about the city we love.—ETHAN SMITH
Read story @ Kvetch Fest
about the city we love.—ETHAN SMITH
Read story @ Kvetch Fest
BY NICK BUDNICK
From the posters of surfers and racing yachts hanging on his office walls to the two gleaming white stretch limousines outside to his neatly coiffed hair and power suit, it’s hard not to conclude that Leif Hansen doesn’t leave much to chance.
Thirteen years ago, Leif’s (pronounced “layfs”) Olympic Auto was a one-employee auto-body shop in Northeast Portland that handled about 80 cars a year. Today, Leif’s Auto Collision Centers’ flagship shop in Tigard, fueled by four drop-off points around Portland and Vancouver, Wash., is one of the largest in Oregon, employing 70 people and handling about 4,000 cars a year.
With annual revenue of $11 million, Hansen is now in negotiations to buy shops in Eugene and Salem; he hopes to add 40 more across the Pacific Northwest in the next seven years.
Spending $1 million a year in marketing, Leif’s has become the most prominent auto-body shop in Oregon. Hansen’s ads have appeared on TV and the sides of TriMet buses, and now air on nine radio stations.
“My friends say I can’t change the world,” he says in one radio spot. “I tell them I don’t want to change the world; I just want to change the collision-repair industry.”
Industry experts say Hansen’s business model—one in which he constantly gathers evidence for repeated lawsuits against the insurance industry—is unlike any other in the nation. And this week, he will assume a national profile, delivering a trade-convention seminar sponsored by his new group, “Americans for Safe Auto Repair” at the National Auto Collision Expo at the Las Vegas MGM Grand Hotel.
To some, Leif Christopher Hansen, 48, is the car owner’s best friend, dueling auto insurance companies on consumers’ behalf. “He has changed the industry in Oregon,” says fellow body-shop owner Bill Hall of Bill Hall Body & Frame. “Without Leif, people wouldn’t know what was going on, would they?”
To others, Hansen is a hardball businessman exploiting the gray areas of collision insurance to build his fortune while leaving dissatisfied car owners in his wake—generating four times the complaints of his nearest competitor. “I would never recommend them to my worst enemy,” says Kathryn Dunn, a single mother who says she lost about $4,000 when she got caught in the middle of a clash between Hansen and an insurer.
Either way, Hansen’s biography might seem strange for a self-styled consumer advocate.
Born in Hawaii, Hansen moved to Oregon in 1990, when he was in his early 30s. He says it was his land of opportunity—he had a wife and a 3-year-old daughter, and Hawaii home prices were exorbitant, its schools no good.
Court records and interviews show Hansen left behind enemies and a checkered past. He says now that the “black age in my youth” began in the ’70s surfer scene. Hansen got his first auto-body job at age 15 and started running with what he calls a “bad crowd.” By 18, “I was a drug addict,” says Hansen. “Mainly cocaine, pills.”
In 1977, at the age of 20, he pleaded guilty to burglary from a VW repair business and got a suspended sentence.
In 1984, he was arrested again after an undercover informant bought cocaine from Hansen twice at his home. He pleaded guilty to possession and was given probation.
In 1986, he started a Honolulu body work and repair shop called Pristine Coachworks. He rented out Porsches and Ferraris and sold Porsche engines and parts. Eighteen months later, police investigating an anonymous tip found a stolen Datsun pickup at the shop. The pickup had been repainted and had its VIN and license plate illegally changed. Hansen admitted stealing the truck.
The investigation grew, and so did the number of Hansen’s enemies. Turning state’s witness, he gave evidence against his partner in a Porsche stolen-parts ring; meanwhile, his customers’ cars started being seized as evidence, court records show.
Hansen says it was his theft-ring partner who turned him in for the stolen pickup after Hansen abruptly gave up crime in 1988. He’d become a homeless junkie sleeping on the beach when he ran into his “first love” on the street; she’d dumped him for being a “bad person.”
“It was kind of like a light went off in my head,” he says, adding that he soon married her. “I just quit everything and went cold turkey. I came clean.”
By the time he left Honolulu, Hansen “had a reputation all over town for screwing people,” says Bart Rogers, who ran a dealership around the corner from Pristine. “People were ready to shoot him.”
For his cooperation with police, Hansen received a reduced sentence of five years’ probation. He served it in Washington County, and started working at Courtesy Ford, soon buying a bankrupt Portland auto-body shop at Northeast 70th Avenue and Glisan Street.
Meanwhile, his industry was undergoing enormous changes. Starting in 1988, insurance-industry powerhouses like Allstate started setting up referral programs with auto-body shops who agreed to curb costs. Today, some 70 percent of Oregon auto-body shops belong to such programs, according to the state Department of Justice.
The situation resembles the changes in health care over the past two decades whereby medical insurance companies try to keep costs down by negotiating with doctors and hospitals on their fees, says Sheila Loftus, editor of the auto-body trade magazine Hammer and Dolly.
In the same way that some critics think HMOs lead to cutting health-care corners, some believe the referral programs, by promoting the use of cheaper, aftermarket and used parts and other cost-cutting measures, reward businesses that do cut-rate repairs. The agreements, which are not disclosed to the insurance policyholder, “are invisible to the consumer,” says Loftus. “They pay fee-for-service, but get the HMO plan.”
By 1992, Hansen owned two shops and had joined the resistance movement to insurer-driven auto-body changes.
In 1994, Hansen says, he realized that the only way to survive in the new insurance-dominated environment was to grow—and to directly challenge the insurance industry. Without the insurer-referred business enjoyed by other shops flowing his way, he started advertising.
“Leif: your insurance consumer advocate,” says his website, leifs.com. “If you’re involved in an auto accident, I’m the first person to trust,” says one of his ads in The Oregonian.
His ads blast insurer-affiliated shops and alert consumers to the influence of insurers, and to their rights to choose any shop—not just the one touted by their adjuster.
“He’s made Oregonians aware of what their rights are,” says Hall, Hansen’s fellow auto-body shop owner. “As a consequence, the insurance companies have had to be more creative in the ways they manipulate people.”
Shawn Miller, an insurance lobbyist who defended the industry against a Leif’s-backed bill in the state Legislature targeting insurance company referral programs, says Hansen and Hall have got it all wrong.
“A lot of these agreements have to do with quality and doing a good job for the customer,” Miller says.
Today, Hansen lives in a five-bedroom Tigard home worth $656,000. He runs triathlons, plays golf and flies regularly to Hawaii to surf with his three kids.
His 100,000-square-foot, warehouse-sized facility on Southwest 72nd Avenue in Tigard bears testament to his determination and business acumen. Large computerized, laser-guided frame-measurement machines look for hidden flaws. There’s a state-of-the art, temperature-controlled painting booth with high-velocity vertical ventilation to ensure a paint job’s consistency. Blue-suited workmen weld and poke and buff—his typical body tech makes $40,000 to $60,000 a year, Hansen says.
He’s compartmentalized the
separate functions of the shop into stations so that functions are specialized and efficient, the way Henry Ford first did it.
Hansen says he has maintained roughly 20 percent annual growth over the past decade, despite getting no referrals from the insurance industry.
“He’s very focused on his business,” says Dennis Rice, who worked for Hansen for three years. “He’s a very hard-driving person.”
Hansen’s words: “I’m cheap.”
Hansen’s bottom-line mentality is not unique. Nor is his anti-insurance advertising campaign; it’s a formula that at least a dozen shops around the country have used to achieve success.
What is unique, however, is how much Hansen relies on the courts. He is a one-man lawsuit factory. In Washington County, Multnomah County and federal courts, no fewer than 20 lawsuits and 39 small claims have been filed by, and against, Leif’s Auto. Hansen says he is the only auto-body shop in the nation to have an in-house counsel—a 29-year-old lawyer named John M. Thomas.
In contrast, Kadel’s, the largest auto-body business in Oregon, has had just one lawsuit, for personal injury.
When Hansen’s courtroom exploits are related to the auto-body expert, Loftus, she says no other shop in the country is so litigious.
Hansen zealously guards his reputation. He has sued insurance companies several times alleging defamation, claiming they are badmouthing him to their policyholders. His most intense was a six-year, two-lawsuit saga with Farmers Insurance Group. Though Hansen will not discuss the confidential settlement, it consisted of an agreement by Farmers not to steer business away from him.
Hansen has noticed a direct correlation between his lawsuits and his company’s survival—more business followed the filing of each lawsuit.
He also brings in business another way: He advertises that if customers bring in a car repaired by another body shop, he will reinspect it for free. Then he will repair it himself—and refer that person to a lawyer to sue their insurance company or the person at fault.
Says Hansen of his litigation, “You can call it a war, but it’s more like you try to do the right thing.”
