Before John Elifritz was shot and killed by police at a Portland homeless shelter last month, he was a known criminal with an extensive history, dating back to 1988.
Over the years, Elifritz repeatedly led police on high speed and sometimes lengthy chases. He routinely violated his parole. In prison, he was known as a member of the European Kindred, a white supremacy group.
A review of nearly 600 pages from Elifritz’s Oregon Department of Corrections file also highlights one important question that remains unanswered: What did Portland Police know about his criminal history on the day they shot and killed him, and did that history factor into the way officers responded?
Portland Police declined to comment on Elifritz’s criminal history and their actions. But some answers could be available as early as Friday, when the bureau plans to release video and investigative documents related to the shooting.
Despite Elifritz’s lengthy criminal record, Chicago-based civil rights attorney Andrew Stroth — who is representing Elifritz’s estate — said nothing in the past justifies what he called an unconstitutional shooting that highlights institutional problems at the Portland Police Bureau.
On Wednesday, Stroth announced a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Portland and the eight officers involved in the April 7 shooting at the Cityteam Ministries Portland Shelter.
“Background doesn’t matter,” Stroth told OPB. “The police stormed into that homeless shelter, shot and killed John Elifritz in a military-style fashion that was completely unwarranted, no attempt to de-escalate. Again, his potential criminal background doesn’t matter at all.”
Hours before Elifritz was killed, police say he attempted but failed at one carjacking and then successfully stole a woman’s Honda CR-V. Calls to emergency dispatchers continued to come in about Elifritz, who was described by one caller as appearing to be drunk or high.
State records show parallels between the incidents that led up to his death and decades of criminal behavior.
On Sept. 25, 1994, for example, Elifritz was in The Dalles when police tried to arrest him, according to a document in the file.
Days earlier, the U.S. attorney’s office had indicted Elifritz secretly as a co-defendant in the robbery and firebombing of a jewelry store in Keizer.
But when officers tried to arrest him, Elifritz led law enforcement on a high-speed vehicle chase from Hood River to Portland, where he was subsequently arrested and charged with unauthorized use of a vehicle and possession of a stolen vehicle. Those federal charges against Elifritz were ultimately dismissed.
On May 28, 1996, Elifritz was arrested for stealing a vehicle from the parking lot of Portland’s Cleveland High School, according to a document in the corrections file: “Officers spotted the vehicle and recognized it from their list of stolen vehicles ‘hotsheet.’”
When officers pursued Elifritz, he sped up to 50 to 60 mph in a residential zone “and began trying to elude officers.” He lost control of the vehicle, making 180- and 360-degree spins. He crashed the vehicle and fled the scene.
“Mr. Elifritz was apprehended and during a search of the vehicle ‘car thief tools of the trade’ were found,” the document states.
On Sept. 13, 2001, at 1:24 a.m., Elifritz almost hit a Portland Police patrol car in Southeast Portland. Officers turned on their lights and sirens and chased him.
“The vehicle continued to accelerate up to 70 mph and was weaving back and forth between the lanes while turning the headlights on and off,” a Department of Corrections document states. “Officers deployed spike strips but the driver was able to avoid them on two occasions but was finally spiked.”
Elifritz ran from the scene but was soon arrested.
On Dec. 21, 2000, his parole officer wrote about a meeting with Elifritz: “He stated that he was a prolific criminal and has done more crimes than anybody knows about.” She also wrote that she had received numerous reports from reliable sources that Elifritz was using drugs.
Elifritz’s run-ins with police continued into the next decade. He’s been convicted of reckless driving and attempting to elude police officers.
While serving time in the Oregon Department of Corrections, Elifritz repeatedly refused to share a cell with African-American men.
In April, Willamette Week reported that Elifritz had been a known member of the European Kindred, citing a 2007 Portland Monthly article that profiled him and other members of the group. The documents in the file confirm that Elifritz’s affiliation with the group was noted by the Oregon Department of Corrections.
In 1998, while in prison, Elifritz was sent to the disciplinary segregation unit, commonly called the “DSU” in corrections documents.
At the time, a corrections officer asked if Elifritz “had a problem living in with a black inmate.”
“Yes, that’s why I’m in DSU,” Elifritz answered. “I can’t live with them. I can only live with my own kind.”
The Portland Police Bureau’s investigation could shed more light onto how much officers knew when they pursued Elifritz into the homeless shelter, and whether his previous gang membership had any effect on how law enforcement responded to him or the intensity of the police response.
Stroth, the family attorney, has said Elifritz was in the midst of a mental health crisis the day he was shot, and witnesses have said Elifritz was in the shelter stabbing himself in the neck with a knife.
This month, a grand jury decided not to charge the seven Portland Police officers and one Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputy involved in the shooting. Transcripts from the four days of testimony are expected to be released in the coming weeks.
At Wednesday’s press conference announcing the lawsuit, Elifritz’s friends and family acknowledged that he had made mistakes earlier in his life.
“John spent time as a very young man in confusion, as many young men do,” said activist and family friend Jeff Thomas Black. “But he was a wonderful father, a wonderful member of the community who was valued, loved, across this city. John Elifritz was a life worth living. John Elifritz was a life worth saving. Portland Police failed us.”