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February 25th, 2009 BETH SLOVIC | News Stories
 

The Killing In Room 515

Three weeks after fatally stabbing his neighbor, Melvin Earl Parker is back in his apartment.

     
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SCENE OF THE KILLING: On Jan. 23, a resident of Rosenbaum Plaza stabbed another tenant to death.
IMAGE: Darryl James

In the sweep of headlines over the past several weeks, the story of Pepe—a 17-year-old poodle—hardly warrants a footnote.

Virtually blind and unable to walk, Pepe was put to sleep last month, but not because of his disabilities. Instead, it was because his owner, a 64-year-old Portlander named Robert Campbell, had been stabbed to death by his neighbor.

When Pepe was cremated, his ashes were mixed with Campbell’s.

Campbell was killed on Jan. 23, one day before two teenage girls were shot dead in front of the Zone, victims of a killing spree that shocked Oregonians. In the days that followed, the Zone shootings dominated local headlines, while Campbell, who was stabbed to death just 14 blocks away, on the fifth floor of the Rosenbaum Plaza apartment complex, attracted little attention.

There were no television cameras at Campbell’s memorial at the Scottish Rite Temple, no editorials suggesting Campbell’s death was a symptom of a decaying social safety net.

After the mourners had gone, there was just the urn of ashes—and the fact that, three weeks after Campbell’s death, the man’s killer, Melvin Earl Parker, returned to the Rosenbaum, to live among Campbell’s old friends.

“It’s like my life turned into a noir film,” one resident of the Rosenbaum said.

Robert Joseph Campbell moved to the Rosenbaum, a tan, Spanish-style building at 1218 SW Washington St., in 1986.

Born in 1945 in Ontario, Ore., Campbell was a basketball star in high school. He was handsome and popular, according to a high-school classmate in Eastern Oregon.

He moved to Portland in the 1960s, where he sold shoes at Meier Frank. There he met his wife, Jane, to whom he was married for a few years before the couple divorced.

By his early 20s, Campbell faced numerous challenges. He jumped from job to job as his depression and severe anxiety became more visible to those around him.

Until his death, Campbell lived for 22 years at the Rosenbaum, a five-story apartment complex three blocks south of the Pearl but worlds away from its million-dollar condominiums. A subsidized housing project run by the Housing Authority of Portland, the Rosenbaum has 76 small apartments with kitchenettes and modest bathrooms. Most of the Rosenbaum’s low-income tenants are either disabled, mentally ill or both. Monthly rent is about one-third of residents’ income—if they have any.

The Rosenbaum seemed a good fit for Campbell. It offered independent living with a limited degree of structure and support: bingo on Wednesdays; a social worker who visited one day a week. Close to the downtown core, the Rosenbaum is within walking distance of a mental health clinic, doctors’ offices and several soup kitchens.

If there had ever been a popularity contest at the Rosenbaum, Campbell would have been a strong contender. He was well-liked, cheerful, helpful. And he was devoted to Pepe and his 15-year-old Persian cat, Suzy—pets he had inherited from previous tenants who had passed away. “He would spend his last penny on his animals,” says Marina McCurdy, who lived on the same floor as Campbell. “He didn’t have any food in his cupboards.”

On Jan. 21, two days before he was killed, Campbell turned 64.

To celebrate his birthday, Campbell walked with Judith Cook, his closest friend at the Rosenbaum, to the Stadium Fred Meyer on West Burnside Street.

A 51-year-old free spirit who first visited Portland on a road trip from Monterey, Calif., Cook has lived in Portland since 1979. Eight years ago, when she moved to the Rosenbaum, she formed a deep bond with Campbell, who had never remarried after his divorce.

Everyone in the building who knew Cook and Campbell agreed the pair acted like an old married couple, although their relationship was not romantic. Even their bickering had a touch of loving admiration.

Jan. 21 was no different. After picking up a few items at the supermarket, Campbell and Cook watched the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Portland Trail Blazers 104-98 on television. Campbell, who rarely drank, enjoyed a can of Camo Black Ice malt liquor. Cook drank Natural Light beer and smoked the cigarettes she rolled herself in the apartment whose walls are yellowed by nicotine and tar.