Hansen has even taken his crusade to the Oregon Legislature. Earlier this year, he hired two lobbyists to work on a bill he liked that was sponsored by Attorney General Hardy Myers. The bill would have required insurer-affiliated auto-body shops to alert consumers to their agreements to curb costs.
“If I don’t know the terms of that agreement, I can’t make an informed decision,” says Myers aide Kevin Neely, who worked on the bill. But Neely says it faced “extraordinary pushback” from the insurance industry lobbying in the Capitol: “I’m not sure there was a single lobbyist in the building, with one or two exceptions, that wasn’t fighting that bill.”
In fact, the insurers persuaded lawmakers to rewrite the bill to remove all references to their industry. Instead, the bill, which ultimately died, would have required body shops to let prospective consumers view any complaints against them by past customers.
Hansen, with his whopping complaint totals (see chart, this page), calls it the “Get Leif amendment.”
Did the bill intend to target Hansen specifically? “Absolutely,” says Miller, the insurance lobbyist who engineered the rewrite.
Court records show that Hansen’s war with insurers is mirrored inside his shop when insurance-company adjusters show up to put a price tag on what they think is a reasonable repair.
In most auto-body shops, if adjusters want to do an estimate, they just show up. They look at the car in the company of the shop’s own estimator, and the two try to reach an agreement.
In Hansen’s shop, adjusters must first make an appointment. Certain ones are not even allowed inside; instead they inspect the car in the lot outside. Court records show that they are met by four or five Leif’s employees, and sometimes Hansen himself. Conversations are often tape-recorded.
Insurer lawsuits and sworn statements filed in court cases by several adjusters accuse Leif’s employees of using insults, harassment and intimidation to drive up insurers’ estimates.
Last year, Geico adjuster Eric Michael Ronzo told Tigard police that after he questioned a Leif’s estimate, Hansen shoved him, spit in his face and yelled, “I know where you live!” (See Rogue of the Week, WW, April 7, 2004.)
Another adjuster, Jared Hansen (no relation), claimed Hansen pushed him and slammed the door of his car behind him, yelling, “Watch your knee!,” court records show.
Hansen denies both allegations.
If adjusters stands firm by their estimates, Leif’s may file a small-claims action against them personally—for the money they didn’t approve. Then the adjuster loses a half-day of work to show up for court.
Because of these tactics, many adjusters are afraid to go into Hansen’s at all, according to court records and interviews.
“They treat these guys so poorly, like they’re less than human sometimes,” says Oscar Luckman, a former Leif’s employee. “They just think it’s funny.”
In June, State Farm even stopped inspecting cars at Leif’s, citing harassment, and instead required they be towed elsewhere, according to court records. The insurer resumed inspecting cars in September, after Hansen sued, accusing the insurer of maliciously interfering with his business.
In court documents, Farmers has accused Hansen of inflating his estimates, by requesting unnecessary parts or charging for repairs not performed, for instance. One Farmers court brief called it “fraudulent,” which Hansen denies.
Two former employees told WW that they think Leif’s appeared to be charging for unnecessary repairs or labor.
“There were things that had to be included in the estimate whether it was needed or not,” says Walter “Ted” Sellers, who worked for Hansen in 2004. “To me, it was just a way to increase their…bottom line.”
And Luckman, a former shop owner who had worked in the business for 25 years before joining Leif’s late last year, recalls several estimates that he questioned there, including one for a blue Jeep Liberty. “They requested a lot of parts for this car that weren’t even damaged,” he said. He quit after three months, he says, for ethical reasons. “What they did was totally different from anywhere I ever worked.”
Hansen’s response to all the charges: Others may disagree with his practices because they don’t, as he does, insist upon high-quality work. But he says if he were inflating estimates, insurers wouldn’t let him get away with it. “The insurance companies are not going to pay more than what’s necessary,” he says.
But even if an insurer does not agree with a Hansen estimate, one adjuster says, Hansen’s hardball style means he can get repairs funded that other shops don’t—because he often will not let the consumer take a car until repair bills are paid.
“The reason he’s able to collect these fees is because he can hold the car hostage, and the insurance company is obligated to get the customer’s car away from him,” said Rand Lindell, a Farmers adjuster, in a sworn deposition accusing Leif’s of “gouging.” “You pay him what he wants, or you don’t get your car.”
If Leif’s is indeed inflating estimates, it’s often the consumer who gets caught holding the bag. That’s because if the insurer won’t pay for a particular repair, then Hansen requires the customer to pay the difference. This helps explain the large number of complaints made about Leif’s to the consumer-protection unit of the state Department of Justice.
In the past five years, Leif’s has generated 46 complaints alleging cheating, poor repairs and the like, state records show. Even auto-body businesses far larger than Leif’s attracted far fewer complaints. Kadel’s, which does triple the business of Hansen, had just three.
In all the complaints, Hansen denied wrongdoing and blamed either insurers or the customer for the problems. Asked about his number of complaints, he claims most of them were generated by adjusters who were out to get him.
But many of the complaints come from consumers who were caught in the middle of disputes with insurers, in which Leif’s would not release the car until its owner paid what the insurer wouldn’t.
In most cases, the customer is out of luck. That’s because Hansen’s contract is unlike his competitors’ in several respects. For one thing, it specifies that the consumer will pay the difference if an insurer will not pay. For another, it essentially shields Hansen of legal liability, making him next to impossible to sue even if the repairs are shoddy or overpriced.
“His is the only shop in this area that has people literally sign away their rights,” asserts J.P. Teet of the reinspection company Vehicular Forensics, which helps consumers with beefs against shops or insurers.
In 2001, 102-year-old Desiree Denmark got hit with a $3,000 bill after Leif’s and Geico disagreed on what was reimbursable. A state Insurance Division letter faulted Leif’s contract, saying it “actually makes the customer liable for all charges not paid by insurance companies and allows Leif’s to retain possession of the customer’s vehicle until all charges are paid.”
But even people who disagree with Hansen’s hardball business practices concede that he’s not all bad. Jim Justice of J&M Body Shops, for instance, has clashed with Hansen several times over Hansen’s criticisms of J&M’s work. “I definitely disagree with his tactics,” says Justice. “But some of the things he’s talking about are legitimate, like when he talks about the insurance companies. There’s a real problem right now.”
And even his critics say by questioning other shops’ work and raising consumer awareness in a cutthroat, completely unregulated industry, he’s improved things in greater Portland.
“Leif’s has done good things for the industry,” says Luckman, who now works for a competing auto-body shop. Hansen’s attacks on other shops “have raised the standard of the auto-body business in Portland.”
Now, when an insurer wants to skimp on repairs, Luckman says, “I say I have to repair this so it will pass a reinspection by anybody—including Leif’s.”
With insurers and Hansen accusing each other of fraud, you might think someone would look into it. But although Hansen and other shop owners say they have sent boxes full of documented problems with the insurance industry to the state Department of Consumer and Business Services, there’s been no action.
In fact, the state hasn’t bothered to investigate them—because the insurance consumer-protection unit is overworked and looks at complaints only from policyholders, not body shops, says the state’s top insurance regulator, Larry Culbertson.
As for Hansen, in July the state Department of Justice concluded a three-year investigation of Leif’s. In a letter, it reported finding evidence that the business had engaged in “misrepresentations” and “unconscionable” tactics. Citing scarce resources and a drop in the number of complaints against Hansen this year, the department said it would not take action but warned that it would “closely monitor” Leif’s.
Hansen says the letter is filled with falsehoods. And he knows the constant strife means he must be at his best: “He who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones.”
Brandon Hartley provided research for this article.
You get in a crash—and suddenly you’re in a minefield, not knowing whether to trust the auto-body shop or your insurer.
First, ask questions of your prospective insurer: Are you required to use aftermarket or non-original parts? Does your insurer provide a rental vehicle, and does the rental car have coverage?
Then, read the fine print carefully. Jim Justice of J&M Body Shops recently dropped out of a referral program after the insurer ordered him to stop using the term “used” to describe used parts; instead, he says, he was supposed to call them “quality alternative parts” to deceive consumers.
Of the different types of parts, original equipment manufacturer parts are best. According to one industry survey by the magazine BodyShop Business, at least 45 percent of aftermarket or non-original parts don’t provide an acceptable fit. Bumpers and later-model headlights are of particular concern. The survey found that 62 percent of the shops that do use aftermarket parts do so due to pressure from insurers.
Whatever you do, don’t accept the results of a “drive-by” estimate offered by your insurance company. Ostensibly intended to get money in your hand quickly, such programs often look only at visual damage but absolve insurers of liability once you accept a check. Then, when your car gets to a real body shop, the bill will often be much higher, shop owners say—as much as double what the insurer claimed.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the insurance and shop representatives writing the repair estimate. From the shop itself, ask for printouts of any measurements, before and after. Does the shop provide a warranty? A loaner? Does the shop have electronic measurement systems and computerized headlight aiming? If it’s a small shop with little in the way of equipment, you may regret it. —NB
TOP AUTOBODY COMPLAINT TARGETS IN THE PAST FIVE YEARS:
Five Star: 6
[SEVERAL TIED]: 3
Kadel’s, which does triple the business of Leif’s, has only three complaints. And J&M, which is four-fifths the size of Leif’s, also has only three.
