Jeremy Christian, drunk and angrier than usual from more than a month of increasingly violent and racist exchanges, boarded a Portland MAX train on May 26, 2017.
Prosecutors say video from that train ride clearly shows Christian unleash a racist rant near two women of color before stabbing three other people, killing two.
Jury selection in Christian’s murder trial began Tuesday.
The incident has been characterized as a white supremacist attack. Eye witness accounts and many of Christian’s own actions in the weeks leading up to the murders do little to challenge that characterization.
But records from Christian’s previous arrests and interviews with people who have known him since childhood indicate his mental health was clearly declining for years leading up to the attacks. Christian’s past also raises questions about the role the prison system played in exacerbating his mental health problems, and whether treatment could have helped prevent the deaths of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Ricky Best.
Michael Hames-Garcia, a University of Oregon professor who researches the criminal justice system, said it’s hard to argue that Christian shouldn’t go to prison. But, he said, with a different criminal justice system, one that diverted people with mental illness away from incarceration, this tragedy may have been avoided.
“We’re always looking at the immediate crisis and responding to that,” Hames-Garcia said.
In May 2002, Christian stunned friends when he robbed a popular North Portland liquor store. After Christian fled on a bike, police caught up with him a few blocks away. They yelled for him to stop. Christian pulled out a gun, and an officer shot three times, hitting Christian once in his right cheek.
Later, Christian told police he wasn’t planning to shoot at them. He was planning to shoot himself.
Friends said the incident marked a key point in his long slide toward increasingly erratic and violent actions.
Marcia Hoy has known Christian since he was in middle school. Her two children were best friends with Christian and his brother, Tim. Growing up, she said, if you saw Jeremy and Tim, her two sons were likely close by. As a child, Hoy said, Christian was a little awkward.
“He didn’t look you in the eye too often’ he was always looking around,” she said. But, she added, “teenagers are weird.”
A childhood friend said Christian was rambunctious but was otherwise an average kid.
“Like, we would go down to the train tracks just to huck rocks and stuff,” said the former friend, who only agreed to speak to OPB anonymously. “We would go to places just to vandalize stuff … because we didn’t have anything better to do with our time.”
Christian and his friends came of age in the ‘90s in North Portland. The neighborhood back then wasn’t dotted with microbreweries, coffee shops and shiny apartment buildings.
“We all had to fight,” the friend said. “That was kind of the culture of North Portland at the time.”
In 1988, Christian’s parents separated. Hoy said she thinks the separation affected him, but he was also young and didn’t talk about it. According to a psychological evaluation done at the request of his his defense attorneys, Christian’s father stayed in the area and in 1997 returned to the home “to provide more structure for his sons.”
Christian’s parents declined to speak to OPB for this story because of the upcoming trial.
Christian dropped out of Jefferson High School in ninth grade and was homeschooled before getting his GED when he was 16. Around that time, he started working at Pietro’s Pizza on North Lombard. Two years later, frustrated with his home life, Christian moved into Hoy’s basement.
He was 18, and over the course of the next two years. he became more distant.
“He was going off more on his own and not staying in the group,” Hoy said. “In retrospect, I probably should have stepped in, but I thought he was going to be OK. He just was probably going through something he wasn’t telling me at the time.”
Hoy said her two sons didn’t seem worried, and neither did Christian’s brother, Tim.
Then came the 2002 robbery. Christian was convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping. According to court documents, he served eight years and four months in five different Oregon prisons. During the trial, Christian’s defense attorneys spoke to Hoy.
“I told the attorneys back then, ‘Please, he needs help,’” she said. “It’s like, ‘We’re going to punish you but not help you move back into society.’”
Discipline And Security
Prisons are the leading edge of mental health care in the United States, but they’re also notoriously ill-equipped for the task. By some measures, Chicago’s Cook County Jail is the largest mental-health provider in the country. And jail officials across Oregon have said they are the biggest mental health providers in their counties, too. Their first priority, however, isn’t mental health – it’s maintaining discipline and security.
“Many of the things that are symptoms of untreated mental illness or someone’s medications being off … manifest as discipline problems,” said Hames-Garcia, the University of Oregon professor. “So the immediate assumption of the institution is that these people are unruly or bucking the system or defiant.”
Hoy said Christian told her he was in solitary confinement multiple times for fighting during his prison sentence. The Oregon Department of Corrections has denied requests to review Christian’s inmate file and disciplinary record, citing the ongoing prosecution.
But in 2016, Christian posted a copy of a 2008 corrections misconduct report to his Facebook page. That report states “Inmate Christian has refused 29 consecutive meals.” The report doesn’t say why he was on a hunger strike, but it does say that he refused an order to collect his property so he could be moved to a different cell “per Medical.”
“No, I am not moving,” the report quotes Christian as replying. “You only want to move me so that you can see me naked.”
Hames-Garcia said discipline in prison can be arbitrary and have lasting effects.
“There’s no jury, there’s no judge. It’s simply a guard’s decision to put you in solitary confinement,” he said. “There’s substantial research that shows that permanent psychological damage happens very quickly after just a couple of days.”
The harm prisons can cause isn’t limited to solitary confinement. According to Hames-Garcia, prisons are overcrowded, which limits personal time. And, he said, prisoners receive little time outdoors for recreation.
“So a lot of the things that you would want someone to do to take care of their mental health are simply not available,” he said.
