In the 1980s, Jordan Merrell often played in the wilderness near his home, located in the Siuslaw Forest in Lincoln County. Jordan was adopted by Carol Van Strum and husband Paul Merrell when he was days old in 1979. (Photos courtesy of Carol van Strum)
Opinion | A letter a day for 15 years and 9 months
FINDING FRINGE | A mother’s love reaches into the bowels of the Oregon penal system to keep her son afloat by Paul K. Haeder | 26 Aug 2020, originally published in Street Roots, Portland, OR.
I catch her in the early evening. Two black bears cross the road just before turning onto her driveway.
It’s light out, but I swear I saw two barn owls swooping into a stand of apple trees.
After I am finished with the interview, she will hold court under the stars with her two Sicilian donkeys, an old mare, a cockatiel, and Amazonian and Patagonia parrots as company. A black Lab mix, Mike, is the outdoor shadow, her sentinel.
A single barrel 12-gauge shotgun is “just in case.”
I’m on her 20 acres about 30 miles by road from Waldport. The stories Carol Van Strum unfolds are a dervish through many labyrinths. She has been in the Siuslaw Forest for 46 years, but her origins start in 1940, at the dawn of World War II. Her roots were first set down in Port Chester in Westchester County, N.Y., with a father who went to Cornell and a mother who supported the whims and avocations of their five daughters.
At age 79, she’s spry enough to live in an old garage converted into a great room with a bedroom loft. Her cherub cheeks belie an Irish heritage.
I got to know Carol Van Strum a year ago when I was researching her life and her own research on deadly chemicals for another piece — about her fight against the chemical purveyors who sell their brew of toxins to cities, counties and industries like the timber barons.
Carol’s raison d’etre is the nonfiction gem “A Bitter Fog: Herbicides and Human Rights,” written in 1983, which follows the case of Carol; her husband, Steve; four children (all of whom perished in a suspicious fire in their cabin); neighbors; residents of Lincoln County; and their battle with the state of Oregon, chemical companies, the EPA and the U.S. Forest Service.
The intrigue behind today’s meeting — her 40-year-old adopted son’s 15 years and nine months of incarceration for a crime he didn’t commit — ties into the many strands to her web of life that easily could be fodder for movie makers.
In the verdant wonder of the old homestead, we are about to crack open a pitiful story that turns into triumph.
The miscarriage of justice has to do with race, those without money getting the proverbial short shrift, and a punishment and retributive system of criminal injustice that wants a piece of flesh of every targeted human being.
I am here to drill down into Jordan Merrell’s figurative hell after being wrongly prosecuted and convicted of first-degree murder with a 25-to-life sentence under Oregon’s infamous Measure 11 mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. That was 1995.
Carol and a second husband, Paul Merrell, adopted Jordan when he was days old in 1979.
“It was a doctor’s friend who had a friend who was a midwife who said she had an African American baby boy who would find it hard to be adopted. His biological mother did not want the baby.”
The young Jordan lived an amazing life with animals, under the big sky of the Central Oregon Coast Range, while communing with fruit trees and adventures splashing in streams while studying newts and chasing crazy barn owls. He played baseball and basketball at Waldport High School, one of two Black students at the school.
The story of a 15-year-old boy accused of murdering an elderly man is rare indeed. Two 14-year-old girls accused him of the crime, even though, as Carol points out, Jordan wasn’t even near the man’s house — where the murder took place. Jordan possessed no bicycle, nor a vehicle, making it impossible for him to have been at the scene of the crime.
It turns out one of the girls had already attempted murdering her grandfather for money, but her juvenile record was sealed and denied as evidence in Jordan’s trial. His court-appointed defense attorney never called three witnesses who would have placed Jordan 3.8 miles away from the murder.
Jordan’s juvenile years were striated in Oregon’s MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, and when he turned 18, his life transitioned into a veritable crisscrossing of cycling in and out of all of Oregon’s prisons.
Through the hellish trial, then the early days of anger tied to wrongful incarceration, transitioning into years surviving by grit and wits, and finally graduating to learn how to mete out an existence in a dangerous world, Jordan still lands back on the power of his mother keeping him centered.
He explains that Carol is his guardian angel. “Literally, she wrote me a letter every single day. If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Jordan’s stick-to-it-ness comes from his school of hard knocks and Carol’s perseverance, as well as this undying dedication to construct a lifeline of letters, books and visits.
“You know, when he went to his first adult prison, there were three Black men who took Jordan under their protection. These men showed him the ropes and protected him. Jordan was a pretty naïve and unworldly kid when he was arrested,” Carol tells me.
The rotten aspect of Jordan’s ordeal is tied to a broken legal system of bad cops, duplicitous district attorneys, incompetent defense lawyers and mean-as-cuss judges. Add to those many strikes against the teenage Draconian constraints of legislation like Measure 11.
“I didn’t have a defense really. He was a low-level lawyer,” Jordan said. “The way the legal system works is that it gets you into a corner and forces you to make a plea bargain.” At the first trial in Lane County, Jordan did not enter a plea agreement. “I didn’t know much then. The attorney tried to step down during my defense.”
The crisscrossing of incarceration blues started with Oregon Corrections’ intake center, then McLaren Youth Correctional Facility, then Oregon State Penitentiary.
In 2008, he won an appeal based on evidence of reasonable doubt — and because the attorney in the initial trial did not call witnesses.