SOURCE: OREGON DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE.
The first time Jeanine Renne met Jordan Wood, standing across the street from the Beaverton City Library, she didn’t know what to think. Wood’s eyes flashed, Renne remembers, with “the most radioactive, psychedelic blue contact lenses you’ve ever seen.”
Weird–but not weird enough to throw Renne. The doctor turned stay-home mom may live in a conventional Salem home with her husband and kids, her living room often buried in a clutter of plastic baby toys, but intellectually she runs with a wacky crowd. Fluent speakers of Elvish, collectors of Klingon pottery–the near-obsessive super-nerds of pop culture’s wild frontier are Jeanine Renne’s chosen people. For a woman who occasionally dons a homemade hobbit costume, electric-blue eyes don’t score that high on the eccentricity index.
The handshake was the strange thing. The bones of Jordan Wood’s hand felt delicate and girlish, suiting the effervescent pixie-human’s 120-pound, denim-clad frame. But it caught Renne off-guard, because until that morning in April 2003, she’d known Wood as “Mr. Frodo,” an alias borrowed from the male hobbit-hero of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings.
Months later, when they became close friends, Wood told Renne that his appearance arose from a rare disorder that prevents male bodies from absorbing testosterone. That day, though, Renne just raised an eyebrow and moved on. After all, there was a garden to plant.
As Mr. Frodo, Wood presided over a website called BitofEarth.net. This online hive of Tolkien fanatics had rallied volunteers to create a children’s reading garden in front of the Riggs Institute, a nonprofit literacy center in Beaverton. The Bit of Earthers hoped to unite enthusiasm stoked by Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning Rings movies with the humane idealism they found in Tolkien’s books.
And best of all, the volunteer outing had attracted none other than Sean Astin, the actor who portrays stalwart hobbit Samwise Gamgee in Jackson’s movies. For the assembled faithful, Astin’s presence was like a papal visitation–and fitting, because the character Sam is a humble gardener before he joins the quest to defeat Sauron, the dark lord. And Astin, a vocal literacy advocate, wasn’t there just to press the flesh.
“Sean was being Sam,” Renne recalls. “He got filthy.” Renne left Beaverton delighted with both her brush with stardom and the garden’s nook of flowers and herbs.
“This was a mitzvah,” she wrote in a journal entry. “An act of wonderful generosity on the part of everyone there…I’m so glad…Mr. Frodo had the courage and gumption to make it happen.”
Renne had no idea she had just tumbled into a saga of her own, very different from Tolkien’s vivid tapestry of elves, dwarves and hobbits. Over the next year, Renne and a small clutch of Rings fans became embroiled in false identities, elaborate lies, fraudulent events and the specter of suicide, leading cops and state investigators to invade their tightknit world. And Jeanine Renne still can’t quite believe that what she says happened, happened.
“Who could make it up?” she wonders.
One of the great things about America is that no matter your obsession–egg cups, haiku, Turkish soccer–you’re sure to find comrades in the subcultural underbrush. And thanks to websites, LiveJournal blogs, bulletin boards, Internet chats and email lists, oddball interests that once subsisted in P.O. boxes and Xeroxed fanzines can now flower into full-fledged 24/7/365 communities.
When Jeanine Renne found herself pregnant and immobilized by horrible morning sickness early last year, she clicked her way to Tolkienland. The 36-year-old grew up enthralled by Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and Jackson’s three-part adaptation of the cataclysmic war over the Ring of Power rekindled her passion. “I went from being an ordinary fan to an über-fan,” she says.
Online, she found plenty of company. In 2003, all things Rings were frenzied, fan websites fast proliferating in anticipation of the final film, The Return of the King. One of them, BitofEarth.net, caught Renne’s eye.
BOE had started as a tribute to Sean Astin and Sam. Renne was excited that the site’s operators, “Mr. Frodo” and “Orangeblossom Brambleburr,” had decided to branch out into charity events, starting with the April garden party. When Renne saw Sean Astin was coming to Beaverton, she was intrigued. After she actually met Sean Astin, she was thrilled. And after getting to know Jordan Wood and Abigail “Orangeblossom” Stone, and hearing Stone announce that a screening of Jackson’s The Two Towers at Lloyd Cinemas had raised $3,000 for the literacy group Reading Is Fundamental, she was hooked.
Stone and Wood apparently met through fan circles; Wood had moved cross-country the previous autumn to live with the Oregon native. By the time Renne met them, they were a couple but insisted they hadn’t become romantic until after Stone, 26 at the time, divorced. They shared Stone’s ranch-style house in a sedate Milwaukie neighborhood with two other Bit of Earthers: a 22-year-old male musician/pro wrestler from Portland and a 21-year-old woman from Battle Ground, Wash. The quartet christened Stone’s house “Bag End,” after the hobbit hole inhabited by Tolkien’s Baggins clan. They formed a lively, if nutty, household.
Wood’s stories were even stranger than his feminine appearance. At various times, he claimed to be on the run from the Irish Republican Army; a cousin of actor Elijah Wood, who stars as Frodo in the Rings movies; a former child actor who’d worked as a body double on the New Zealand production of The Fellowship of the Ring; and all three. The roommates were sporadically employed–Wood worked briefly in a Meier & Frank menswear department, while Stone collected unemployment. Bit of Earth, however, gave everyone plenty to do.
Wood and Stone planned a series of events benefiting literacy and environmental groups, including a summer music festival, a film fest and a climactic five-day Tolkien fan convention–“the largest in American history”–at the Oregon Convention Center in December 2003. The hook for each: Rings movie stars acting as hosts and fan magnets. After the Sean Astin coup, none of this seemed beyond reach. Bit of Earth’s buzz attracted a Seattle woman named Sue Astle.
“I was trying to figure out what to do with my life,” says Astle, a 50-year-old rebuilding after a failed marriage and planning to attend Portland State University when she clicked on BOE. “I had been injured and I wasn’t working, and I had maybe too much spare time on my hands.” Soon she considered Bit of Earth a godsend.
“It was incredible,” she says. “Jordan and Abby had great ideas–creative ideas. Being around that brings out your own creativity.”
Sue Astle and Jeanine Renne are both, each in her own way, a little hobbitlike. Renne is a wide-eyed cherub, energetic and hyperverbal. Astle is a sturdy self-described “workhorse” who takes great, Tolkienian pride in her feet.
“Look at those,” she says, pointing down at her bare, meaty slabs and knobby toes. “Those are hobbit feet.” (Tolkien’s creations are fastidious dressers but usually go barefoot on thick, padded soles.)
Tolkien serves as a literary lodestone for both. Renne slapped an Aragorn-for-President sticker on her Chrysler minivan, a shoutout to the brooding king portrayed by Viggo Mortensen in Jackson’s movies. Astle savors the day The Lord of the Rings arrived at the library in her hometown of Durham, Calif., when she was 11.
“I grew up in a very rightist, Republican, anti-environmental family,” she says. “I always wondered where I got my beliefs. I’m very much an environmentalist, and I really care about helping people. Someone said to me, ‘Look, dummy, it’s the books.’ And I think that’s right.”
Their devotion testifies to the enduring power of one of literature’s least-likely super-authors. Tolkien was an obscure 44-year-old Oxford prof in 1937, when The Hobbit unveiled Middle-earth. The Lord of the Rings, published as three volumes in the mid-1950s, is an intricate colossus: a remix of history, zoology, folklore and language; an adventure story; an inquiry into power; a rant against modern times; a lament for a dying world.
Today, the breadth of his appeal is startling. The Rings opus repeatedly wins votes as the greatest book of the last century–and, boy, do the highbrow wail. Most recently with a massive assist from Peter Jackson, Tolkien harvests new fans every generation. Among them are hardcores every bit as committed and, in some cases, overboard as their better-known Star Trek-loving cousins. Tolkienland, like Middle-earth, holds many tribes.
“Tolkien fandom is uniquely complex,” says Amy Sturgis, an instructor at Nashville’s Belmont University who has written extensively about fan culture. “There are purists who have never seen the movies and never want to. There are people who come to Tolkien through the movies and don’t know the books. And there are people who bridge the gap.”
Astle and Renne both now allow that fan enthusiasm overrode common sense in their dealings with Bit of Earth.
First, in June, Bag End was foreclosed upon. (Stone, they say, blamed her ex-husband.) Renne paid about $1,600 for the four-member fellowship to move into an apartment on Salem’s northern fringe. “It seemed like a good karmic-points-accumulation thing to do,” she says.
