Column: Doubts about police case lead reporter on quest for answers
Part 1 of a series
A few months ago, I ran into Forest Grove Police Chief Henry Reimann outside the city library. I was on my way out after picking up some books and he was on his way in to record "Is Your Mama a Llama?" for the library's online storytime program.
As a member of the Forest Grove chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, I'd gotten to know Reimann a bit and found him open and easygoing. So I asked if he had any updates on the Steven Teets case. You may have heard of it: an early morning attack by an intoxicated man on a Forest Grove family's home last Oct. 31.
What really drew attention to the case were news reports that the man had pounded angrily on a large Black Lives Matter flag hanging against the garage — and that he was an off-duty Forest Grove police officer.
Teets was charged with disorderly conduct and criminal mischief, so I asked Reimann why there was no bias charge.
Due to conflict-of-interest issues, the Forest Grove Police Department handed the investigation to the Washington County Sheriff's Office an hour or two after the incident. But before that, Reimann got a verbal debrief from one of his captains on the information they had at the time, based on an interview Forest Grove Officer Amber Daniels conducted with the victims when she responded to their 911 call.
• Editor's Note: A crime story in Forest Grove cried out for follow-up. It's coming, thanks to an unlikely and lucky series of events.
The debrief, according to Reimann, mentioned damage to the family's vehicles and Halloween decorations. But regarding any Black Lives Matter connection, Reimann was told only that 1) Teets had banged on the garage door and 2) there were two flags posted against that door — an American flag and a Black Lives Matter flag. So he was under the impression it was impossible to know where exactly on the garage Teets had pounded.
I was confused. The newspaper and TV news stories seemed so clear. Did the homeowners not actually see what happened? Did the media get it wrong? Some of our SURJ members had been writing letters to city councilors and the Forest Grove News-Times, accusing Teets of racism — what if that claim was groundless?
Unsettled for the next two days, I finally contacted the victim, Mirella Castaneda, on Sunday evening, Jan. 17. Over the phone she told me yes, she had watched Teets walk up to her large Black Lives Matter flag and pound on it with both fists. What's more, Castaneda said she had taken Officer Daniels outside to demonstrate Teets's action for her.
If that were true, I thought, Reimann's version of the story didn't make sense. Surely the official crime report would clear up the inconsistency. I asked Castaneda if she'd seen it and learned she'd been trying to get the report for almost three months but the District Attorney's office would not release it to her.
So I started writing a column, calling on the DA to release the crime report so Castaneda could make sure it was accurate. Before I could finish, Castaneda was finally allowed to sit down in the DA's office and read through the roughly 10-page report.
By that time, however, she had told me many more troubling details of her treatment by law officers as she tried to get answers and justice for the attack on her property that traumatized her family.
Reporter Nick Budnick's recent story on what went terribly wrong at the Washington County Sheriff's Office reveals part of the problem and offers some answers to the questions Castaneda had been asking.
But as an objective news story, it fails to fully capture the fear and confusion felt by Castaneda and her family members that late October night, after being awakened by their truck alarm.
Jill Rehkopf Smith was editor of the Forest Grove News-Times for five years before retiring in 2017. A former reporter for Willamette Week, The Oregonian and Pamplin Media Group, she is now a member of the Forest Grove chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, which aims to educate and organize people to help further racial justice. In a series of columns, she will share the perspective of Mirella Castaneda, a Forest Grove woman whose property was attacked by an off-duty officer and who has struggled to make sense of how law enforcement officials responded.
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