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Verbal assailant likely has mental issues

The man who spouted intimidating hate speech at an African-American actor with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival while she was walking her dog in Ashland's Railroad District June 24 is likely a transient with apparent mental issues who has had repeated encounters with police. The information came from Ashland Police Department reports released Friday in response to a Tidings' public records request.

The transient's name, along with that of the victim of the hate speech, is redacted in the documents, but details are the same as OSF actor Christiana Clark's Facebook post on June 24 about the incident. That post has been viewed nearly 200,000 times as of Friday afternoon and the incident sparked several public gatherings to decry racism.

The police reports make repeated references to the transient's lack of ability to focus over the course of repeated encounters. That and physical descriptions in the reports are consistent with descriptions by people in and familiar with Ashland's homeless community of a man who regularly makes racially based verbal attacks.

While "decrying this hateful speech," according to a statement from the Ashland Police Department on June 27 after consultations with the Jackson County District Attorney's Office, "the determination has been made there was no crime committed."

According to the police report, the incident unfolded like this:

The victim, wearing ear-buds, was walking her dog on the south side of A Street between Fifth and Sixth streets at about 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 24. She saw a bicyclist approaching and could hear him well enough she realized he was talking at her. She removed her ear-buds to hear the bicyclist say something along the lines of "he could kill a black person." She asked what he meant by that, and he said, "It's still in Oregon law. I could kill a black person and be out of jail in a day and a half. The KKK is still alive here."

The report says that the description of the person — 40-50 years old, about 6 feet all, no facial hair, eye glasses or earrings — matches that of an Ashland transient. It goes on to say police encountered and questioned that person later the same night, June 25, on which the report was submitted.

That report says the investigative officer "had multiple contacts with (the male) over the last few weeks ... (he) was difficult to speak with because he could not stay focused."

The same transient was involved in a previous "disturbance on the Plaza," the report says, involving a physical altercation between the transient and an African American. During the investigation, the officer was told the transient was known to use racial slurs and threatened to kill someone, whose name was redacted. The report also noted the transient was seen by a police officer walking a bicycle about an hour before the Railroad District incident.

The transient denied being near Railroad Park at the time of the incident, but did say he walked through town on the bike path, which runs through Railroad Park. He then said to the officer, the officer reported, that he "did not want to speak with me anymore."

The victim of the verbal attack, according to a third and final report, this one written by Ashland Police Chief Tighe O'Meara, was unable to identify the suspect in a photo lineup. The report notes that the photo of the suspect was about three years old and showed the suspect with much longer hair than he currently has.

That report says O'Meara consulted with county Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Markiewicz, and O'Meara and Markiewicz agreed "that there was likely no criminal act in this incident due to the fact that the suspect made (an incorrect) statement of fact, as opposed to making a direct threat to the victim." The case was closed, "pending further information," the report concludes.

"Where there's only speech and no actions, even if it's a speech we don't agree with, there's nothing we can do," Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert said in response to a media inquiry Tuesday. "It's protected under the First Amendment."

A similar incident occurred Wednesday when another OSF employee, Mica Cole, was on South Pioneer Street near the Bricks, where Green Shows are held. In a social media post, Cole said "a white man looked me in the face and told me he was going to kill me. Twice."

She said police officers told her the man is mentally ill and didn't really intend to kill her.

Interviews with six individuals, most conducted separately, yielded a consistent picture of a white man with mental health issues who frequents the downtown Ashland area.

All individuals interviewed declined to give their names for publication, saying they feared retribution from the man.

They say the person who shouted the epithets is known to often blurt out hate speech.

"I was on the Plaza and the police stopped to talk to him," one person said. "He began yelling and calling the police 'white n------.'"

Another man, James, said of the individual, "He called my friend Danny a n-----. I chased him for a block to talk to him, but Danny said to let him go because he's crazy and doesn't know what he's saying."

Members of the streets community who know the man say they are doing what they can to help.

"I just try to keep him calm and listen to him. If you talk to him for awhile and pay attention he seems to relax," said Doug, who knows the man and only wants his first name used. “One day I think I’ll be able to get him real help,” he said, while sitting with a group of others who joined the conversation and nodded in agreement.

Email Tidings Editor Bert Etling at betling@dailytidings.com, call him at 541-631-1313 and follow him at www.twitter.com/betling. Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins contributed to this report; email her at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.