Then, the “Hall of Fire” music festival, scheduled for Northeast Portland’s Holladay Park last July, was an unmitigated disaster–no bands were booked, and Elijah Wood, the supposed celebrity guest, never showed. According to Renne, Astle and other Bit of Earth cohorts drummed up well over $1,000 to cover festival expenses; Astle says she kicked in $800 out of her college fund. Still, an $1,800 check Stone and Wood wrote to Portland Parks bounced, and has never been paid.
“We knew it was a fiasco and that we never should have done it,” Astle says. “But doggone it, Elijah was supposed to be there.”
The pattern recurred in September, when Wood dispatched Astle to L.A. on a quixotic errand to film greetings from Rings stars to be shown at BOE’s film festival, “Lost Palantir.” Astle thought she had appointments with Viggo Mortensen and hobbit actors Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan. One after another fell through; back in Salem, Wood funneled Astle excuse after excuse.
“It was dumb,” Astle says. “But I’d do it again. I had fun.”
In that same spirit, Astle agreed to join the Bit of Earth four when they moved to Los Angeles that fall. Even though “Tentmoot,” the five-day convention, was scheduled for Portland in December, Stone harbored vague plans of starting film school, and Wood argued the move would make Hollywood networking easier. So after a final night in Salem on Renne’s floor, the group–joined by a girl known within BOE as “Little Sam”–set out for L.A. on Oct. 2 with high hopes.
“There was a tear in my eye as those kids pulled away,” says Renne. “It was like we were sending our own kids off to college.”
The adventure quickly bogged down. Even though Wood claimed to be a born-and-raised Angeleno, the six had a tough time navigating L.A., finally finding a three-bedroom apartment in suburban San Dimas. The ménage soon devolved into psychodrama.
“Every day was like a circus gone bad,” Astle says. “In and out, up all night long until 3 or 4 in the morning. ‘I had a bad dream. We have to go for a walk.’ It was like being with people with constant PMS.”
Even so, planning for Tentmoot continued. And for Rings fans, Tentmoot would have been pretty damn cool, featuring art exhibits, panel discussions, costume workshops and a library for “fan fiction,” the thriving field of hobbyist short stories. (See “The Hobbit Shivered With Pleasure,” page 35.) And then, celebrities–or, at least, “celebrities.” Jackson’s enormous New Zealand productions tapped many people who are famous only within the Rings world. For minor players, stuntmen and body doubles–people like Lawrence Makoare, a strapping Maori actor who played the evil Witch King, Gothmog and Saruman’s head Uruk-Hai, and Jed Brophy, who also filled a few villain roles–Tentmoot offered a chance to live like movie stars for a week. Wood was relentless in pursuing Rings veterans. But when it came to booking passage from New Zealand to Portland, confusion took over.
First, there was a supposed deal with Air New Zealand. But in the first days of December, Wood called Renne, saying the arrangement had fallen through. Convinced Tentmoot’s success depended on her, Renne agreed to pay for $19,000 in airline tickets with her credit card.
And then she panicked. “Some working brain cell realized that no one knew about this but me and Jordan,” she says. A fellow Bit of Earther called Air New Zealand–to discover there had never been an agreement between the airline and Bit of Earth. Now convinced Jordan Wood was no longer to be trusted, Renne scrambled to cancel the tickets–too late for Brophy and two other actors, who’d already checked in at the airport in New Zealand. They found themselves stranded in L.A., their connections to Portland canceled; Brophy and one other would-be celebrity guest spent a night at Stone and Wood’s apartment, wondering what the hell they’d gotten themselves into.
The Oregon Convention Center also found things were not as they seemed. Wood and Stone, pitching the charity angle, had talked the OCC into slashing its rates. (They had also managed to avoid paying a deposit.) Bit of Earth claimed that up to 1,500 Ringers a day would flood the center’s high-ceilinged halls over five days. On Dec. 5, with days to go, the ticket agent had sold only 21 passes.
Meanwhile, as plans wobbled, Wood locked himself in the L.A. apartment’s bathroom and, allegedly, attempted suicide. When Stone told Bit of Earth’s Portland contingent that Wood had been hospitalized, Tentmoot collapsed just days before it was supposed to start.
Renne, for her part, spent much of the next two weeks trying to erase the remaining Air New Zealand charges–about $10,000–from her credit-card bill. Just before Christmas, she reported her former friends to the Oregon Department of Justice.
The resulting investigation by the DOJ’s charity-watchdog agency revealed that Bit of Earth didn’t have permission to claim to be Reading Is Fundamental’s benefactor–and that the literacy charity’s records showed no donations from Bit of Earth, Stone or Wood. Though Astle paid $150 to start an application for IRS nonprofit status, the group had never incorporated. The $3,000 raised at the showing of The Two Towers that coincided with the April garden project had vanished, as had the money scraped together after the music festival’s failure. The convention center and Portland Parks were out just under $2,000 apiece in unpaid fees.
Early last month, Stone and Wood–still living in California–signed a settlement with Oregon officials. Though technically admitting no wrongdoing, the pair agreed to pay $500 (with $8,500 in other charges suspended) and promise not to operate BOE–or any other “nonprofit”–in Oregon. The settlement brought an end to Bit of Earth’s strange spree of bogus fundraisers–a mess Tolkien’s own slithery character Gollum might have called “tricksy.”
As it turned out, the whole truth about Bit of Earth was even tricksier.
Just after midnight on Oct. 7, 2003, a Virginian named Michael Player walked into police headquarters in Salem. He wanted to report a missing person. His 22-year-old daughter Amy had mailed a hand-lettered, eight-page suicide letter from the coastal town of Depoe Bay a few days before. Player knew his daughter had been living in Salem with friends–her comrades from a Lord of the Rings fan club, he believed.
The suicide letter began with an apology.
“For a year now,” Amy Player wrote in a neat mix of printed and cursive letters, “I’ve been trying to placate you with pretty fancies in hopes it could force reality into step with my lies…I’m not the hottest new thing in Rings fandom. I’m not even in Bit of Earth anymore. The ugly truth is that I’m a failure in every way that one may be counted as such.”
The letter recounted a melodramatic descent, starting with Amy Player’s departure from college “in a cloud of lesbian ennui and heavy eyeliner.” It said Player had stolen $11,000 from her friend (and, the letter said, love interest) Abby Stone. And it confessed poisonous envy of a Hollywood-connected player named Jordan Wood, who, Amy claimed, had usurped Stone’s affections.
“Young and wealthy, he came to us from Los Angeles with Rings connections dripping from him…,” the letter said of Wood. “He made Bit of Earth a fandom force to be reckoned with within weeks, swept Abby off her feet, and I hated him for both.”
A couple of days later, Michael Player met with Detective Mike Myers of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. Myers inherited the investigation because Amy Player’s Salem address–as it turned out, the Bit of Earth apartment Renne had paid for–lies outside city limits. At the sit-down in the casino-dominated hamlet of Grand Ronde, Myers absorbed Player’s tale of a brilliant but wayward daughter.
“Mr. Player stated…his daughter had some psychological issues, specifically her infatuation to certain movies and characters,” Myers wrote in his report, “the most recent being The Lord of the Rings.“
Myers took a methodical approach to the possible suicide. His first move was to search Oregon public records, where he discovered a newish ID card he thought might belong to Amy Player. He showed the photo to Michael Player. Yes, that was his daughter. The next day, Myers showed the photo to the manager of Bit of Earth’s short-lived Salem home. She, too, recognized the person–not as Amy Player, but as Jordan Wood.
In a way, she and Michael Player were both right. The ID was in the name “Amy Jordan Gabriel Player Wood.” Myers was pretty sure he’d solved Amy Player’s “suicide.”
A few days later, the detective reached Sean Astin on his cellphone. Astin remembered Jordan Wood. “When I first met him,” the star said, “I thought he was a she.”
Myers also learned that on Oct. 1–just two days before the suicide letter’s postmark–Jordan Wood had turned up at a Social Security office in Portland. Officials there were given a sheaf of documents purporting that Wood had been born in an Estacada pagan commune called Circle of Light, where the adults refused to register their young with authorities. Wood wanted a Social Security card, but the officer who heard the plea wasn’t buying it. “It was clear to her,” Myers wrote, “that the information and documentation submitted was totally fraudulent.”
By this time, the detective had the phone number for Bit of Earth’s Los Angeles apartment. It took a few calls, but soon Jordan Wood admitted to being Amy Player.
The penny-ante disorganized crime hardly rose to the level of extradition. Once he put Player in touch with her father, Myers told her that if she stayed out of Oregon, he’d drop it.
A suitably odd coda came in December, days after the Tentmoot debacle, when Amy Player/Jordan Wood and Stone showed up in Portland to attend the opening of The Return of the King. Tipped off by disgruntled Bit of Earthers, Myers had Portland cops arrest “Mr. Frodo” for identity theft. In an interview room at the Marion County jail, the detective and Amy Player went over her story one last time. The district attorney later decided not to pursue charges. Right now, the only result of Myers’ efforts is a bulging case file he says is unique in his experience.
