Reports of a possible Oregon-based serial killer have drawn national attention and renewed scrutiny of former Gov. Kate Brown’s passion for changing Oregon’s criminal justice system.
Under Brown’s leadership, a felon was released for fighting wildfires while in custody. As rumors emerged that at least four women’s deaths could be linked to a single killer, some news accounts and conservative social media concluded that the freed felon was involved — and blamed Brown.
But people familiar with the process of commuting sentences, recidivism and the impact of lengthy prison terms say that narrative, while tempting, doesn’t hold up and vastly oversimplifies how the early release decision was made.
According to a July 17 joint press release, investigators have not yet determined how the four women died, or if they were all killed by the same man. Further complicating matters, the man named as a person of interest in media reports has not been publicly confirmed as a suspect.
The nine law enforcement agencies collaborating on the investigation have said only that investigators “identified at least one person of interest that is linked to all four of the decedents” and that there was no danger to the public.
Some media outlets reported that Jesse Lee Calhoun, 38, was a person of interest in the deaths of four women in their 20s and 30s whose bodies were found in Clackamas, Polk and Multnomah counties between February and May.
Released early, then sent back
When Calhoun was released from prison in 2021, he had been serving a sentence for unauthorized use of a vehicle. That was the last of several convictions that sent him to prison, including assault on a public safety officer and burglary.
Calhoun was one of 40 people whose sentences former Oregon Gov. Brown commuted after they served on fire crews during the record-breaking 2020 wildfires.
Calhoun was released from prison July 22, 2021, some 11 months before his original June 30, 2022, release date.
The first woman was reported missing six months after his original release date.
In July, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt requested that Calhoun’s commutation be revoked, citing “criminal activity” the man had been involved in. Kotek signed the order. By July 6 Calhoun was back in prison. He is now serving out the remainder of his sentence in the Snake River Correctional Institution. His earliest release date is June 9, 2024.
Calhoun’s possible connection to the women’s deaths was first reported by Willamette Week, which anonymously cited “several people familiar with ongoing investigations in multiple jurisdictions.”
Critics on the right have tried to link the women’s deaths to Calhoun’s early release, but Aliza Kaplan, a law professor at Lewis & Clark in Portland, said that criticism is not founded in the facts or the research.
“There is no direct line from a person getting a commutation 11 months early that’s in prison for burglary to them being a person of interest in a string of murders,” said Kaplan, who has represented roughly 100 people that received individual pardons and commutations. “Additionally, this specific individual would’ve already completed his sentence at the time the murders began.”
Clackamas County District Attorney John Wentworth, whose office is assisting with the murder investigations, said there is a need to strike a balance between providing safety, justice and liberty. Wentworth has been critical of Brown for issuing the firefighter commutations and of Multnomah County’s Schmidt for not reviewing them.
“You have to weigh community safety in your decision-making about what’s the right sentence, what’s the right dosage to ensure that there is rehabilitation and that the community is safe,” Wentworth said. “If Calhoun did what is not even alleged yet, we have to ask that question: Did the system do all it could to protect everyone? And there’s an argument that it didn’t.”
Schmidt declined to discuss any details about the investigation or confirm whether Calhoun was the person of interest who had been identified.
According to a timeline from the Department of Corrections, in March 2021, at Brown’s request, the agency started reviewing the sentences of people in custody who had served on fire crews. The release criteria the department used, as laid out in a March 10, 2021, email to Schmidt, stated people must have a record of good conduct for the previous 12 months, provide a suitable plan for housing upon release and not present an unacceptable safety risk to the community, among other criteria.
The email from the Department of Corrections said county district attorneys could respond, but also said a response was not required.
“As a reminder, you do not need to respond if you have solely general criminal history information or lack-of housing concerns,” the email from the Department of Corrections states. “Criminal history is being reviewed for all persons being considered.”
Statewide, 14 of Oregon’s 36 district attorneys responded with objections to the firefighter commutations, records show.
Schmidt’s office did not respond to the Department of Corrections about the 15 people his office had prosecuted who were up for early release. Wentworth’s did. Brown did not grant nine of the 12 commutations that Wentworth said his office objected to.