When Campbell got up to leave, he started to argue with Cook.

Campbell, who had once tried to start an exercise club at the Rosenbaum, told Cook she didn’t take good care of herself. His voice rose to a shout, Cook recalls. “He said, ‘If you don’t quit smoking and drinking, you’ll be dead in a year.’”

It was the last thing Campbell said to her.

Like Campbell, Melvin Earl Parker lived on the fifth floor of the Rosenbaum. He, too, was mentally ill and unable to work.

At 60, he earned about $600 a month from Social Security. He claimed to be a voracious reader and a fan of Noam Chomsky. At 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds, he was slim, and with his thick lenses in oversized glasses, he had a disheveled, slightly professorial air. He was so meticulous about his clothing, he took his shirts and slacks up the street to Cox’s Cleaners to be laundered and pressed regularly.

“He’s not a bad person,” an older woman at the dry cleaners said. “He’s a good person.”

Born in Tennessee, Parker moved from Chicago to Portland in the early 1990s. He bounced around flophouses and homeless shelters in Old Town, according to police records. For about two years he lived at the Royal Palm, transitional housing now run by Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare. In late 2003, he moved to the Rosenbaum, residents say.

Though he was apparently stable enough to leave the Royal Palm, Parker was never entirely well. Police reports indicate Parker was diagnosed with schizophrenia years earlier. But the antipsychotic medication Parker says he took could never completely muffle the voices within him, according to those who know him.

In recent months, something about Parker changed. Residents at the Rosenbaum say it appeared he was getting worse, as if he had stopped taking his medicine altogether. He would laugh for seemingly no reason. He panhandled inside his own building, among his neighbors, residents say. He would urinate outside the building instead of going upstairs to his apartment. His words grew harder to understand, at times threatening. Both his speech and his behavior were clouded and confusing. “He’d be acting really weird,” one resident said, “rolling around in the lobby on the carpet playing imaginary golf.”

Court records say he had no children, nor any family in Portland.

Parker and Campbell knew each other. Parker would bum cigarettes from Campbell when no one else would share. “Melvin told him one time, ‘You’re the nicest guy in the building,’” Cook says. But Parker later told authorities he considered Campbell a stranger, someone he recognized from the building but didn’t know. “I mind my own business,” he told authorities.

Late at night, on Jan. 22, the neighbors collided. Witnesses told police Parker and Campbell were fighting.

Many others heard the commotion on the fifth floor. Around 10 pm, or possibly later, a 39-year-old woman on the same floor was screaming loudly in her room, residents say. She wouldn’t stop. At 12:50 am on Jan. 23, someone called police to complain. They investigated, then left.

Parker, who lived next door, was pounding on the walls, residents say. He might have been trying to quiet the woman. Or it might have been his pounding that caused the woman to wail.

Campbell, who lived around the corner from Parker, had to have heard the commotion as he lay in bed reading a library book about World War II. But for some reason Campbell decided to intervene. Neal Twyford, another resident whose apartment is opposite Parker’s on the fifth floor, says he thinks Campbell was trying to help the woman. “He was trying to stop Melvin, and things got out of hand,” Twyford says.

In notes about the case, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office describes what happened this way:

“Campbell says he has had enough and he yells at [Parker] that he is going to cut his head off, cut his balls off. Campbell does not have a weapon. He advances toward [Parker], who is standing outside his apartment. [Parker] then goes inside apartment. [Parker] tries to push the door closed. [Campbell] pushes his way in and grabs [Parker] by shoulders. Defendant says he stabbed victim [with a pocketknife] because he threatened to cut his head off and he thought [Campbell] would take his knife and use it against him. Defendant calls 911. [Campbell] is still alive while calls 911. [Parker] assists in giving aid.”

Several inches taller than Parker but about the same weight as him, Campbell had been stabbed three times inside Parker’s apartment—in his aorta, his liver and under his chin. According to the district attorney’s notes, Parker made a fourth and fifth attempt to cut Campbell.

Unarmed, he bled to death on the linoleum of the Rosenbaum’s fifth floor.