“People tell me it could be a Hollywood script,” he said last month. “If you read it, bring a hand-truck, a six-pack and some popcorn.”
With no criminal charges and the civil investigation settled, official inquiries do little to explain why Player/Wood and Stone wove this tangled web. For their part, Renne and Astle both think Bit of Earth’s intrigues–notably unsuccessful from a financial point of view–had more to do with showbiz obsessions than money.
“At one point Jordan said to me that it meant more than anything in the world to Abby to meet these movie stars, and that Jordan was going to make it happen,” Astle remembers. “The conviction in his voice was real.”
It’s a little ironic, then, that Bit of Earth’s two principals appear to have chosen the heart of Hollywood as the backdrop for their latest self-reinvention. In early June, Renne came upon pictures taken by an Associated Press photographer in front of the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The color shots show Amy Player–identified in captions as Jordan Wood–dressed up as Harry Potter. People in L.A. who know about Bit of Earth say Player is impersonating both the boy wizard and the Rings elf Legolas, while Stone affects the costume of comic-book character Poison Ivy. “Jordan Wood” even has an agent, to book appearances at parties.
Jeanine Renne is still fighting with a travel agent over who owes Air New Zealand $10,000. Come what may, though, she’s writing a book about Bit of Earth; she says she’s already 300 pages into a first draft. She’s also made a new hobby of documenting Player and Stone’s exploits online, where many Bit of Earth refugees still congregate. (The site itself is now dead.) Sue Astle works with other ex-Bit of Earthers to maintain the reading garden in Beaverton. The reconstituted group plans to build more gardens around the world in honor of Tolkien, Sam Gamgee and good causes.
Last Sunday, Astle and a few others gathered in Beaverton to weed. This time, no famous hobbits showed up. And that was fine with them.
Bit of Earth had deep roots in fan fiction–a wild, sexed-up alternative universe.
Before Bit of Earth turned to charity events, it was best known as a stronghold of “fan fiction”–a multifarious breed of amateur short stories written by fans, based on their favorite characters and plots
The “fanfic” phenomenon began, more or less, in the ’60s, when Star Trek fans began exchanging “unofficial” tales about the crew of the Enterprise. Now, virtually every book, movie, TV show, cartoon or video game with a cult following spawns a profusion of fanfic in uncountable genres. Star Trek remains a popular launch pad, but everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to Grand Theft Auto has its partisans in this robust (and often really, really weird) alternative creative universe.
You could easily spend the rest of your life reading fanfic on the Internet, which allows pseudonymous authors to fine-tune their tastes.
“If you want to find vampire hobbit stories, you go to one website,” says Amy Sturgis, a Belmont University researcher who studies fan fiction and fan culture. “If you want to find Eowyn/Eomer incest stories, you go to another.”
Which points to fanfic’s strong sexual undertow. There are as many fanfic genres as there are “real” genres, but its most notorious subset is “slash.” Slash stories detail homoerotic encounters between characters not coupled in their official versions. Slash began in the ’60s and ’70s, when female (for the most part) Star Trek fans began writing lurid tales about Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. These were denoted “Kirk/Spock” stories–hence, the term “slash.”
There’s now Sherlock Holmes slash, Harry Potter slash and–it’s a natural given the characters’ codependent relationship in Rings–a thriving subgenre of Frodo/Sam. Both Jordan Wood and Abigail Stone are known as accomplished fanfic writers, and both focused on Rings.
“Frodo reached for Sam’s shirt, ignoring the wooden buttons and pushing up under the hem to glide his hands over Sam’s chest and belly,” Wood wrote under the nom de plume Victoria Bitter. “[T]he hobbit shivered with pleasure, his own hands questing out in answer.”
While it may seem strange to outsiders, fanfic is often a liberating creative outlet for its practitioners, serving as an anonymous proving ground for aspiring writers and a potent avenue for exploring sexuality for people who otherwise can’t.
“If you read a slash story, you don’t know if the author was a man or a woman, straight, gay or bisexual,” , says Sturgis, who focused on Bit of Earth fanfic in two recent essays. “That allows a lot of experimentation with identity.” –Zach Dundas
The construction of the children’s reading garden in Beaverton was dubbed “Project Elanor,” in honor of the first of Sam Gamgee’s 13 children.
The Riggs Institute is a worldwide nonprofit with its headquarters in Beaverton. It promotes a special, phonics-based approach to teaching reading.
Though The Hobbit didn’t appear until 1937, Tolkien began writing various Middle-earth-related poems, songs and stories shortly after his combat service in World War I. Middle-earth cosmology is further explored in The Silmarillion and other books.
WW was unable to reach Abigail Stone or Jordan Wood for comment on this story. Their various California telephone numbers are disconnected or otherwise out of service, and emails to the account used for their most recent communications with Oregon Department of Justice officials were not returned.
Jeanine Renne’s extensive account of the Bit of Earth affair can be found at www.livejournal.com/users/turimel .
Various factions of Tolkien fandom are well-represented online. TheOne-Ring.net, known as TORN, is a prominent site primarily focused on the Rings movies. The U.K.-based Tolkien Society ( www.tolkiensociety.org ) concerns itself mainly with literary and biographical studies of Tolkien and his work. The Society has many affiliates and offshoots, including the Northwest Tolkien Society.
Links to Amy Sturgis’ scholarly and analytical work can be found at http://home.mind spring.com/~ahsturgis/ .
The name Tentmoot is based on “Entmoot,” a gathering of Tolkien’s giant, mystical treelike creatures, the Ents.
In a March 5, 2004, email to DOJ investigator Fiona Harpster, Stone and Wood wrote, “We are very concerned to hear about the formalization of these accusations which had been previously maintained–where we feel they belong–only in the world of Internet rumor and gossip.”
In the email to Harpster, Stone and Wood provided an account of some of Bit of Earth’s finances but said they could not access many of their records due to computer problems. They prefaced the account with a disclaimer: “Most importantly, BitofEarth.net was not originally intended to be a charity organization.
This story is based on interviews with Renne, Sue Astle and others who were involved in Bit of Earth, as well as Oregon Convention Center records and investigative reports compiled by the Oregon Department of Justice’s Charitable Activities Section and Detective Mike Myers.
Find fanfic, in a wild variety of flavors, at fanfiction.net. One of many online indexes of slash fiction is available at http://www.fictionresource.com/slash/index.php . Be warned: The latter site leads to “adult content.”
When the story of late-20th-century Oregon is written, Neil Goldschmidt will tower over most other public figures. His accomplishments as mayor and governor have stood the test of time.
It is also true, however, that his incomprehensible involvement with an adolescent babysitter changed both of their lives forever and—although few people knew about it—the secret profoundly affected Oregon history. No one can say with certainty how much of the arc of the woman’s life was shaped by the man who molested her starting when she was 14. But it is clear that today, on her 43rd birthday, living a thousand miles from her friends and family in Portland, she is a haunted woman.
Last Wednesday, May 5, at 12:09 pm, Willamette Week emailed Neil Goldschmidt’s attorney a letter summarizing the story we were preparing to publish in this week’s edition.
The letter outlined allegations that, beginning 29 years ago, when he was Portland’s mayor, Goldschmidt had sex with a 14-year-old babysitter on a regular basis over a three-year period. The letter detailed the evidence for these allegations, which had been gathered during a two-month investigation, and included an account of the settlement Goldschmidt had made with the woman in 1994, after having been threatened with a lawsuit by her attorney.
The letter concluded:
“Our investigation has led us to believe the story of your relationship with [woman’s name] is true. If you deny the story, we want to give you the opportunity to provide information to us to support your denial.”
The next morning, Thursday, May 6, reporter Nigel Jaquiss and editor Mark Zusman were invited to the office of Craig Bachman, a lawyer who represented Goldschmidt. At that meeting, Bachman said Goldschmidt was neither confirming nor denying WW‘s findings, but asked WW not to publish the story, which he characterized as a private matter that occurred almost 30 years ago.
Jeff Foote, the lawyer who represented the woman Goldschmidt abused, also attended the meeting. Foote asked that WW not name his client, should the paper decide to publish.
Bachman said Goldschmidt would issue a statement within 24 hours, in which he would announce his resignation from a number of positions, including Oregon’s State Board of Higher Education, and a leave of absence from his consulting firm. Bachman said the statement would refer to Goldschmidt’s sexual abuse of the 14-year-old girl and the contrition he felt about it.
The meeting ended at about 11:45 am. Less than 15 minutes later, Goldschmidt issued a statement announcing his resignations due to deteriorating health and providing detail about his heart condition. It made no mention of sexual abuse, or of the girl.