“In this case we found that the defendant did not have effective counsel,” said Stephanie Soden, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, at the time. “It’s a fairly common reason to petition for post-conviction relief, but it’s one that’s rarely granted.”
He got a new plea deal outside of Measure 11 minimums, and the sentence was reduced, with credit for time served. He tells me he did not think he could convince a new jury of his innocence.
“I assure you I didn’t do what I confessed,” he wrote in a letter to his mother. “But it’s time to move on.”
After his resentencing, he ended up in Lane County jail. More moves to Umatilla County Correctional Facility, Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras, and then Pendleton to Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, and his last stop was Columbia River Correctional Institution.
He wrote essays during his time inside the wire, and this is from one he wrote when he was “fresh out:”
I walked quickly down the access road that led to the prison — as though the guards might change their minds and chase me down. The immediate area was semi-rural, the access road leading to a small highway that meandered ten blocks or so onto a main boulevard running north and south through much of the city. … I walked for miles through the outskirts of the city, stopping at numerous small stores, none of which accepted my debit card.
Finally, I came to a gas station where the clerk informed me that not only could I not get change from the card, there were no pay phones for miles! This was my first experience of the kindness I had forgotten humans naturally have an instinct for. The clerk let me use his cell phone to call a friend, and when I couldn’t operate it (it appeared to have no buttons — I thought about trying to give it a voice command) he dialed it for me.
“Early on I was angry, but when I got out, I was euphoric,” Jordan tells me. He ended up at a community house in Multnomah County — run by Phoenix Rising Transitions.
He emphasizes being around other guys just like him who understood his way of thinking was powerful. Learning new responsibilities at the house helped Jordan during the four months of halfway house living.
“It was a good way of transitioning, as opposed to ending up in a studio apartment by myself. Outside, people were rude and disrespectful, so having guys from prison on the same page made it easier since we understood where we had come from and understood our way of thinking,” he said.
Jordan was halfway through the ninth grade when he was incarcerated. He knows how tough it is in prison finding role models.
“While inside, I focused on change. I had to create an imaginary role model. It all comes down to being logical about things — is doing A going to get me to B and so on.”
When he was released, on a few occasions Jordan ran into fellow inmates who still stayed “involved in all the illegal stuff. They hung onto what they did that got them to prison in the first place.”
His best friend (one of only a few friends) is back in prison because of this arrested development.
Stepping stones inside and outside the wire
I ask Jordan what he aspired to be in his formative years.
“I guess I wanted to be a cop,” he said chuckling. He ended up out of prison working on a degree in accounting, married and with a 10-year-old stepdaughter.
His life moved quickly in some regards once outside the wire — he met Julie three weeks after leaving prison. Then three weeks later they were married. They have been a couple since 2013.
Both Carol and Jordan tell me Julie is a smart woman who’s organized and into logistics. Jordan said they both had aspirations of doing a catering service — a mobile pub or bar. The pandemic has put all those ideas on hold. He’s at Mt. Hood Community College taking classes for an associate degree. He’s also out on parole for life. While he doesn’t report in person anymore, he’s still charged a $35 per month supervision fee.
He continually reminds me of evolution, transformation and transmogrification now that he has family and purpose.
“I have left that part of my life behind. I am now doing something specifically focused on getting my life together and being devoted to my family. I lost almost 16 years of my life. I had no job experience, no life experience (outside of prison), no education.”
He mentions this after I prod him about why he’s not writing more, maybe even penning a memoir.
Jordan admits it’s possible a book might come later. “Before, when I was writing, I was in a cell for 23 or more hours a day. I had nothing else to do, so I could focus on the writing. Maybe later when I am more established.”
Overt racism Jordan endured in high school, Carol relays, was both ugly and absurd. “The only Black kid at Waldport High School. He was pulled out of class by the principal and was accused of being a gang member. How absurd — a gang of one.”
Much of Carol’s novel, “Oreo File,” is patterned after a young boy like Jordan.
While looking at her heritage corn stalks, I am gifted several books by Carol, including “Cross Country ABC: 1957,” which is an account of the trip she and two sisters took across the U.S. in a 1956 Chevy station wagon.
Then another book, penned in 2009, “The Story of a Barn – Alder Hill.” The barn was on her property, built in 1930 by Elihu Buck, an engineer who had worked on the Gold State Bridge. This gem of a short book is a history of the property, the surrounding homesteads, the trees, the creamery in Waldport as well as the Red Octopus Theatre performances premiering in the barn.
This is part and parcel of Jordan’s history, too, as he knows the land and knows the place. It’s tied up in his spiritual and cultural DNA. The book written by Carol as a tribute to Jordan is another gem – “Northern Spy: A Good Apple Tree.” The book is like a narrative poem about Jordan’s life here, from adopted baby to child to teenager.
On the hillside by the house is a grand old apple tree called Northern Spy. It was planted at the birth of a beautiful child.
Far away behind steel and concrete, the boy grew into a man. His faithful dog Sherlock died without seeing him again.
Then, at the end of the book, Jordan is a 33-year-old man, with his wife, Julie:
There would be difficult times ahead, looking for work, finding a place to live, enrolling in college. But good times awaited, too. By summer there would be someone to share both happy times and tough ones. Someone to take home at last and show where he came from.
“That’s my redwood,” he would say. “I planted it. And see beyond it, that’s my apple tree.”
He would show her the river, the donkey, the gardens, the flowers, an iguana’s grave.
And come fall there would be buckets of apples from his beloved Northern Spy.