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October 31st, 2007 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

Mr. Larry’s Strange Trip

How a former NAACP leader beat an attempted-murder rap in rural Oregon, and what he’s doing about it.

     
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NOT GUILTY: Robert Larry with the 1993 GMC Suburban he drove to Eastern Oregon.
IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com

When Robert Larry climbed into his GMC Suburban in 2005 for a road trip to Eastern Oregon with his son and his ex-girlfriend, he had no idea it would end with him stabbed in the ear with a broken gearshift and charged with attempted murder.

Two years later, Larry—a 47-year-old former liquor-store owner and past president of the Portland NAACP—has beaten that rap in a courtroom in The Dalles. But he’s not through yet with the prosecutor who tried to put him in prison after Larry’s ex-girlfriend accused him of holding her prisoner and planning to kill her.

Larry has fired off five complaints to the Oregon State Bar against Wasco County District Attorney Eric Nisley, whom Larry accuses of pursuing a bogus case against him.

Larry, who headed the Portland NAACP from 2002 to 2004, jokes that the only other black man in The Dalles, the Wasco County seat, was a lawn jockey statue at a historic home across the street from the courthouse. “I know without a doubt, based on my dealings, being African-American had a lot to do with what happened there,” Larry says.

Nisley adamantly disputes that he’s a racist and says his case against Larry was merited. “I don’t know what’s racist about filing a charge like that,” Nisley says. “Should I not charge people who are black for doing something like that?”

Based on evidence Nisley set forth, a Wasco County grand jury indicted Larry for attempted murder, kidnapping, assault, coercion, strangulation, menacing, harassment, reckless endangerment and unlawful possession of a firearm. If Larry had been convicted on all counts, Nisley says he would have asked for a 7 1/2-year sentence. In the end, visiting Lincoln County Circuit Judge Robert Huckleberry—who heard the notorious family murder case of Christian Longo in 2003—acquitted Larry on every count except reckless endangerment. That charge came after Larry allegedly put his 6-year-old son between him and a cop who had his gun drawn. Huckleberry sentenced Larry to 18 months of probation.

Nisley says he’s still convinced Larry is guilty of all the charges. The alleged victim, 38-year-old Walunda Harris, says the same. But Larry says Harris—a former commissioner at the Vancouver, Wash., Housing Authority—fabricated the entire incident to publicly humiliate him. That’s a charge Harris firmly denies.

“Everything that I told the police is exactly what happened,” says Harris, who spoke to WW by phone from her new home in Sacramento. “I’m a victim in this situation.”

Whomever you choose to believe, it’s a messy story that begins on July 30, 2005—the morning Larry piled into his 1993 Suburban with Harris, his son Trebor, and Roo, the family’s 6-month-old Doberman pinscher. They set off for Eastern Oregon for a little business and some hunting and fishing.

Larry and Harris had broken up two months before, after a rocky, three-year relationship. Larry says Harris was having personal troubles, and he invited her along as a friendly gesture. Harris says she agreed to go because she was afraid of him and didn’t want to say no.

The three shared a room Saturday night at a hotel in La Grande, where Larry had scheduled a meeting with the local district attorney about a black student at Eastern Oregon University who was facing an assault charge. Sunday night they stayed in a cabin in Wallowa, and on Monday they were headed back to Portland on Interstate 84.

On the trip, Larry says Harris became increasingly angry and combative. Harris says she was convinced Larry planned to kill her. At 9:30 pm Sunday they pulled into McDonald’s in The Dalles. Inside, Harris began yelling for someone to call 911. After they drove off, a worker at the restaurant called to report that Harris was being kidnapped.

As they entered the I-84 onramp, Harris broke the gear shift from the steering wheel and began hitting Larry with it, stabbing him in the right ear hard enough to tear cartilage. On the highway, Larry says Harris tried to grab the steering wheel and threatened to kill Trebor. Larry took the next exit to the Dalles Boat Basin, where he says he wrestled Harris out of the car and pinned her down in a bear hug.

A Coast Guard officer stepped off a boat, broke up the fight and called 911. When the police arrived and drew their guns, Larry disobeyed their commands and fetched Trebor out of the back seat. According to the police, Larry used the boy as a human shield to move around the vehicle and drop a handgun into Harris’ bag. Larry denies positioning the boy between him and the police, and says the gun was already in the bag.

A visibly distraught Harris told the cops Larry had held her prisoner and threatened to kill her. But her reliability came into question during the trial, when Larry’s defense called as a witness Shane Byers, a former professor at Portland State University.

Byers testified that after he and Harris had an affair in the 1990s, she stalked him and his family—once stripping naked and walking out of his office in order to embarrass him. Harris was previously convicted of assaulting two Vancouver police officers in her home in 1997, which also came up at the trial.

Huckleberry, who was brought in from Lincoln County after the first judge recused himself, acquitted Larry of most of the charges on June 15 of this year. It wasn’t Larry’s first legal victory against law enforcement. He successfully sued the City of Portland in 2006 for $50,000, when an arbitrator ruled police had assaulted Larry and held him without cause in a 2003 incident.

The episode in The Dalles has had lasting effects on both Larry and Harris. Harris told WW she moved to Sacramento because she was afraid of Larry. “I’ve been through pure hell,” she says.

Larry, who lost his liquor store on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 2004 for failing to pay the OLCC for $34,000 worth of booze, says the Wasco County case nearly destroyed his life. After his arrest in The Dalles, Larry says, he was treated as a pariah around Portland. Focusing on his legal defense forced him to mortgage his three-bedroom home in North Portland and file for bankruptcy.

Now he says he plans to start law school at Lewis&Clark College. He’ll also continue to push his bar complaints against Nisley, who is up for election in 2009.

“Nisley is directly responsible,” Larry says. “He couldn’t accept that a black man wasn’t kissing his behind.”


FACT: The lawn jockey across from the Wasco County courthouse is not the only black man in the county. About 95 of the county’s 23,712 residents are black, or 0.4 percent, according

to the U.S. Census.

 
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