At 1:47 pm, WW posted on its website a summary of the story it had planned to publish the following Wednesday. Within minutes, the story became the subject of TV and radio reports across the state.
Meanwhile, Goldschmidt had hastily arranged a meeting with editors at The Oregonian at the offices of Gard & Gerber, a public-relations firm. Shortly after the meeting ended at 3 pm, rumors that he had made a confession were buzzing through local news outlets.
At 5 pm that day, WW posted on its website a story outlining the details of the secret Neil Goldschmidt had kept for nearly 30 years.
Three hours later, The Oregonian posted on its website Goldschmidt’s admission that he had “an affair” with a “high school student” when he was mayor.
Given Goldschmidt’s confession, it no longer seems necessary to publish the evidence WWcompiled to support the allegations of sexual abuse.
Instead, this week’s coverage details how two people’s lives were shaped by a crime that began three decades ago, and the lengths to which one of them went to keep it under wraps.
–News Editor John Schrag
The woman, whom WW is calling Susan, suffers from physical and psychological ailments that have robbed her of health and happiness. She weighs little more than 100 pounds; she suffers insomnia, nightmares and a recurrence of flashbacks. Her hands shake constantly, despite the anti-convulsive medicine she takes to control seizures she’s experienced.
She didn’t change overnight from the bright and beautiful girl her childhood friends remember to the woman who eventually served time in a federal penitentiary. It is undeniable, however, that her future was never again so promising as when Goldschmidt first led her into her parents’ basement.
The late ’70s were a giddy time in Portland. Goldschmidt had put the city on the national map with such projects as Pioneer Courthouse Square, Tom McCall Park and the blocking of a proposed interstate highway that would have cut across Southeast Portland to Mount Hood.Goldschmidt surrounded himself with the best and the brightest aides–including, for a time, Susan’s mother.
Goldschmidt, who was married, would sometimes hire Susan to watch his two small children. But, according to a cousin of Susan’s and more than a dozen of her friends, he used her for much more than babysitting. He would often take her down to her parents’ basement, to hotels and other private spots and have sex with her, the sources say.
In Oregon, if an adult has sex with someone under the age of 16, it is considered rape. (According to law-enforcement officials, however, the statute of limitations for prosecution has long since passed.)
In 1979, Goldschmidt, who as mayor had won national renown for the development of the downtown bus mall and the city’s then-revolutionary light rail, was tapped by President Jimmy Carter to be Secretary of Transportation.
Carter lost his re-election bid the next year, and Goldschmidt, who’d represented indigent clients as a Legal Aid lawyer before entering City Hall, came home to make some money. He took a senior position at Nike.
Susan took a different path.
Once a straight-A student and class president in elementary school, Susan dropped out of high school in her sophomore year, she says. She earned a GED and took some classes at Portland State University in the early ’80s but never graduated from college.
On two occasions she went off to New York to study acting but found herself just another pretty face. “I was good at comedy,” she recalled in an early-April interview with WW near her current home in Nevada. “But I couldn’t sing.”
In the mid-’80s, Susan occasionally waitressed at downtown restaurants and bars, including Valentino’s, in the U.S. Bank building, the Lovejoy Tavern (now the Indian restaurant Swagat) and Pink’s.She was part of a hard-partying crowd that frequented nightspots like the Virginia Cafe and the Dakota. Instead of testing what friends describe as a keen intellect with college and a career, Susan rarely worked. Despite intelligence, looks and charm, she was sinking fast. “She had more ability and less confidence than anybody I have ever known,” says a boyfriend from that time.
Part of what was holding her back, friends say, was her inability to come to terms with what happened with Goldschmidt. “At times she’d talk about him as though she was bragging,” says a female friend. “Other times she’d be incredibly angry and bitter.”
In 1986, she moved in with some new roommates in an apartment off Northwest 23rd Avenue. If Goldschmidt was no longer an intimate part of her life, he wasn’t altogether forgotten.
Susan spent the afternoon of Dec. 15, 1986, in the Virginia Cafe downtown tossing back brandy and champagne. Later, as she drove her tan ’79 VW Rabbit out of the garage below the Galleria, she clipped the rear bumper of a pickup truck. A security guard who witnessed the accident called the police.
“I want to personally make sure you get shit for this,” she told Portland police officer Clarence Lankins, according to his report. “Neil Goldschmidt is my best friend.”
In 1988, Susan moved to Seattle for a fresh start. She took a job as a clerk in a downtown law firm–a job one source says Goldschmidt arranged for her–and began a paralegal course. Susan told a cousin, who lived nearby, that she was proud of getting a job and finally beginning to get her life together. She was 27.
Susan’s happiness proved short-lived. On a December morning in 1988, she went to get an allergy shot. Outside the clinic, according to court records, a stranger abducted her at knifepoint.
He forced her to drive to her apartment, correcting her when she tried to steer toward her cousin’s house instead. Inside Susan’s apartment, the stranger raped her repeatedly, taunting her for hours and threatening to kill her.
A suspect was soon arrested for the crime. His attorney interviewed Susan, according to court records, and discovered that she had been the victim of “prior sexual assault,” when she was 14 to 17 and had undergone counseling.
The court record shows that the accused rapist’s attorney wanted to enter Susan’s counseling records into evidence. The lawyer argued that Susan’s identification of the Seattle rapist was suspect because the counseling records showed that she was confusing–in her dreams–the rapist with the man who abused her as a teenager. “The counseling records…reveal that [Susan] was confusing both situations, e.g., the prior abuse and the…rape, in her dreams.”
The judge refused to allow most of the counseling records into evidence. The accused rapist was convicted and sentenced to 636 months in prison. “I have never seen a victim who was so completely psychologically and mentally, emotionally destroyed,” said Judge Charles Johnson, who had presided over rape and murder trials for 20 years. “She will never be well again.”
At the time Susan was raped, Goldschmidt was finishing his second year as the governor of Oregon.
He had made progress on key projects, such as reforming the state’s workers’-compensation system and recruiting many of the high-tech giants who today make up Oregon’s Silicon Forest. But Goldschmidt knew he would face a strong challenge in the 1990 election from then-Attorney General (and now University of Oregon President) David Frohnmayer, a Republican.
While that battle took shape in 1989, the defense and the prosecution were battling in a Seattle court over how much of Susan’s counseling files–and perhaps the identity of her abuser–should be introduced into the record.
If Goldschmidt’s name–or even a more precise description–were in the counseling records, he could have been finished politically. On Aug. 9, 1989, Susan’s rapist was convicted and the bulk of the counseling records remained under seal per the judge’s order. But in October, the defense appealed the verdict–arguing that the counseling records should have been fully introduced. If the Washington Court of Appeals agreed with the defense attorney, the risk of exposure for Goldschmidt remained great.
As the appellate court in Olympia prepared to consider this procedural question, 150 miles south in Salem reporters and pundits puzzled over Gov. Goldschmidt’s reluctance to announce his intentions for a second gubernatorial term.Part of Goldschmidt’s hesitancy may be traced to Frohnmayer’s August campaign kickoff event, when the AG’s campaign manager, Donna Zajonc, said, “I gotta believe the best family will win.” (Zajonc says she was unaware that Goldschmidt was hiding a damning secret. “I absolutely did not know and have always regretted that quote,” Zajonc says today.)
On Feb. 7, 1990, Goldschmidt, then only 49, said he was walking away from public life. “His announcement left Democrats shocked and his campaign workers tearful on Wednesday,” The Oregonian wrote.
The media attributed the decision to the impending breakup of Goldschmidt’s marriage and, to a lesser degree, his frustration at his dealings with the Legislature.
Until now, Goldschmidt’s untimely retirement from the governor’s office has remained one of the great mysteries of Oregon politics. “It was a stunning and unexpected political vanishing act,” the Portland Tribune‘s Don Hamilton wrote in a 2001 profile of Goldschmidt.
In September 1992, halfway through Barbara Roberts’ first term as Oregon governor, the Washington appeals court denied the defense motion to introduce Susan’s counseling records into evidence.
Immediately after the 1988 rape, Susan returned to Portland. She began more counseling and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Unable to work, she received a $400-per-month disability stipend. Public records show that Judge Johnson’s fears about her future were well-founded. Susan turned heavily to alcohol and cocaine. She was arrested nine times between 1991 and 1994. In 1992, she violated probation after a cocaine bust and spent five months in Pleasanton federal prison in California.
On the streets of Portland, she was a menace to herself and others, according to police reports. Perhaps the lowest points came when she was arrested on consecutive days for hit-and-runs (nobody was injured). On another occasion, David Petty, the man who was with her during both hit-and-runs, punched her and left her lying in a pool of blood near the Arlington Club.
Goldschmidt, meanwhile, was enjoying life as Oregon’s most prominent public citizen. His first major act after leaving office was to establish the Oregon Children’s Foundation, which runs the highly regarded literacy program Start Marking a Reader Today.
