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The mid-valley's top public safety stories of 2020
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The mid-valley's top public safety stories of 2020

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The public safety beat generated plenty of news in 2020 even if you didn’t include devastating wildfires that ripped through portions of Linn County and sent smoke pouring over the state.

There were notable successes, such as how local law enforcement handled Black Lives Matter protests in Albany and Corvallis.

Agencies gained new leaders, such as Albany Police Chief Marcia Harnden, Corvallis Police Chief Nick Hurley, and Oregon State University Police Chief Shanon Anderson.

COVID-19 forced local public safety workers and the courts to adopt new safety measures, and they adapted admirably.

The stories that stick with readers, unfortunately, are the tragedies. And, like any other year, there were far too many of these for the mid-Willamette Valley.

Here’s another look at some of the most important, and most awful, stories from the public safety beat in 2020.

Lazon murder case

Albany resident Tiffany Lazon was reported missing in January. Last seen by her family in November, Lazon had been in a relationship with Craig Lazon that was documented as being abusive. 

In January, Craig Lazon was arrested on murder charges after a friend came forward and revealed that Lazon had borrowed a saw and returned it in pieces. Tissue and blood found on the saw were a match to Tiffany Lazon. Her disappearance sparked a conversation about domestic violence and resources available in the mid-valley. Craig Lazon has yet to go to trial.  

Other murders

The mid-Willamette Valley had three other murder investigations in 2020 as well.

Ryan Williams, 22, is charged with second-degree murder for allegedly shooting his mother’s fiancé, Glenn Colvin, 50, in the family’s North Albany home on March 17. Colvin was found lying on his back in his bed.

Kris Fiala, 54, was arrested on a second-degree murder charge after allegedly stabbing his 85-year-old mother in their Lacomb-area home on Dec. 1. Fiala was reportedly intoxicated and had become upset with Astrid Gladys Fiala.

A Portland man was found shot to death on Dec. 5 in a field near Jefferson. On Dec. 21, Phillip Gurule, 59, of Portland was charged with first-degree murder for the killing of Richard Anderson, 41. Gurule had previously been convicted of a murder in Multnomah County in 1988.

Rhiana Daniel

There has been a series of tragic deaths on Highway 99W in South Corvallis.

First, cyclist Eric Austin was killed in a crosswalk incident near the First Alternative Co-op in June of 2018.

Then, in October of 2019, cyclist Jeremy Gruver was struck and killed on Highway 99W just a few hundred yards north of where the Austin incident occurred.

But the third one was the worst for the community to absorb. On Jan. 9, 11-year-old Rhiana Daniel died after being struck in the same crosswalk in which Austin was killed.

The deaths helped accelerate the timetable for improvements to the pedestrian crosswalk lights on South Third Street, and the Oregon Department of Transportation has begun a safety study of the corridor.

Fatal DUII crash

Two Sweet Home siblings, Caleb Simonis, 19, and Shelby Simonis, 16, were killed in a head-on wreck on Highway 228 near Brownsville in May. The driver of the other vehicle was allegedly drunk.

The crash stunned mid-valley residents. Caleb was a 2018 graduate of Sweet Home High School. Shelby was a junior at Central Linn High School, where a makeshift memorial sprang up for the siblings. Both seemed to have bright futures ahead of them. Their sister, Kylee Simonis, also was seriously injured in the crash.

The driver of the other vehicle, Austyn Wayne Hillsman, 22, faces charges of two counts of first-degree manslaughter, second-degree assault, driving under the influence of intoxicants and reckless driving.

Hank Dufort released

William Henry “Hank” Dufort, the disgraced former Children’s Farm Home director convicted in 1990 of over two dozen sex crimes, was released from prison in late November.

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Dufort’s trial shook the mid-valley, as onlookers had to reconcile the fact that a seemingly respectable individual could be capable of repeatedly molesting boys who were seeking help. Dufort, 80, served more than 30 years in the custody of the Oregon Department of Corrections.

Looking back from the vantage point of 2020, Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson said:

“It involved so many victims, not just in terms of numbers, but in terms of the vulnerability of these children who were left in the defendant's care … and left in his care in a secured setting,” Haroldson said. “Those were the circumstances in which he preyed upon children to satiate his perverse impulses.”

Guilty except by insanity

A mentally ill woman armed with a knife tried to murder three local law enforcement officers and commit “suicide by cop” in an Albany neighborhood on April 27.

Micayla Martin went to the home of a Linn County Sheriff’s Office deputy with a knife looking for a “sheriff” to kill, and she called 911 and told a dispatcher what she was doing.

That deputy, and Albany Police Department officers who responded, used restraint in dealing with the situation, and Martin was taken into custody with less-lethal weapons, including electric stun guns.

In November, Martin was committed to the Oregon State Hospital after being found guilty except for insanity of numerous crimes.

Road worker killed

In February, Benton County was cited for five serious safety violations and fined $30,500 by the state Occupational Safety and Health Division in the death of a county road maintenance employee.

Pete Neuman, 59, was working on a county road project in the Coast Range foothills south of Corvallis on Aug. 9, 2019, when the rented piece of logging equipment he was operating rolled 300 yards down a steep hillside and flipped over, causing his death.

An internal investigation and an investigation by the Benton County Sherriff’s Office found that the skidder Neuman was running at the time of his death belonged to Charlie Stouder, the son of road crew supervisor Jim Stouder, and that the elder Stouder had arranged to rent the machine for the county’s use.

Oregon OSHA determined that the skidder’s brakes were inadequate and that the county failed to ensure it was properly inspected and that employees were properly trained to operate the machine.

In May, Neuman’s widow filed an $8 million wrongful death lawsuit against the county, the Stouders and several other defendants claiming negligence. The county has since been dismissed from the case. 

Sweet Home fire

On April 28, the Sweet Home Police Department, assisted by several other agencies, investigated a fire at a trailer in the Tamarack Ridge Estates mobile home park, where two adults and two children were found dead.

The single-wide trailer was heavily damaged in what officials later ruled a murder-suicide.

Authorities determined that Tiffany Shobert, 41, and her children, Johnathon, 15, and Charlotte, 2, had died of blunt force trauma before the trailer burned. Gasoline was used to start the fire, officials said.

Officials said John Shobert, 63, died of a single gunshot wound, and is believed to have killed himself.

Murder charges, manslaughter pleas

Two murder cases were resolved with manslaughter plea deals in Benton County Circuit Court in 2020.

Than Duy Kim was sentenced to 17½ years in prison in January for killing Mitch Xuan Dong at a Corvallis nail salon owned by Kim and his ex-wife, Anh Tram Gia Phan.

Kim, an Albany resident, bludgeoned Dong with a baseball bat and cut his face with knives on Dec. 5, 2017, because Dong was having an affair with Phan.

In September, Jim Dandee Morris pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and other crimes and Julie Thurman pleaded no contest to second-degree manslaughter and other counts for a 2018 shooting in Blodgett that left a man dead and a woman badly injured. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and she was sentenced to eight years. The man who was killed in the property dispute was Wesley Newell, 68.

Jet ski crash

In July, two children were critically injured by an unmanned watercraft at Sweet Home’s Lewis Creek Park. Kennedy Swanson and Zachary Maynard, both 6, were struck when Salem resident Antonio Cassanova-Gonzalez was thrown from his jet ski and it continued on towards the beach.

Kennedy suffered a broken clavicle, broken jaw and lacerations to her liver. Zachary died from his head wounds three days later. The death was ruled accidental, and no charges were filed.

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