his case. We can pretend that jurors somehow miss big items in the newspaper; they can say they don't know about certain things, but this was a case where the negative points and the charges against Coleman, and his arrest, were highly publicized.
This is William Coleman's term for what he has been dealing with over the last several years, over his desire to expose racism and the governmental defense of racism, in the intermediate and also at the highest levels in Oregon's Corrections Department.
Every allegation against him was proven to be false. Every single agency charged with representing his interests, advocating for him legally, investigating facts, appears to have conspired against him.
Throughout Coleman's story, inmate witnesses are credible when they testify for the prosecution, against the targeted individual, but almost categorically non credible when they report racism. The documentation behind this epic story shows this pattern repeating again and again.
Two inmates willing to testify on Coleman's behalf were relocated to other prisons before his trial. Three were subpoenaed, but his own public defender refused to allow two of them to testify. Coleman's unanimous not guilty verdict was earned with the testimony of one black inmate witness.
The Shanking Incident
One of the two inmates subpoenaed but not allowed to testify for William Coleman by his own attorney, had been 'shanked' by another inmate throughout the course of Coleman's ordeal. The assailant, another inmate, committed the attack after telling Coleman about his intent to do so.
This is one of the highly documented incidents in Coleman's case that wreaks of blatant racism in the Oregon prison system. It is another piece of the puzzle that the local newspaper failed to see the significance of.
This inmate assailant, William 'Dollar Bill' Thomas, a member of the Bloods gang out of California, had already shanked four inmates in the past, and yet he remained in the main prison population. All of the inmates 'Dollar Bill' had attacked with a blade in the past, were black.
When attacking inmates under normal conditions, 'Dollar Bill' goes for the top of his victim's head, and has left brains hanging out, though his victims lived, at least the ones we positively know about.
If leaving this life sentenced convicted killer with a frequent shanking habit in the main population isn't overt racism, then the concept itself is non-existent. I suspect that the shanking of a single white inmate may have led to an entirely different outcome.
For the federal investigators just reading this article, the fifth black shanking victim of William Thomas, just so happened to Coleman's prime witness; the 'jailhouse' lawyer, referenced earlier. William Thomas told Coleman that the act was 'approved from above' before it happened. This, like so many incidents before, Coleman reported to his superiors. He told them how 'Dollar Bill' had explained to him that they had sanctioned an upcoming hit.
This report also was dismissed.
After the inmate/witness was stabbed, Coleman says guards took the injured man to a cell. In his opinion, the intent was to allow the man to bleed to death. Corrections officials refused to transport the inmate for treatment of what appeared to be life-threatening injuries. A prison nurse looked at the stab wound and overruled the DOC. The inmate was eventually transported to the hospital. The man is alive and well today, but Thomas has disappeared. Anyone can check; William Thomas is on the roster as an Oregon inmate, but the people with the DOC say his location is not listed. I was told over the phone by a government employee, "I have never seen this before. Somebody doesn't want us to know where he is".
There are your tax dollars at work ladies and gentlemen; falsifying charges against an honest man who blows the whistle on serious epidemic-level racism in Oregon prisons, and placing state inmates in other states when they possess so much evidence against Oregon that they are a walking liability.
'Dollar Bill' Thomas was told nothing would happen to him for the shanking incident, according to what he related to Coleman. In his mind he was totally deceived; we look forward to eventually tracking him down. Of course the shanking is now the subject of a serious liability lawsuit against the state by the 'jailhouse' lawyer. You and I will pay for the state's racism, we'll pay big; we already do.
Of course Frank Gable is in a Nevada prison, do you recognize that name? Gable is the man serving a life sentence for the Murder of former Oregon DOC Director Michael Francke, who was stabbed to death outside the agency's 'Dome Building' under very shady circumstances on a cold night in the winter of 1989, in fact 'shady' is giving the weak case used to convict Gable too much credit. Without expanding too much, I will just say that Coleman's case holds the keys to exposing the real killer of Michael Francke. Days of justice are ahead.
The various state agencies, Salem Police, the Marion County Sheriff's Office, Marion County prosecutors; all worked together to set William Coleman up and it is only right that these false allegations that led this man and also Mr. Charles through so much difficulty and sorrow, lead to criminal charges against the state officials who lied in court.
Coleman had a civil claim against one of the two Oregon State Police detectives assigned to his case, but that conflict of interest was overlooked. We aren't overlooking it.
These men had their names soiled falsely, their reputations tarnished, and the only thing they ever did, at any time, was their jobs, and they did them well at that.
It is one thing for me to say it, but every single piece of this story is highly documented. The not guilty verdict, the fact that the Salem Police report was little more than a smear campaign, never followed up upon, and the fact that Gregory Charles was offered his security guard job back, all goes to prove that Coleman in particular, was the subject of a serious organized campaign to bring him down.
After many hearings under one judge, another who had no background in the case was assigned, at the last moment; when his life and future hung in the balance, threatened with a 40-year prison sentence for something he didn't do.
That threat, in conjunction with his state appointed defense attorney not allowing two of his three witnesses to appear, might have been more than some could take.
One of Coleman's two witnesses not allowed to testify by his own attorney, is the highly knowledgeable 'jailhouse lawyer', who, while an inmate, is a tremendously successful litigator; having won nine lawsuits against Oregon from within the prison for other inmates.
Oregon's state agencies and the individuals representing them, separately, together and at different times, took turns tossing William Coleman under the wheels of the train. The only people who treated him with fairness were the jurors. That sure says a lot about public integrity versus governmental integrity in this state. As I said though, he is a man of steel, and even if he bled a lot along the way, each time he emerged, inevitably, gaining strength exponentially throughout his challenges, but what an ordeal it was.
Coleman says he relayed every step of this and myriad other points to Alan Gustafson at the Statesman Journal, and the revelations were frequently received with enthusiasm, but almost none of it appeared in print or online.
I find this especially interesting, because I know other journalists who hailed from the same newsroom were real civil rights oriented writers. One, David Risser, earned great acclaim for exposing a former Gannett Corp. newspaper in the deep south for its own racism exhibited through coverage of events in the 1950's and 1960's.
There is real work to be done here, and I'm afraid a tremendous opportunity was missed by this Salem, Oregon newspaper. I am fortunate as a writer to now be selected by William to tell his story, but I would prefer for it to have never become so bad, so downright ridiculous and revolting, beyond scandalous.
Previous articles in this series:
Also, to learn the history of the Francke Murder and the Gable incarceration, visit: freefrankgable.com
Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines.
Tim holds numerous awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing, including the Oregon AP Award for Spot News Photographer of the Year (2004), first place Electronic Media Award in Spot News, Las Vegas, (1998), Oregon AP Cooperation Award (1991); and several others including the 2005 Red Cross Good Neighborhood Award for reporting. Serving the community in very real terms, Salem-News.com is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website. You can send Tim an email at this address: email@example.com
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