But eventually, the two paths that veered apart after leaving that basement in the late ’70s crossed again.
In 1994, nearly 20 years after Goldschmidt first had sex with her, Susan decided to hire a lawyer.
“In cases where girls have been abused, they often don’t come forward until their 30s or 40s,” says David Slader, a Portland lawyer who has brought sex-abuse cases against the Catholic Church.
Two sources say Susan was also emboldened by the coverage of the sexual-harassment claims against Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood and the willingness of his accusers to tell their stories.
A friend referred Susan to Jeff Foote, a highly regarded plaintiff’s lawyer. Foote agreed to take her case.
Meanwhile, Portland lawyer Doreen Margolin (wife of lawyer and bestselling crime novelist Phillip Margolin) was appointed by a Washington County judge to be Susan’s conservator. (A conservator is similar to a guardian.) Susan’s parents were living in Rome then, and according to the application, Susan was “unable to manage her property effectively without assistance.”
More important, she was expecting soon to be getting a large sum of money from Goldschmidt.
“The appointment of a conservator is necessary because [Susan] is filing a personal injury lawsuit in relation to her claim for injuries sustained from 1975-1978,” Margolin wrote.
The lawsuit, which would have placed Goldschmidt’s sexual abuse in the public record, was never filed.
Instead, within three months, Goldschmidt and his attorneys had agreed to pay Susan a settlement of approximately $250,000. After attorneys’ fees, she received $30,000 in cash and an annuity that pays her $1,500 per month for 10 years, beginning in March 1995. In addition, she will also receive lump-sum payments of $50,000 in 2005, 2010 and 2015, according to Foote.
The money came with one large string attached: Payment of the annuity was “contingent on confidentiality agreement,” according to court records. That agreement binds Susan, her family and all of the others involved in the settlement.
After the settlement, Susan moved to Nevada, where she got married and, she says, worked occasionally as a waitress, at the restaurant Spago.
Goldschmidt, meanwhile, carved out a career as this state’s most influential power broker, taking on clients as varied as Bechtel, PacifiCorp and Weyerhaeuser. He prospered from lucrative retainers and friendships with powerful people, advising lumber barons Peter Stott and Aaron Jones, plus a host of other corporate leaders.
In 1999, his friend Irving Levin sold a credit company to Household Finance, making Goldschmidt’s stake worth $8 million. The former mayor represented developer Tom Moyer in Moyer’s attempt to extend the Park Blocks greenway and was part of a partnership that bought the Woodlark Building in 2002 for $4.2 million.
The network Goldschmidt built while in office has added to his power. His former staffers run numerous organizations, including the Portland Development Commission, the gas utility NW Natural and the state itself–Goldschmidt rescued current Gov. Ted Kulongoski from Oregon’s political graveyard in 1986 and has been his mentor ever since.
With Susan and Goldschmidt separated by 1,100 miles, their secret might have remained buried forever had Goldschmidt not boldly returned to the public stage.
In November 2003, he led a highly visible and successful campaign opposing the public purchase of Portland General Electric. Two weeks after the campaign concluded, Goldschmidt announced that he was heading a group that itself would buy PGE with backing from the Texas Pacific Group, a private investment firm.
In February 2004, WW began reporting on Goldschmidt’s consulting firm, Goldschmidt Imeson Carter, and the extraordinary degree of influence it exercised in the gray space between business and politics. During the reporting, WW kept encountering whispers about Goldschmidt’s past. Most involved affairs with adult women, but a few sources said there was also a young girl.
Public-records searches identified court documents in Washington County and Seattle that described his sexual abuse of Susan in great detail, without actually naming Goldschmidt. In late March, WW began to talk to people, eventually speaking with more than a dozen who told a remarkably consistent story about what happened from 1975 through 1978.
On April 7, two WW reporters interviewed Susan in Nevada.
She arrived at a meeting at a sports bar near her home with a Wall Street Journal under her arm–she says she’s been a faithful reader of the paper since fifth grade–and a copy of a library book, Tomorrow’s God, by Neale Donald Walsch, author of the bestselling Conversations with God.
Before the interview, Susan, a slight, deeply tanned woman with wavy, shoulder-length brown hair, spoke fondly about her Dalmatians, Zoe and Harley, and her love of horseback riding with her stepdaughter. She mentioned that she had recently finished a paralegal course and hoped to find work in that field.
When the interview began, Susan produced a tape recorder and said she was concerned about being misquoted. When reporters showed her court documents and summarized interviews with people who said she had told them about Goldschmidt, the tone of the interview changed. Susan’s hands shook so badly she could barely light her Winston cigarette.
Susan acknowledged having been abused in her teens and alluded to earlier molestation by a family member (whom a cousin, in an interview with the Eugene Register-Guard last week, identified as her grandfather). But Susan repeatedly denied that Goldschmidt was the man who began abusing her when she was 14.
Instead, she sang the former governor’s praises and mentioned how she appreciated his giving her the novel Cry, the Beloved Country when she was a teenager.
At the end of a 50-minute interview, Susan said she would consider a request to provide documents that would prove that the man who abused her as a teenager was someone other than Goldschmidt.
She later declined to provide such proof.
By the end of April, WW had enough documentation to publish its story. It also learned thatTribune columnist Phil Stanford had interviewed Susan in February and confirmed a portion of the story.
On May 3, Rabbi Emanuel Rose, the leader of Congregation Beth Israel, where Goldschmidt worships, called WW Publisher Richard Meeker, whose family belongs to the temple.
Meeker agreed in advance not to disclose the details of their conversation. Rose did not returnWW‘s telephone calls.
On May 5, Goldschmidt refused the last of many interview requests.
On May 6, he confessed.
In retrospect, it appears that for more than six weeks Goldschmidt was not only aware ofWW‘s investigation but resigned to exposure of his secret.
During the two-month investigation, this paper talked to Goldschmidt only once. That occurred on April 5, after Goldschmidt called WW, inviting Meeker and Editor Mark Zusman to lunch.
In his message, Goldschmidt said, “I really have no agenda. I’m in the news a lot, you guys are interested in a lot of things, and I just think it would be fun.”
The April 5 lunch was held at Carafe, a downtown restaurant that serves wine from Goldschmidt’s vineyard in Dundee. Goldschmidt’s business partner, Tom Imeson, also attended.
At the time, WW was not ready to confront Goldschmidt with its findings. And Goldschmidt never referred to Susan during the lunch.
Instead, Goldschmidt talked about higher ed, the development along the South Waterfront and the job that Gov. Ted Kulongoski was doing.
As they parted after lunch, Goldschmidt pulled Zusman aside, grabbed his hand and said, “Go get ’em.”
Several people assisted in the research and reporting of this story, including WW News Editor John Schrag, Arts & Culture Editor Ellen Fagg, reporter Nick Budnick and Seattle Weekly reporter Philip Dawdy.
BY NIGEL JAQUISS
One of the many unanswered questions about Neil Goldschmidt’s sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl is how he kept it a secret for 29 years.
Willamette Week‘s two-month investigation found that although many friends of the victim knew about the crime, few of Goldschmidt’s aides, as mayor or as governor, did.
One individual who knew–and who provided a good deal of help to Goldschmidt–was a private investigator named Robert K. Burtchaell.
Three decades ago, Burtchaell was an original investor in WW and worked as the paper’s marketing manager. (WW has been sold twice since then and has been owned since 1983 by Editor Mark Zusman and Publisher Richard Meeker.)
According to court documents, Goldschmidt stopped having sex with Susan in 1978. Sometime afterwards, several sources say, Goldschmidt asked Burtchaell to help, in the words of one source, “handle” her. Another person close to Susan characterized Burtchaell as “an intermediary between [Susan] and Neil” who “helped her contain her anger at him and helped her with her escalating problems.”
Those problems were evident in 1986 when Susan moved into a shared apartment off Northwest 23rd Avenue. One of her new roommates believed that Susan had stolen her credit card and run up $1,000 in charges, mostly at Meier & Frank.
The roommate, in an April interview with WW, said she had threatened to press charges if Susan didn’t pay the bill. Not long afterward, she told WW, she got a phone call from a man who said he would pay the debt. He said his name was Bob Burtchaell.
About the same time, Burtchaell repeatedly called a male friend of Susan’s, who says Burtchaell was trying to help find an approach that would get Susan moving in the right direction.
“Burtchaell’s job was to keep her from Neil,” says a third source. “If she had problems, she should bring them to Bob.” If Susan called Goldschmidt, Burtchaell returned the call, the source says. If Susan met Goldschmidt, Burtchaell was in the room.
According to people close to Susan, Burtchaell remained the primary intermediary between her and Goldschmidt up until Susan obtained a financial settlement from Goldschmidt in 1994.