Within minutes of his 911 call, police arrested Parker, charged him with murder and took him to the Multnomah County Detention Center, where he was placed in a cell by himself in a high-security dorm, wearing a paper jumpsuit. His white T-shirt, gray slacks and white socks were taken from him as evidence. Reports indicate Parker showed no signs of illness or injury.

On a Thursday, three weeks after the stabbing, a Multnomah County grand jury decided to free Parker from jail by declining to indict him for murder. That meant Parker was free to return to the Rosenbaum.

Both the prosecutor in the case, Deputy District Attorney John Casalino, and Parker’s defense attorney, Dawn Andrews, call what happened inside the Rosenbaum in January a tragedy—but not a crime, according to the grand jury. “It is a tragedy that did not result in a chargeable offense,” Casalino says.

Two factors appear to have swayed the grand jury’s decision not to take Parker to trial for murder or any lesser charges such as manslaughter: the location of the killing inside Parker’s apartment, suggesting an element of self-defense, and Parker’s 911 call at 1:12 am on Jan. 23, when he told a dispatcher he had feared for his life. (Parker’s history of mental illness does not appear to have been a factor.)

“I stabbed someone,” Parker told the dispatcher almost immediately, although commotion in the background made Parker’s confession harder to hear.

“I can’t understand you,” the dispatcher replied.

“I stabbed someone,” he insisted again. Recordings of the 911 dispatch are below: [audio:2009/32235.mp3] [audio:2009/32235-CE.mp3] [audio:2009/32235-2.mp3]

Despite this, the grand jury determined Parker had been afraid for his own life.

“The grand jury deliberated and decided there was nothing criminal about my client’s conduct,” Andrews says.

The grand jury reached its decision Feb. 12.

On Friday, Feb. 13, Parker was back in his old apartment.

By that time, Campbell’s family had already removed his belongings from the Rosenbaum. The wailing woman whom residents blame for provoking the fight was also gone.

She had decided on her own to leave, but court records show she was about to be evicted. The Housing Authority confirms this but would not say why.

Anna Culley, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and served overseas with the U.S. Army as an administrator, has lived at the Rosenbaum for five years. Before that, she lived at the Royal Palm, where Parker also once lived. She’s known Parker, in total, for seven years, she says.

Culley always did her best to avoid Parker, since he had made her feel unsafe on multiple occasions by lunging and cursing at her. At least six times Culley filed formal complaints about Parker at the Rosenbaum, she says. (The Housing Authority of Portland could not confirm the existence of these complaints, citing confidentiality laws, but said it investigates all matters requiring an inquiry.)

Court records indicate Parker told authorities he was taking his risperidone and Zoloft for schizophrenia and depression when he was arrested. But Culley and other residents don’t believe that Parker, who declined to talk to WW, was stable. If he could kill once, what would stop him from killing again? “I don’t really believe he should be out,” says Barbara Fogg, a third-floor resident. “We have somebody who’s very dangerous in our building.”

A week after Parker returned to the building, a spokeswoman for the Housing Authority said the agency was working to find Parker a new home. (On Feb. 4, long after he was arrested but before he was freed, the Rosenbaum initiated eviction proceedings against Parker. When the grand jury decided not to indict him, the Housing Authority halted that process.) “We are actively pursuing other housing options for him,” says Shelley Marchesi, the Housing Authority spokeswoman. “These are not situations we ignore.”

In the meantime, several residents have responded to Parker’s return with a mixture of anger and caution. Some have decided to move, although the waiting lists at other low-income apartments in Portland require months of patience. Culley started wearing a whistle around her neck. McCurdy, who lives on the fifth floor, started a petition to speed Parker’s removal.

She also hid a child-size baseball bat, which she planned to give to her grandson, next to her front door.

The day after Campbell’s killing, Campbell’s nephew, Paul Croghan, visited the Rosenbaum to retrieve Suzy and Pepe. At the time of his death, Campbell still owed money to the veterinarian who had agreed to treat Pepe and Suzy on an installment plan.

Three or four days later, at Campbell’s sister’s house in Southeast Portland, Pepe was howling for his owner.

“It was a weird kind of crying noise,” Croghan explains. “I would pet him, and he would look someplace else, like, ‘You’re not the right guy.’”

A couple days later, they put the dog down. He’s joined again with Campbell.

 
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