Editor’s note: This article includes descriptions of racial violence.
A federal judge in Eugene has sentenced a Colorado man to 16 years in prison for a hate crime that critically wounded another man at a truck-stop in Eastern Oregon.
Nolan Levi Strauss stabbed Ronnell Hughes at least twice in the neck with a 4-inch knife, on Dec. 21, 2019. Strauss, who is white, told witnesses and police he did so because of Hughes’ race, the U.S. Justice Department stated in its sentencing memo. It quoted a truck stop employee who helped subdue Strauss while awaiting police and paramedics after the attack:
“‘Why’d you fucking do it?’” the man asked as he and others secured Strauss’ hands with a belt.
“‘Because he was Black,’” Strauss responded, according to court documents. “‘And I don’t like Black people.’”
After his arrest, Strauss agreed to speak with Oregon State Police detectives. In a calm, measured voice, and with a tape recording rolling, Strauss said that he tried to kill Hughes because he was Black and launched into a series of racist and dehumanizing comments about Black people. Portions of that interview were played in court Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Justice indicted Strauss on Sept. 17, 2020, with one count of the federal charge Hate Crime Act Involving an Act to Kill. He pleaded guilty on June 17, 2021. Strauss also faced four felony charges in state court, including assault and attempted murder. Those charges were dropped in favor of the federal hate crime prosecution.
The FBI released new data last week that showed hate or bias crimes — which are under-reported — jumped 59% last year in Oregon. Federal law enforcement leaders in the state attribute that increase to both more reporting to law enforcement as well as more hate crimes and bias incidents occurring throughout the state.
Strauss’ sentencing comes as the U.S. Department of Justice says it’s gearing up to further crack down on hate crimes and bias incidents. Next month, the FBI will elevate criminal civil rights violations as well as hate crimes to its highest national level threat priority. The Justice Department says that should provide more resources for criminal investigations.
During Thursday’s sentencing in Eugene, Strauss’ defense attorney brought up his client’s history of mental illness and the fact Strauss was not on psychotropic medication at the time of the attack. No specific mental illness diagnosis was stated in court. Strauss did tell Oregon State Police detective he had been diagnosed as bipolar.
“You knew exactly what you was doing, man, exactly what you was doing,” Hughes said when it was his turn to address the court. “I don’t have any enemies and for someone to just sneak up on me and try to take my life from me, I’m angry. Somebody I don’t even know — it’s the first time I’ve ever seen his face, today, because he snuck up behind me.”
In 2019, Hughes, then 48, had recently moved to Oregon. The day he was stabbed, Hughes was applying for a job at an Arby’s restaurant that was part of the truck stop complex. While sitting in the restaurant, Strauss, then 26, walked up to him from behind and stabbed him in the neck with a 4-inch blade, according to the Justice Department’s sentencing memo. The two men struggled over control of the knife. Strauss dropped the weapon after an employee at the adjoining Pilot gas station demanded it.
Hughes ran to the opposite side of the building and collapsed against a trash can, court documents state. While some of the Arby’s and Pilot gas station employees secured Strauss, another used a first aid kit to stop the blood pouring from a golf-ball sized hole in Hughes’ neck. After paramedics arrived, Hughes was flown to a Boise, Idaho, hospital because his injuries were so severe.
Prosecutors had argued for an 18-year sentence and stated they had already factored in Strauss’ mental state and health when making that recommendation.
“This case is an inch from murder,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gavin Bruce told U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane, also noting that the blade hit, but did not sever Hughes’ jugular. “And it was a murder that was attempted because of Mr. Hughes’ immutable traits, of the color of his skin.”
Robert Hamilton, Strauss’s defense attorney, asked for a sentence of seven years and six months in prison. He asked McShane to also consider the severity of his client’s mental health problems.
“The government says, ‘But for one inch, we would be here for murder,” Hamilton said. “And I’d say, but for his mental health crisis, we wouldn’t be here at all. The legal community and the general community at large recognizes there’s a mental health crisis in prisons.”
McShane expressed empathy for Strauss’ mental illness, which his legal team said surfaced at an early age and had led to a roughly 10-month civil commitment in 2018. Strauss also spent two months at the Oregon State Hospital after stabbing Hughes; McShane noted that hospital staff observed him as, “‘disorganized and paranoid using racial slurs on occasion, it was observed drinking urine.’”
McShane said he was concerned that Strauss targeted a person of color. He said there was no guarantee if Strauss went off his medication in the future, he wouldn’t commit similar offenses.
“I imagine if we went back through many a terrible violent shootings and killings at synagogues and Black churches, much of it can be tied to some level of mental illness,” McShane said. “That of course is really the rub. ... There is the mental illness and this overlying racial animosity that occurs during these events that puts so many people at risk.”
In describing his pain, Hughes spoke slowly of physical therapy, surgery and his inability to eat solid foods after the attack. He talked about feeling helpless to protect his daughters, since he was not able to protect himself. And he spoke of the long gash across his neck.
He addressed Strauss directly:
“You lucky, man, I ain’t got no animosity towards you today. You know what I’m saying?” Hughes said. “Every time I wake up in the morning and brush my teeth, that’s all I see: 54 staples across my neck.”
Strauss responded stating that he was “not normally a racist person,” was glad Hughes survived and was grateful Hughes held no animosity toward him.
“I just want to say that, with that day, I did target him for that reason,” Strauss said. “But I wouldn’t do that to this day as it stands your honor, and I’m very sorry.”
In addition to a 16-year prison sentence, Strauss will be subject to 5 years post-prison supervision.
“The sentence should also send a clear message to anyone contemplating similar acts of violence: hatred and bigotry will not be tolerated,” Scott Erik Asphaug, acting U.S. attorney for the district of Oregon, said in a statement.
“Beyond the physical and emotional damage done to a victim, such violence can infect an entire community with divisiveness and despair,” said Special Agent in Charge Kieran L. Ramsey of the FBI Oregon Field Office. “This is not the kind of place that any of us want to raise our families, and we stand with the entire community in saying this is not acceptable and we will not allow it.”
Earlier this year, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s first directive was to order an expedited review of how the Justice Department could address the rise in hate crimes. Since then the agency has announced a hate crimes coordinator and said it’s in the process of organizing itself internally to better review both civil and criminal bias incidents.
More than 17 defendants have been charged in at least a dozen federal hate crime cases, including the three white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery, a Georgia man who was shot while out for a run.