Burtchaell’s career is difficult to categorize. After leaving WW, he counseled people experiencing alcohol problems and invested in real estate before becoming a private eye.
During the late 1980s, at the same time Burtchaell was entrusted with handling Susan, he was experiencing financial problems.
In January 1988, court records show, he borrowed $241,000 from U.S. Bank. The loan was due in 90 days, but Burtchaell failed to pay it back on time.
A company that Burtchaell was part of had bought land along the east bank of the Willamette River near the Sellwood Bridge in 1986 for $125,000. Burtchaell also leased an adjacent moorage for 25 houseboats called Watery Lane from the Division of State Lands, which owns all the river bottoms in Oregon.
In February 1988, according to correspondence WW obtained from the state archives, Burtchaell wrote to then-Gov. Goldschmidt about the moorage.
“I need your advice!” Burtchaell wrote. “I felt that a letter to you would help me find a direction to follow.”
Burtchaell outlined his problem: His lease on the moorage was set to expire in 1995, and the state, having determined that there were too many houseboats on that part of the Willamette, had determined in 1984 that it would not renew Burtchaell’s lease.
Goldschmidt was in a position to help. As governor, he was one of three members of the state land board, along with the secretary of state and the state treasurer.
Burtchaell wanted a 30-year lease extension. Members of the Sellwood Harbor Condominium Association, whose views included the houseboat moorage, strongly opposed his request. Many of them said they had bought their units in the belief that the houseboat moorage would disappear when Burtchaell’s lease ended in 1995.
State lands staff evaluated Burtchaell’s request for a lease extension and found it without merit, according to their report. Gail Achterman, a lawyer employed by the state to advise Goldschmidt on land issues, concurred with the staff opinion. “I do not think renewal in 1995 would be justified,” she stated in a handwritten note to Goldschmidt on April 7, 1988.
But Goldschmidt pushed hard on Burtchaell’s behalf. Buried in the state archives is a handwritten note to Achterman, in which he takes issue with her advice. “I have reviewed the material and now have discussed it with Bob Burtchaell,” he wrote back to Achterman. “Unless I am missing facts, I reach a different conclusion…. Please schedule a meeting with Bob Burtchaell. From this point on please act on my behalf in this case.”
Achterman reversed her initial opinion and prepped Goldschmidt for a meeting of the land board at which he would recommend a lease extension for Burtchaell.
In a July 27, 1988, memo, Achterman advised Goldschmidt that there would be strong opposition at the land-board meeting, so he should just push for an extension of the lease but not discuss specifics. “Bob needs it done now, but he agrees it should be a ministerial staff matter,” Achterman wrote. “This approach should keep discussion of the appropriate lease term out of the meeting and out of any subsequent contested case hearing.”
Goldschmidt’s support for the lease extension was welcome news for Burtchaell, who was by then in default on his U.S. Bank loan.
After a protracted process, Goldschmidt triumphed over the objections of Treasurer Tony Meeker (no relation to WW‘s publisher) and Secretary of State Barbara Roberts, and Burtchaell got what he wanted. In January 1989, the land board agreed to reconsider the earlier ruling forbidding the extension of his lease.
In May 1990, Burtchaell’s company sold its property and the lease on the state lands to the Sellwood Harbor Condominium Association for $350,000, which was $225,000 more than it had paid for the land four years earlier.
Both Burtchaell and Goldschmidt declined to be interviewed for this story.
In 1993, just a year before Susan threatened to sue Goldschmidt, Oregonian columnist Steve Duin interviewed the former governor. Duin asked whether Goldschmidt felt guilty about having walked away from his political career. Goldschmidt answered by recounting a conversation he’d recently had while “smoking cigars with a friend named Bob Burtchaell” in a Palm Springs hot tub.
Burtchaell, he said, had told him, “‘All God has in mind for you is that you get up and do the best you can every day. And God will take care of the rest.’ And [Burtchaell]’s absolutely right. Guilt hasn’t bothered me since.”
Editor’s note: Last Sunday, The Oregonian published a piece by Burtchaell titled “No one benefits from learning Goldschmidt’s secret” in its Opinion section. Burtchaell, who described himself as an entrepreneur and a friend of Goldschmidt, criticized Willamette Week for publishing the evidence of sex abuse on its website last week prior to Goldschmidt’s public confession. “This is not a story about an adult man having sex with a young girl,” he wrote. “It’s really about a man redeeming himself….”
An internal memo reveals how The Oregonian missed the Goldschmidt story.
Editor’s Note: This is a memo that was sent to Oregonian reporters Friday, May 6, the day after Neil Goldschmidt resigned from several posts upon learning that WW was about to publish evidence that, when mayor, he had sexually abused a 14-year-old girl. That story, posted on WW‘s website Thursday afternoon, was covered by all the local TV and radio stations Thursday night. On Friday, after The Oregonian published its story about Goldschmidt’s “affair” as well as the “confession” he prepared for the paper, key managers and staffers met to recap the previous day’s events. This memo, which was sent to WW by more than one source, summarizes that meeting. It is reprinted, unedited, in its entirety. It was written by Kay Balmer, a senior manager who oversees the paper’s suburban bureaus. The people named in the memo include reporter Brent Walth, columnist Steve Duin, assistant crime editor Kathleen Glanville and Steve Engelberg, who manages investigative projects. “JoLene” is features editor Jolene Krawczak. “Sandy” refers to editor Sandra Mims Rowe. “Peter” is executive editor Peter Bhatia.
First, a big thanks to WEST for jumping in on the story about the material witness in the Madrid bombing. Much of the extraordinary detail came from West reporters who were out the door working on this the minute it broke.
Today’s meeting, as you might imagine, centered on a discussion of Goldschmidt. I’ll try to give you some of the highlights.
— We had gotten a tip about it sometime last winter. This was something that Brent Walth had tried to nail down years earlier when he was at Willamette Week and couldn’t get. We began pursuing the rumors last winter, but didn’t get too far. For one thing, the woman at times would confirm what had happened and then at other times deny it. Brent was on a plane to Nevada yesterday to talk to the woman when the story broke.
Willamette Week got a copy of the conservatorship somehow and told Goldschmidt they were going with a story. Goldschmidt called us and wanted to tell us, in Sandy’s word, because we are the only credible news outlet.
— Steve Duin felt strongly that our coverage today was too reverential. We are dealing with a child molester. He made a very impassioned plea for doing the who knew what when story — lots of people became rich riding Goldschmidt’s coat tails — and why they kept it secret. He suggested that readers might think we’d learned nothing from Packwood and that we are hands off people in power.
— Kathleen Glanville talked about the mixture of emotions she felt. Goldschmidt had been so important, so admired and had had such a profound effect on the city and the state. And, now, to learn that he’s a child molester.
— Steve Engleberg said that in hindsight he wished that they’d put 48 reporters on the story the day they got the tip. Someone — I don’t remember if it was Steve, Sandy or Peter — said that this tip came in about the same time that two other similar tips concerning public officials came in. It was pursued, just not with the urgency that Steve now wishes we had put into it.
— JoLene was concerned that so much of the discussion took place behind closed doors. Kathleen Blythe complained that researchers are too often kept in the dark about why they’re looking at someone and the why could help them do their job and make them think about taking different reserach routes. … Steve responded that they’d been asked to keep this very quiet by the initial source, who felt very vulnerable, and that they didn’t want everyone to know that Goldschmidt was coming to us because we didn’t ,want other media to pounce on that. He, again in hindsight, said he wished that he’d let more people in on what was going on.
— Lots more talk about the stories that need to be done:
How this has ruined the woman’s life.
Who knew what when and the people who enabled.
Status of all the projects he’s involved in and how this will affect them.
The man and his secret
and on, and on.
This is not an all inclusive report — I didn’t think to take notes — but it’s the highlights, I think.
The one discrepancy between the story that Willamette Week published on its website last Thursday and the confession Neil Goldschmidt offered later that day has to do with the length of the sexual relationship between Goldschmidt and Susan.
Court documents, both in Seattle and in Washington County, say the sexual abuse occurred from 1975 to 1978. Goldschmidt, however, says the “affair” lasted less than one year. WWchecked with Jeff Foote, the lawyer who negotiated a settlement with Goldschmidt on Susan’s behalf. “Our records indicated that the abuse started when she was 14 and ended when she was 17,” he says. “It happened, and it happened over a sustained period of time.” –NJ
Goldschmidt’s admission drew national attention. The Seattle Times published this searing editorial on May 8. www.wweek.com/PDF_Documents/SeattleTimes051204.pdf
Publisher’s Notebook: “Neil Goldschmidt didn’t invent Portland. He did something far more inspired…” Entire article at www.wweek.com/story.php?story=5072
WEB EXCLUSIVE: Thursday, May 6, 2004
The Goldschmidt Resignation
The ex-governor quits several posts amid sex-abuse allegations.