WW has learned that a Multnomah County man is a suspect in the killings of four of six women found dead earlier this year in the greater Portland metro area.
Several people familiar with ongoing investigations in multiple jurisdictions tell WW that detectives have linked four of the deaths to Jesse Lee Calhoun, whose most recent address is in Portland.
Serial killers are unusual, but Calhoun’s case, according to people familiar with it, may be one of a kind.
That’s because Calhoun, 38, is among the more than 1,000 inmates whom former Gov. Kate Brown granted clemency, allowing them to leave prison early. Of those Brown released early, officials believe Calhoun is the only one whose clemency has since been revoked.
Records show that Calhoun is currently in custody at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, where he was lodged July 6 on charges apparently unrelated to the murders. (The charges on which he is being held do not show up in online court records, which is unusual.) He has not yet been charged in any of the women’s deaths, although officials expect that will change.
Calhoun, reportedly a talented artist who told booking officials he earned his living painting designs on vehicles, has a long record of felony convictions dating to 2004. After arresting him in 2018 with meth, several guns, and more than 500 rounds of ammunition, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office called him a “prolific thief and career criminal.” Calhoun’s most recent convictions came in November 2019, when he pleaded guilty in separate cases to a raft of felonies, including burglary, unauthorized possession of a stolen vehicle, and injuring a police officer and a police dog when they attempted to arrest him.
Those convictions earned Calhoun four concurrent sentences, the longest of which was 50 months, which included the nearly nine months he’d already served. His projected release date, after a 20% reduction due to good behavior, was June 30, 2022, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections.
But another 11 months were shaved off after he joined a group of inmates fighting wildfires. He was released on July 22, 2021.
During the pandemic, Gov. Brown began a process of granting mass commutations—early release to prisoners who were well behaved, nearing the end of their sentences, and particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
In Oregon, the governor has broad latitude to either release prisoners early—that’s called conditional clemency—or pardon them outright, which entails both releasing them and scrubbing their criminal records. Brown made wide use of the governor’s clemency powers—far more so than her predecessors. She shortened the sentences of 912 nonviolent inmates at risk of contracting COVID, granted 130 pardons, cleared death row, and wiped away cannabis possession convictions of nearly 50,000 people.
Brown earned recognition across the country for her commitment to criminal justice reform, appearing at Princeton University, for example, on a December panel titled “Correcting Injustice: How Clemency Serves Justice and Strengthens Communities.”
When the Labor Day fires in 2020 that would burn 700,000 acres exhausted firefighting resources, the Oregon Department of Corrections deployed some inmates to join the fire lines. Records show that Calhoun was one of them. On March 5, 2021, Brown issued a “conditional commutation” for 41 of the inmate firefighters, knocking the last 12 months off their sentences. That sent Calhoun back to the streets of Multnomah County in July 2021.
Nearly two years later, on June 1, 2023, The Oregonian reported the discovery of the bodies of six young women: Kristin Smith, found Feb. 19 in Southeast Portland; Joanna Speaks, found April 11 in Ridgefield, Wash.; Charity Perry, found April 24 at Ainsworth State Park in east Multnomah County; an unidentified woman, also found April 24, in Lents, although the Portland Police Bureau said it did not suspect foul play; Bridget Webster, found April 30 in Polk County; and Ashley Real, found May 7 in Clackamas County.
Online sleuths ran with that information, raising questions about whether the six deaths were linked. On June 4, the Portland Police Bureau issued a statement in response to widespread speculation, saying, “PPB has no reason to believe these 6 cases are connected.” It is unclear whether the Police Bureau was deliberately withholding information or if new information has emerged since then.
On June 6, however, The Oregonian reported that three of the victims “shared similar circumstances and had frequented the same places in the months before their deaths, according to a source close to the investigations.” That story did not say whether police had a suspect.
In the wake of those deaths, WW has learned, officials contacted Gov. Tina Kotek’s office about Calhoun. As Brown’s successor, Kotek has the authority to end any of the commutations, which are conditional. Kotek did so in Calhoun’s case, leading to his arrest.
“The governor’s office received a request to revoke Jesse Lee Calhoun’s commutation status from the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office on July 3, 2023, and fulfilled the request the same day,” says Kotek’s spokeswoman, Elisabeth Shepard. “We do not have further comment as this is a pending investigation.”
On June 6, officers from agencies that included the Multnomah and Clackamas county sheriff’s offices and the U.S. Marshals Service moved to arrest Calhoun on a parole violation.
When officers contacted Calhoun, who records show is 6-foot-4 and 266 pounds and has a history of resisting arrest, he plunged into the Willamette River in Milwaukie and tried to escape. Officers subdued him and initially booked him on a parole violation on June 6 in Clackamas County (where one of the six women’s bodies was found), transferred him to Multnomah County (where three women were found) the next day, and then moved him to Snake River, a state prison near the Idaho border. (The lawyer who most recently represented Calhoun says he no longer does. It is unclear whether Calhoun has an attorney currently.)
Brown, who left office in January, reacted strongly to news of Calhoun’s arrest. “I’m absolutely horrified for the victims, their families, and all those who have experienced this loss,” Brown said in a statement to WW.
After WW requested comment from the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office on Monday morning, that office and the Portland Police Bureau jointly released a statement saying investigators had identified an unnamed “person of interest,” adding that there were links among the deaths of Kristin Smith, Charity Perry, Bridget Webster, and Ashley Real.
Anyone with information about any of the women’s deaths or Calhoun should contact police via www.crimestoppersoforegon.com.
Lee Vankipuram contributed reporting to this story.