Pamela Quinlan’s ordeal began with a neighborly dispute over parking.
In March 2018, she called Gresham City Hall to complain about cars blocking her driveway. So began a feud, which quickly escalated into her neighbor spewing racist epithets, breaking windows, and threatening to kill her, she says.
And when that neighbor, 35-year-old Sead Selimovich, was arrested in fall 2019, the case made headlines. Selimovich was charged with a slew of bias crimes, including criminal mischief and attempted assault.
Now, four years later, Selimovich and his family have long moved out of the neighborhood. And despite a lengthy investigation, a Multnomah County circuit judge said he couldn’t be sure how many, if any, of the accusations were true—despite blockbuster court testimony that the investigating officer, David Anderson, believed was damning.
Anderson’s key evidence? The racist text messages found on Selimovich’s phone, shown in court in January. “I’m gonna finish it. Fuck that [N-word],” wrote Selimovich, who did not censor the racist epithet.
That night, someone was caught on video taking a large object to the windows of Quinlan and her family’s cars.
But it wasn’t enough to convince Judge Eric Dahlin of Selimovich’s guilt. The video was grainy, and racist language by itself is not illegal. In January, Dahlin acquitted Selimovich.
“It’s appalling. It’s awful,” Judge Dahlin said of the crimes. But, he says, he had reasonable doubt that Selimovich did them, citing a lack of corroborating witnesses and DNA evidence. “It’s literally a ‘she said, he said’ situation,” Dahlin explained.
Typically, bias crime cases hinge on whether prosecutors can prove a criminal defendant was motivated by bigotry. This case was different: The hate was clear, but the crime wasn’t.
The bias crime charge depended both on Selimovich’s bigoted motive and proof that he committed the underlying property damage. Dahlin wasn’t convinced Selimovich did it—so the fact that he was spewing racist invective didn’t matter.
Anderson, who had retired from the force and was managing security for the Portland Thorns and Timbers, was devastated. He did something he’d never done before. He sent a pair of emails calling the decision an “error,” arguing that Dahlin had required prosecutors to meet an impossible burden of proof.
He sent one email to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office praising its prosecutor, and a second to Multnomah County’s highest judge, Judith Matarazzo, criticizing Dahlin. “The victims deserved better,” he wrote.
One of those victims, Pamela Quinlan, says she still lives in fear. “This was a blatant miscarriage of justice,” she says. “I felt like I did not matter at all. I was nothing.”
Before becoming neighbors, both Quinlan and Selimovich lived remarkable lives.
Quinlan is an accomplished musician, a songwriter and keyboardist who toured the world with the likes of Bob Dylan and Donna Summer. She sang and co-wrote songs on a series of hit records, including Mick Jagger’s 2001 album Goddess in the Doorway. Around 27 years ago, she and her husband moved into the white single-story ranch-style house in Gresham where they settled down and raised a son.
Selimovich spent five years in a refugee camp after fleeing the ethnic cleansing of Muslims during the Bosnian War. He arrived in the United States at the age of 9. When he moved into the rental house next door with his girlfriend, he ran a Portland auto dealership.
The neighbors’ conflict began in 2018, when Quinlan grew suspicious that Selimovich had brought his work home with him. There were so many cars in his yard they spilled out onto the street, some with green price tags, she testified. Selimovich says the volume of vehicles was due to the fact that six adults were sharing the home.
Quinlan called Gresham code enforcement, and later that month the city sent out an inspector, who snapped photos of an overgrown fence and a backyard full of cars. The next month, city officials walked Selimovich through the allegations at a sit-down meeting at City Hall. They showed him the photographs, which had clearly been taken from Quinlan’s backyard.
That, Quinlan said, was when the harassment began. Not long later, Quinlan and her husband were out walking their dog, Kirby, when she says Selimovich walked up to her and accused her of ratting him out. “Snitches get stitches,” he allegedly told her.