Even if Calhoun had served his entire sentence though, he still would have been out of prison in December 2022 when the first woman was reported missing.
Kristin Smith, 22, was later found dead on Feb. 19, 2023, in Portland’s Pleasant Valley neighborhood. On April 24, Charity Lynn Perry, 24, was found dead in Multnomah County. On April 30, Bridget Leann Webster, 31, was found dead in Polk County. And on May 7, Ashley Real, 22, was found dead in Clackamas County.
Officials have not charged Calhoun with anything related to the women’s deaths. They have not publicly named him as a person of interest. Nor have they confirmed media reports about his status.
“It’s worth noting that, because of his commutation being revoked, he’s now back in prison without any new charges, while authorities investigate the case,” Kaplan said.
The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission hasn’t published data on how many of the firefighters who received commuted sentences went on to reoffend. According to court records, since June 2021, at least 11 of the 41 people on the inmate firefighting crews who received a commutation have been charged or convicted of a new felony.
More broadly, the Criminal Justice Commission issued a report on the first 266 sentences Brown commuted in 2020 to help reduce the prison population during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the commission, 48 people were arrested within the first year after they were released, 20 were convicted of a new crime and six were sent back to prison, a reoffense rate it said was lower than the most recent one-year recidivism rates reported by the commission.
But predicting recidivism, particularly for violent crime and murder, is difficult.
“Mr. Calhoun had already served the significant portion of his sentence before the remaining 11 months were commuted by the governor,” Multnomah County DA Schmidt said. “And I’m not aware of anything that 11 months really would have been the game changer as if there was some sort of treatment or something else that could’ve happened in that time. I don’t think that’s likely.”
Clackamas County DA Wentworth, on the other hand, is open to the idea that the justice system did not do everything it could to protect the public.
“It’s an unknowable,” Wentworth said. “I don’t know whether, with any particular person, 11 months is enough. For some it is. For some it isn’t. But 11 months is nothing to sneeze at. It’s not four days. It’s a year of someone’s life.”
Like Schmidt, Wentworth declined to discuss or confirm any specifics of the investigation. Wentworth said he believes longer prison sentences play a role in reducing crime.
“What we know, statistically, is that when sentences increased under Ballot Measure 11, violent crime in Oregon plummeted,” Wentworth said. “The more time people spent in prison, the safer Oregon became.”
There is some data to support that. University of Texas at Austin professor Michael Hames-Garcia, who studies policing and mass incarceration, said older people commit fewer violent crimes.
“So if you lock someone up for 10 or 20 years, they’re going to age out of that kind of crime,” Hames-Garcia said. “That’s the one really demonstrable way in which prison does reduce recidivism rates.”
Research suggests there are effective alternatives to long prison sentences and simply locking someone away for the decade they are most likely to commit a violent crime. Education and strong family networks both decrease reoffense rates, Hames-Garcia said. If people receive housing support, employment services and psychological counseling, they’re also less likely to reoffend.
Because prison fractures family networks and often leaves prisoners with post-traumatic stress, simply going to prison can increase the likelihood someone reoffends.
Still, Hames-Garcia, said there aren’t a lot of predictors for murder. Most murders are committed in self-defense or a moment of opportunity, he said. For example, someone is robbing a house and gets surprised by the person who lives there, he said. Or a fight between intimate partners spirals out of control.
“We know that if someone is a victim of violence, they’re more likely to commit violence,” he added. “We know that if someone comes from a really unstable childhood where there’s lots of violence in the home, for example, they might be more likely to both be a victim of violence and a perpetrator of violence in the future.”
Calhoun’s commutation has already become political. Schmidt, a Democrat, is facing a reelection challenge in 2024. Next year is also a presidential election year in which Republicans hope to make crime a central issue. The state GOP Caucus has seized on recent commutations.
Citing still-unconfirmed media reports that Calhoun is connected to the death investigations, the Oregon House Republican Caucus sent a letter to Kotek on July 28 urging her to review the more than 1,000 commutations Brown granted.