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Swimming with Sharks

How a brutal drug trafficker convinced local prosecutors that someone else murdered Vincent Pawloski and Jodie Schneider.

Last Monday, Humberto Castro Soler agreed to spend 25 years in prison.

It was a dramatic change of roles for the 36-year-old man. Three years ago he was set to be the prosecutor's star witness in a death-penalty trial of another man--for a brutal double murder it now appears Castro committed.

With its countless plot twists, this story is an extreme example of the legal and ethical minefield that prosecutors negotiate when they cut deals with desperate criminals seeking to save their own butts.

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk concedes there were "rough spots" in the road that led Castro behind bars, but he insists ultimately justice was done.

An Oregon State Bar investigator, however, came to a different conclusion. Her review of the case led her to conclude that an innocent man spent 13 months in jail due to "a botched police investigation from the start."

Either way, the Castro case rates as one of the most bizarre in recent memory and a huge embarrassment to Schrunk's office. Several longtime defense lawyers and prosecutors contacted by WW could not name another murder case where the prosecutor's main witness was later accused of pulling the trigger. As prominent Portland defense lawyer Larry Matasar puts it, "That's more in the movies, isn't it?"

He doesn't know the half of it.

Oct. 7, 1999: It's a dark, damp, overcast day in the Columbia River Gorge near Bridal Veil. Out in the remote northeastern part of the county, a white pickup with a Multnomah County emblem negotiates Northeast Palmer Mill Road.

County health inspector Dave Thomson, 32, has one eye on the road and the other peeled for illegal dump sites. He uses his right hand to guide the 3/4-ton Chevy, hugging the left shoulder of the single-lane gravel way. Suddenly, he jams on the brakes.

About 40 feet away down an embankment, among the low-lying blackberry brambles, are what look like manikins, one female and one male, both clothed.

Thomson throws the Chevy in park and gets out. Edging closer to the surreal spectacle, he realizes they are corpses--bloated almost beyond recognition.

He takes out his cell phone and calls 911 with the news. A dispatcher says they'll send paramedics.

Thomson: "I don't think that will be necessary."

Within days, police identified the couple as Vincent Pawloski, a 37-year-old with a long criminal record who at the time of his death was facing an assault charge, and Jodie Ann Schneider, a 32-year-old mother of three from Salem, who'd bailed him out of jail. Cause of death: shotgun wounds, one to Pawloski's neck, the other to Schneider's back.

The case was assigned to Keith Krafve of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office and Bob Peterson of Gresham Police, both with the interagency East County Major Crimes Team. Peterson was a longtime homicide sleuth. Krafve was a two-year detective on his first murder case.

Their first solid lead came on day five. A friend of the victims told them that in early September, Schneider had delivered an expensive big-screen TV, stereo and leather furniture to the house of a man named Jimmy Bryant--in exchange for an ounce of methamphetamine, which she sold for Pawloski's bail. Once freed, however, Pawloski started calling around angrily, yelling about being "out $5,000" in the furniture deal.

Oct. 12, 1999: Krafve and Peterson sit at a table at Pub 212, a large sports bar on Highway 212 in Damascus, 15 miles southeast of downtown Portland. Joining them are Bryant, a large bearded man, and his girlfriend, Kim Maree Clark, a depressed-looking woman with large brown eyes. They deny knowing anything, but appear nervous. Eventually, Jimmy admits to being Pawloski's meth dealer and confirms the furniture deal. But, he insists unconvincingly, he doesn't know anything about the murder. Bryant does, however, tell them a guy named "Maco" provided him the meth for the furniture deal.

Before the detectives could find Maco, he came to them.

Shortly past noon on Oct. 22, Humberto Castro Soler had a cocaine-induced seizure at the wheel of a 1992 Lexus and drove it into the side of a Gresham apartment building. Police found a meth lab in the trunk.

Arrested for DUI, his face bloody, the man known as Maco went to jail, where he jumped on the phone and begged for bail money.

Driving his frenzy, according to his tape-recorded conversations, was fear of being charged with something more serious than drugs.

Oct. 22, 1999: Castro mutters into the jailhouse phone: "I need to get out of here right away because they're getting ready to charge me with things that you don't even know about.... They're gonna charge me with murder."

Castro is desperate for people to bail him out, but the voice on the other end of the line tells him Jimmy Bryant won't pick up his phone. Unaware his calls are being taped, Castro vows revenge: "You don't even know what I'm going to do to him. Jimmy is through."

So angry is Castro that he incites a brawl with corrections deputies, egging them on with slurs like "nigger" and "slant-eyed gook." He rips the telephone out of the cell wall before submitting in a cloud of red-pepper spray.

Wet and cold and sitting in an isolation cell, Castro told deputies he had information on the Pawloski and Schneider murders. According to police reports, when Krafve and Peterson showed up at 1:50 am, Castro said he'd solve their case--in return for his immediate freedom.

Castro said he'd been at a house down the street from Jimmy Bryant's when Jimmy walked in saying he'd "just killed two motherfuckers" who'd threatened his girlfriend.

Later on the morning of Oct. 23, facing a polygraph machine, a so-called lie-detector that measures nervous tension, Castro changed his story, saying he was at Bryant's house when the murder occurred. He said when Pawloski knocked on the back door demanding money, Bryant opened the door and shot him in the neck, then Schneider in the back. Pawloski died slowly, begging for help.

Castro admitted dousing the bodies with 10 bottles of Red Devil lye to destroy identifying characteristics, as well as recruiting friends to help dispose of the shotgun, bodies and other evidence.