Christian was released from prison in September 2010. By November, he was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. Over the course of the next three years, he was in and out of jail and supervised living facilities for parole violations stemming from that charge.
By July 2012, he had missed multiple substance abuse treatment appointments and failed to provide urine samples.
While that was happening, he wrote poetry on his Facebook page about his life falling apart: “I can’t hide any longer inside of myself. Waiting to be put back on the shelf,” he wrote in June 2011. “It’s a warehouse that’s filled with Pain. This old body shackled and chained.”
In September 2011, he shared a poem called “Prayers for Death.”
“What am I on this world anyway? A waste of life? A waste of time? I’ve never done a thing worth doing,” it begins.
Christian also became obsessed with collecting comic books after his release from prison. In the psychological evaluation, Christian estimated that by the time he was 20, he had a collection of about 500 comic books. After getting out of prison in 2010, that figure ballooned to about 15,000. His collection was stacked in his bedroom at his parents’ house and in their living room.
“Because Mr. Christian has significant limitations in interpersonal fluency, discussion of comic books provided structure for his social interactions and conversation,” the evaluation states. “Mr. Christian’s hoarding provided an external structure for his identity and an associated defense against anxiety.”
Christian’s friends and family said prison changed him dramatically. His childhood friend put it bluntly:
“The dude got shot in the face, went to jail and came back and just was messed up,” he said. “He wasn’t the same person. He didn’t actually receive any rehabilitation while he was in prison. The opposite of that happened.”
Falling Through The Cracks
On Oct. 30, 2013, a federal judge sentenced Christian to nine months at a federal prison for an altercation with a halfway house employee. In 2014, after spending most of his adult life incarcerated, he was released from prison for the last time before the May 2017 stabbings. None of his court records indicate any concerns about Christian’s mental health. But after his release from prison, his Facebook activity became notably more provocative and bizarre.
As the 2016 presidential campaign picked up steam, Christian became a rabid Bernie Sanders supporter and reserved his harshest vitriol for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. His posts veered incoherently between anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism and misogyny, and leftist political messaging including a “solidarity with Standing Rock” protesters opposing an oil pipeline near a Native American reservation.
He frequently posted screeds against circumcision, calling it a tribal ritual and saying he wanted a job in Norway “cutting off the heads of people who circumcise babies.” He railed against police brutality and government overreach but also wrote things such as, “We should take all ‘politically correct’ people in America, round them up…and create a country out of half Liberia [sic].” In one post, he slammed Texas’ use of private prisons and “industrialized rape culture,” and in the next he criticized people born by c-section without elaborating.
Experts say research hasn’t shown a direct link between mental illness and violence toward others.
“What is true is that mental health issues can contribute to circumstances which might increase vulnerability to extremist or violent ideas,” said Heidi Ellis, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
Ellis said mental health problems can increase social isolation and that violent, extremist acts are often motivated by a desire to belong to a group, to gain meaning or power.
“If he’s coming out of prison, he may be looking at a future where he doesn’t see a path for himself,” Ellis said. “That kind of despair, that lack of a future, that sense of isolation … those are the conditions in which hatred can really begin to fester.”
Treating mental health, she said, should be a core part of preventing someone from going down a violent, extremist path.
According to Christian’s friends, in the months leading up to the MAX attack on May 26, 2017, he had been drinking heavily.
After an April 2017 Facebook fight with a woman in Texas who Christian alleges was affiliated with antifa, his online rhetoric turned sharply against the group. In online posts just before an April 29, 2017 March For Free Speech in Portland, Christian said he was looking for people to help him unmask protesters and “get at Antifa.” In a post the day before the rally, he said he’d be dressed as a political nihilist to provoke both sides.
At the rally, he wore a 1776 flag as a cape, carried a baseball bat and was recorded giving the Nazi salute and yelling racial slurs.
The day before the stabbings, Jeremy Christian was recorded on a MAX train ranting about the “Christian or Muslim bus driver.” Demetria Hester, a black woman sitting behind the conductor, said Christian threatened her.
“‘You do not have the right to even be on this train,” Hester said Christian yelled. “You don’t have a right to speak. You’re black. You don’t have a right to be here. All you Muslims, blacks, Jews, I will kill all of you.’”
Christian allegedly assaulted her and she sprayed him with pepper spray. Hester said that while the responding Portland police officer interviewed her, Christian washed his eyes in a water fountain and left.
In the years since his release from prison, Christian’s friends recognized he had a problem, but they also said he wasn’t substantially worse off than other friends with drug and alcohol substance use disorders.
“He had a serious drinking problem, and he would just say stupid shit when he was drunk” one friend who asked to remain anonymous told OPB. “It’s a really common thing for the people that we knew growing up to just completely fall apart. I literally have like five other friends that should probably be on a watch list right now that need severe mental health care.”
One of Hoy’s sons, who was close to Christian, died by suicide in 2003. She said she sees a widespread problem among the kids who grew up in North Portland in the 1980s and ‘90s.
“They just seem to keep falling through the cracks,” she said. “Several of the friends are now gone. It’s kind of sad.”
Last week, prosecutors filed a motion to restrict the defense’s argument of “extreme emotional disturbance” at the trial. If a judge grants that motion, it could limit how much of Christian’s past jurors hear.
But Christian’s friend said his mental health issues never should have been allowed to go unaddressed.
“To assume that it’s just pure evil is to really ignore the much larger problem,” one friend said. “This was preventable.”
He said basic mental health care and rehabilitation would have gone a long way.