Donald Ray Surrett, Jr. has been called a hero for confronting the gunman inside the Bend Safeway where he worked on Sunday, a decision police said cost him his life but likely saved the lives of others.
While Surrett’s final act has rightfully won him praise this week, details from his past show a far more complicated figure. Those details could affect efforts to memorialize him — ideas for which so far include a memorial plaque and a community college scholarship.
According to military and Oregon State Police records, Surrett was convicted in October 1994 of sexual crimes involving a minor while he was still serving in the U.S. Army. He was 38 years old when he was convicted, and served 26 years in the military, including his time in prison.
A military court sentenced Surrett to 10 years in prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas after he pleaded guilty to two counts of carnal knowledge and two counts of indecent acts. According to U.S. Army spokeswoman Madison Bonzo, Surrett was demoted from sergeant first class to private as a result of the conviction. He did not serve his full 10-year sentence, and moved to Oregon in the early 2000s, according to public records.
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel confirmed Surrett was convicted of an “indecent act with a minor” in a military court. Information from state court records and the Oregon State Police’s sex offender registry indicates Surrett did not reoffend after his release from prison, and law enforcement considered him a Level 1 offender, the lowest classification in the state and an indication he was not considered a high risk for reoffense.
Since Sunday’s shooting, community leaders, police and coworkers have praised Surrett’s actions in the Safeway. Police say he waited behind a produce cart in the store after a 20-year-old gunman killed Glenn Edward Bennet, 84, near the entryway. As the gunman moved farther into the store, Surrett attacked him with a knife, according to police, delaying the gunman’s shooting spree. The shooter took his own life as police entered the building, just minutes after the first 911 call.
Sheila Miller, a spokeswoman for the Bend Police Department, told OPB that police learned of Surrett’s criminal history as they investigated Sunday’s shooting.
“Mr. Surrett’s background does not change the fact that in this instance, when faced with great peril, he acted heroically in attacking and attempting to disarm an active shooter in his place of work,” Miller said. “While Mr. Surrett’s past may complicate how people feel about his legacy, his actions in the moment were courageous and for those actions, he deserves praise.”
City officials have said they’ve received suggestions from the public to commemorate Surrett’s actions. The Bend chapter of the group Disabled American Veterans, in which Surrett was active, is planning to push for a plaque in his honor at a veterans’ memorial in the city, member George McCart said this week. Central Oregon Community College’s spokesperson also said faculty and staff had suggested various memorials to honor Surrett, including a potential scholarship, but that nothing has been formally introduced.
Bend Mayor Pro Tem Anthony Broadman said “two things can be true at the same time” — Surrett’s heroic actions and his past offenses — but that any remembrance of Surrett should take into account the potential impact on people he victimized.
“I think it would probably hinge more on thinking about potential impacts of seeing his name, if there were victims who could be retraumatized by that,” Broadman said.
He also said adequate time should be given for families to grieve before any talks of memorials begin.
A spokesperson for Safeway’s parent company, Albertsons, told OPB on Thursday that Surrett had “cleared a third-party background check,” but that the company did not know he was a sex offender.
Oregon, like many states, has attempted to reduce barriers for rehabilitation of people convicted of crimes. For example, Oregon law prevents employers from asking about a person’s criminal history before the interview process.
OPB also reached out to several of Surrett’s family members, who either declined to comment or did not respond.
Broadman said the community should also remember the other acts of heroism surrounding the shooting: the police officers who entered the store while the gunman was still firing, and the two people who reentered to drag Bennett to an ambulance.
“It’s OK to be sad and it’s OK to be disturbed by the fact that heroic actions often make us feel conflicted,” he said.