Armed posse patrols timber land in sheriff's place
O'BRIEN, Ore. — There's no room in the county jail for burglars and thieves. And the sheriff's department in a vast, rural corner of southwest Oregon has been reduced by budget cuts to three deputies on patrol eight hours a day, five days a week.
But people in this traditionally self-reliant section of timber country aren't about to raise taxes to put more officers on the road. Instead, some folks in Josephine County, larger than the state of Rhode Island, are taking matters into their own hands — mounting flashing lights on their trucks and strapping pistols to their hips to guard communities themselves. Others have put together a virtual neighborhood watch, using Facebook to share tips and information.
"I believe in standing up for myself rather than waiting for the government to do something for me," said Sam Nichols, a retired marina manager.
Nichols has organized a posse of about a dozen fed-up residents who have started patrolling the small community of O'Brien, which has about 750 residents.
"We call ourselves the CAC Patrol, Citizens Against Crime," he said.
Separately, a retired sheriff's deputy in a community about 10 miles away has started a Facebook page called "To Catch a Thief," an open group that has nearly 1,200 members who post reports of crimes that aren't priorities for the county sheriff's office.
"In a rural community like this, we all know each other, and we're all related," said Carol Dickson, who started the group about three months ago and posts regularly.
"People know who's doing this," she said of the property crimes around Cave Junction, a town of nearly 2,000 people about 30 miles from the county seat of Grants Pass.
"They are getting tired of it," Dickson said. "They are speaking up, and they are saying, 'Enough.'"
Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson says he's glad for the help but warns that law enforcement is dangerous work.
"They need to really understand there are consequences that can be very costly, physically as well as legally," he said, explaining that volunteers could get sued or shot if they pull a gun on someone or make a false arrest.
"Most of them haven't had what I feel is an adequate level of training to do that they do," he said. "But if they serve as eyes and ears and only report what they see to law enforcement, I think they can keep themselves at a safe level."
Policing expert Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, says neighborhood watch efforts can be positive but turn into problems when volunteers "decide that instead of supplementing law enforcement, they are going to replace law enforcement. Then you cross potentially into vigilantism."
Kenney said vigilantes tend to get "out of control — especially when people are armed."
He added that "people drawn to this sort of thing are the kinds of personalities more likely to take it too far."
Nichols says what his group is doing is "not vigilantism at all.
"If it was, we would have taken care of a couple of problems a long time ago," he added. "Because we knew who they were, and where they lived."
Another CAC Patrol member, Glenn Woodbury, an electrical supplies distributor, wears a .45-caliber automatic pistol in a shoulder holster when he goes out. He says he carries the weapon only for protection and that members of the patrol consider it their primary responsibility to gather information, such as a license plate number, that would allow deputies to make an arrest.
Since the patrols started a few months ago, group members have reported a wildfire being set and someone trying to break into an SUV. The police log in the Grants Pass Daily Courier shows five thefts or burglaries in O'Brien from January through July, but none since August.
"These people know they no longer own the night," Woodbury said of potential criminals.
"They can't back a pickup up to somebody's home when you've got patrols watching," he added.
For her part Dickson, who retired from the Josephine County Sherriff's Office before Gilbertson was elected and has frequently been at odds with the man who replaced her old boss, says her digital network has helped make the Illinois Valley safer.
She says her group has tracked down stolen property, including several cars, and even helped deputies arrest a man on drug charges.
Despite her differences with Gilbertson, she won't let people post rants about the sheriff's department. And she says her group serves a vital function.
"When you have tweakers and drugs, you're going to have thefts and burglaries," she said, citing methamphetamine abuse as the root of many of the property crimes in the area.
Dickson says there isn't enough space in the county jail and that deputies don't pursue property crimes as they should.
She said criminals "know they aren't going to get punished." She added, "Nobody gets arrested. Nobody gets charged."
Josephine County, population about 83,000, recently lost $12 million in federal timber county subsidies. The jail, sheriff's patrols, prosecutors, probation officers and juvenile programs have all been drastically cut. The lockup has room for 69 inmates — only enough space for the worst offenders. As a result, theft and burglary suspects are regularly turned loose, only to be picked up later for new crimes.
But neither Nichols nor Dickson think the sheriff would do a better job of protecting their end of the county with more resources.
They both voted no on a tax proposal to make up the $12 million loss and say they would do so again if county commissioners brought the issue back up.
Their independent streak is fairly common in the area just north of the California border, which was settled during the gold rush of the 1850s and has been proudly self-reliant ever since with loggers, hippie communes and survivalists maintaining the reputation. To this day residents in the area consistently vote conservative.
Much of the land is dotted with abandoned mining camps, overgrown with trees and brush. The timber county has just one remaining sawmill in operation.
At the O'Brien crossroads, a flashing yellow light and a '50s-era police car, parked permanently on the shoulder, slow what passes for traffic in front of the general store, post office, gas station, restaurant, and RV park. There also is a bar with a sign proclaiming, "Bikers Welcome."
Nichols says he decided to start the patrols after someone stole a travel trailer from his property over the summer.
He called a community meeting in August and wore a .38 special revolver, handed down from his father, in a leather holster on his belt. About 100 people showed up, one of whom recognized a photo of his trailer and knew where it had been stashed. Gilbertson, however, declined to try to retrieve it.
"I didn't have the resources to deal with it at that time," the sheriff said. "Pretty much, what we're doing now is person-to-person crime."
In response, members of the CAC Patrol have taken to slapping magnetic gold stars and flashing amber lights on their vehicles to keep watch over the community on their own. Many carry pistols and plastic ties for handcuffs.
"If we stand shoulder to shoulder, they don't have a chance," Nichols said. "And that's what we're doing."