Selimovich has repeatedly denied all her accusations and says he harbors no racial bias. He admits to calling her a “rat” but claimed in court that he, not Quinlan, had been the target of racial harassment. (Ryan Corbridge, one of his attorneys, said Selimovich was unavailable to comment for this story, but added that his client was “looking forward to getting back to his life as it was before these allegations.”)
Over the next year and a half, Quinlan’s household was subject to repeated vandalism. First came a billiard ball through their front picture window. Then someone smashed in the sunroof of their Infiniti with a golf club. And finally, in an incident that attracted neighborhoodwide attention, three people smashed the windows of three cars in Quinlan’s driveway.
The racist abuse didn’t let up either, Quinlan says. Once, she says, Selimovich threatened repeatedly to kill her, interspersing his rage with racist epithets, while she was walking a neighborhood child across the street.
“I just became a shut-in,” she tells WW. “I’ve traveled all over the world, many times over. And I’ve never, ever experienced any terror like this.”
Each time, Gresham police responded, took a report, talked to a hostile Selimovich, and failed to find probable cause to arrest him.
That is, until Gresham Police Officer David Anderson, a 35-year veteran of two police departments, got wind of Quinlan’s complaints. “It was a potential bias crime,” he later testified. “And nothing was happening.”
After Quinlan reported the final string of car-window bashings, Anderson went to the car dealership to interview Selimovich, who had a conspicuous splint on his ring finger. Selimovich said he’d hurt it while hammering a truck bumper. Anderson believed it had instead happened during the smashing of Quinlan’s windows.
Selimovich was arrested later that day. On his cellphone were text messages to his girlfriend containing the N-word and a reference to smashing. In another thread, he asked a friend if he could “help out” that night.
(Selimovich later testified he was texting drunk and that smashing was a reference to sex. When asked about the request for help, he told the court it was a coded message to his dealer. “I was tryna buy some coke, man,” he said.)
Finally, this January, Selimovich and Quinlan got their day in court. Anderson sat in the back and watched.
Selimovich had requested a bench trial—his attorney said the “inflammatory nature” of the allegations might prejudice a jury against him—leaving Dahlin to wade through four days of testimony on his own.
By the end, Dahlin was conflicted. He didn’t believe much of the testimony presented by Selimovich’s family and friends, who were paraded into the courtroom by defense attorneys to attest to Selimovich’s character and shore up an alibi.
That testimony had “little credibility,” Judge Dahlin said. And, he noted, “there’s no question he used the N-word.”
On the other hand, hate speech isn’t a crime. The United States has some of the strongest free-speech protections in the world. And Oregon courts have made them even stronger. Speech, even in its worst forms, is protected under both the Oregon and U.S. constitutions.
There are exceptions. It’s illegal to threaten immediate harm. And hate speech can be used as evidence of other crimes or as a sentencing enhancement. But except in the most extreme circumstances, explains Stephen Kanter, dean emeritus at Lewis & Clark Law School, “You’ve got to have the threshold of an underlying crime.”
That’s where the prosecution fell apart, Dahlin says.
In criminal trials, a conviction requires an imposing standard of proof, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Not mathematical certainty, Kanter says, but moral certainty. In other words, the judge must be very sure of the defendant’s guilt. “As sure as you would be to make the most important decisions in your life,” Kanter says.
Dahlin wasn’t sure. Gresham police, despite multiple searches of Selimovich’s home, could not find any DNA or other physical evidence linking Selimovich to the window smashings. And no one besides Quinlan and her husband claimed to have seen him do it. When Dahlin reviewed the security footage purportedly showing Selimovich smashing windows, the video was too grainy for him to make an identification.
Dahlin found Selimovich not guilty on all 17 counts.
He let Selimovich go with a warning. “If something were to happen to [Quinlan and her family] or their property,” he said, “you would most likely be the first person of interest.”
That’s little consolation for Quinlan, whose suffering continues.
“I would stay up at night, protecting my husband and son,” she said, fearing a rock or firebomb would come crashing through her window. “I live with that fear every single night. And I still do.”