Welcome to Scarytown USA: Oregon City
This week's Halloween celebration in Oregon City was bigger than ever, but as Municipal Judge Laraine McNiece knows, there's a darker undercurrent to all the festivities.
Oregon City, of all the cities in Clackamas County, has the highest proportion of traffic crashes, an outsized homeless population and the most recent police officer who was killed in the line of duty. OC's community policing, however, could be credited for its low violent and property crime rate ranking among the best 10 cities in Oregon with more than 10,000 population, according to the latest FBI statistics.
McNiece says that Halloween is an opportunity to honor the world's problems alongside humor in a way that gets people to engage with their community. She practices what she preaches in a mock graveyard that she has put up every Halloween since about 1999 in front of her house on 10th Street, where she's lived for 43 years.
Poetic epitaphs on McNiece's "gravestones" include "Happy Halloween: A world of strife; events that stun; embrace life; have some fun!" Her gravestone message to youth: "With guns in school & kids on the street, I'd rather have them trick or treat."
McNiece is no stranger to strife, hearing more than 100 cases a week in her busy municipal courtroom. Sometimes she'll tell convicts of her own son who in 2005 died of a drug overdose at the age of 25.
"I figure if the shock factor is enough to get the kid to stop using or the parents to listen, it's worth it," McNiece said.
Watch this video of McNiece talking about her son's death here:
Political signs are only allowed on private property and are confiscated by the city if found in public rights-of-way. If no one picks them up from the police department, McNiece repurposes them on their way to the dump.
McNiece makes the gravestones by applying grey paint over the old signs and using a permanent black pen to write out the epitaphs. If you are a political figure or police officer in Oregon City, you'll have your own stone in McNiece's graveyard.
Mayor Dan Holladay, whom McNiece considers a friend, has a gravestone saying, "It's good to be the king," inspired by Mel Brooks character King Louis of France in "History of the World, Part I."
McNiece generally paints over the signs of city commissioners and police officers once they retire from public office, but former Commissioner Rocky Smith got a new sign this year because of his continued involvement with a touring business of local haunted sites. The new gravestone for the man who believes OC is the most haunted city in Oregon says, "He'll tell you ghost stories - they may not be pretty - but Rocky is the spirit of our fair city."
Smith considers it a "high honor" to have gotten a new headstone after leaving office in 2016 and says that McNiece is promoting a "community feel" for Oregon City. Oregon City's McLoughlin neighborhood is the oldest part of the first city to be incorporated west of the Mississippi River, a fact that may account for its special affinity to hauntings. Every day during the month of October, passersby of McNiece's house slow down to read her handiwork.
"You know you've made it in this town if you have a headstone in her yard," Smith said.
Municipal judge for decades, McNiece doesn't spare herself from her own graveyard display. In the "Lawyers Cemetery," featuring the names of all of the attorneys who regularly appear in her courtroom, McNiece's gravestone says, "RIP Laraine: Lawyer - Fill dirt wanted."
Under the name of OCPD Sgt. Matt Paschall, the gravestone says, "Reasonable suspicion or probable cause? Doesn't matter if you obey all laws." Det. Sgt. Justin Young's gravestone says, "A local boy that turned out good. Great cop to have in our neighborhood."
How do police officers feel about being called out by name on McNiece's gravestones? OCPD Captain Shaun Davis laughed when he was asked the question.
"It's pretty funny and creative," said Davis, whose gravestone reads, "Stay alive - don't drink and drive."
Davis said that the "community feel" of McNiece's graveyard also extended to the Halloween afternoon Trick or Treat on Main Street celebration in downtown Oregon City. What started as an opportunity for businesses to hand out candy to a few dozen kids in costume has this year turned into an event drawing thousands of people from all over the county packing the sidewalks on Main Streets in long lines. OCPD officers and police cars fill Main Street's Liberty Plaza, next to the Clackamas County Courthouse, offering children temporary police-badge tattoos, candy and playtime with an OCPD canine.
"We're members of the community, so it's good for us to be out here and visible in a safe environment," Davis said.
OCPD Reserve Officer Rob Libke gave out candy during one of the first Trick or Treat on Main Street events in 2013, when there were many fewer participants. The celebration has increased from an estimated 800 participants in 2015, 1,300 in 2016, to well over 2,000 this year. Libke and his wife, Wendy, loved children; in 2013 they were expecting a daughter of their own.
Halloween 2013 turned out to be Libke's last. On Nov. 3, 2013, while protecting a grandmother and her grandchildren, Libke was shot by an arsonist.
OCPD's participation in Trick or Treat on Main Street has turned into an annual celebration of Rob Libke's life, featuring a 3-foot poster of him on a stand that pictures him handing out candy in 2013. Wendy Libke and their daughter, Ziva Nicole Libke, now 3, attended this year's event and enjoyed interacting with Libke's former law-enforcement partners.
"The police department has given me a lot of support, so it's the least that I can do to support the department right back," Wendy Libke said. "It's for Ziva, and it's for the police department, and attending this event is something that Rob would have continued doing."
McNiece hears so many tragic stories in her courtroom that she said she's always reminding herself of the good ones.
"If you love what you do, it's not work, and I love what I do," McNiece said. "One man thanked me for saving his life and he enclosed his [Alcoholics Anonymous] 90-day coin in the letter. Those are the stories you hang onto because not all of them are good stories."
McNiece ended up getting third place in the Oregon City's first "Spooktaculary Decorated Home Haunt" Competition, sponsored by Smith's NW Ghost Tours and Tom Geil's Oregon City Ghoul Gallery, the only year-round Halloween store in the Pacific Northwest.
First place went to Tim Ulsky, who creates the "Madison Street Cemetery" each year at the corner of Fourth and Madison. The elaborate display includes a tunnel over the sidewalk resembling Shelob's Lair, a giant spider character from J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." Ulsey estimated that he and his brother spend $1,000 annually to rebuild the display each year that includes creepy dolls on a swing set, lots of gravestones and a crypt.