In the judgment of the polygrapher, Castro passed the test. The detectives, who still had not heard Castro's revealing telephone calls from jail, thought Bryant was their man.

One thing they did know was that the Cuban-born Castro had a record and a reputation. His nickname was derived from the fearsome Mako shark. At age 15, he led a group of gun-toting teens who robbed two dozen banks, head shops and pizza parlors around Portland and Vancouver, records show.

Oct. 25, 1999: Bryant and Clark are sleeping on their bed with Clark's dogs, a Rottweiler and a Chow, inside their small green home in Happy Valley on Southeast 132nd Avenue. They're jarred awake at 8 am by percussion grenades exploding, as gun-wielding cops in black body armor pour into their bedroom. Their dogs jump to their feet, barking. Clark yells, "Don't shoot the dogs!"

The struggle over Bryant's destiny became the latest round in an old grudge match.

On one side was Jim McIntyre, the longtime star Multnomah County senior deputy district attorney, who once graced the cover of the Los Angeles Times Magazine for his part in the storied Happy Face Killer case--in which he convicted two innocent people, then freed them and convicted the right person when new evidence surfaced.

On the other was Jenny Cooke, Bryant's court-appointed attorney. The license plate on her silver 1986 BMW, reading "NTGLTY," signals her makeup as a combative true believer in the notion that miscarriages of justice happen all the time. Her kids went to Grant High School at the same time as McIntyre's, but the two parents had nothing in common--other than a history of hard-fought cases and mutual animosity.

"I do not like her," McIntyre would later say in a deposition. She would later call him "lazy" and a liar who doesn't "give a shit."

Cooke and her investigator, Del Lucas, soon came to the belief that prosecutors had indeed found the murderer--and were using him as their key witness.

Castro's profile was more menacing than detectives may have initially realized.

In 1983, following his robbery bust, a state psychologist pegged him a developing sociopath. After an 11-year prison stint, he rejoined a family well-known to law enforcement. "The Castro family has been active in drug trafficking in the Portland metropolitan area since at least 1986," said a 1996 document of Portland's interagency Regional Organized Crime Narcotics task force "...selling between three and four kilos of cocaine a month."

Cops viewed Humberto Castro as an "enforcer," a dangerous man. On the night Castro crashed his Lexus, police officers questioned his girlfriend and her 14-year-old daughter. According to the police report, they broke down crying--saying Castro repeatedly beat them and threatened to kill them.

Bryant's record, by contrast, consisted of four DUIs and a drug-possession charge. "When you wanted a ride, you called Jimmy," Cooke recalls an acquaintance of Bryant's and Castro's telling her. "When you wanted someone killed, you called Maco."

But Cooke's theory was based on more than Maco's criminal history. She and Lucas learned that in the two weeks after Bryant's arrest, four people told police they had the wrong guy--it was Maco, and Bryant wasn't even there. On Nov. 1, for instance, an employee of Castro's brother told police Maco admitted killing the couple.

In February 2000, McIntyre and his star witness signed a deal: For his cooperation, Castro would serve just six months in a Clackamas work-release program, which he began that April.

"I was surprised they'd give him any deal before all the facts were out," says Portland drug cop Dirk Anderson, who was familiar with Castro. "I didn't trust him."

That month, Cooke had her first chance to attack McIntyre's case.

April 7, 2000: Inside a fifth-floor courtroom in the Multnomah County courthouse downtown, Detective Krafve is sitting on the witness stand during Bryant's long-postponed bail hearing. Jenny Cooke faces him.

Cooke: "Has any other person that you've talked to during the course of your investigation told you that Jimmy Bryant is the shooter?"

Krafve: "Other than Humberto Castro?"

Cooke: "Right."

Krafve: "I don't believe so."

Cooke: "Have other witnesses or people with information told you or any other law-enforcement officials that Humberto Castro was the shooter?"

Krafve: "Yes." He then names five people but notes that Castro's credibility was bolstered with detailed knowledge of the crime.

Could he know details because he was the shooter?

Krafve: "That's possible."

Little did Cooke know that some cops had been asking that question from the start.

For Capt. Brian Martinek of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, who oversaw the detectives working the Gorge case, Castro's story did not add up. Why would a savvy crook make such efforts to conceal a murder he didn't commit?

"This is a guy who controls other people," says Martinek, now the chief of the Vancouver, Wash., Police Department. "At the very least I knew that he organized [the murder] and probably ordered it to happen--if not pulled the trigger himself."

And Martinek, like most cops, knew polygraphs are not infallible. "The fact that he passed just confirmed to me that he was just as pathological as I had always believed him to be," Martinek recalled.

The defense team suspected there must be some reason Castro wasn't charged with murder--and, according to Martinek, they were right. The shark was singing.

Besides blowing the whistle on Bryant, Clark and the three other people who'd helped him dispose of Pawloski and Schneider's corpses, Castro solved a 1998 shooting death of a former associate. Soon after Castro's arrest, documents show, he told detectives the 18-year-old man was killed when he, Castro and four other cronies robbed two Clackamas pot growers. With Castro's account the two growers were charged with murder, while Castro's four surviving cohorts were slapped with robbery indictments.

Castro's information burnished his credibility and made him more valuable as a witness than as a defendant.

"We didn't have a rock-solid case against him," Martinek says, "so we had to take advantage of what we did have."

Martinek had concerns about this tactic, according to notes from a Dec. 14, 1999, meeting with McIntyre's partner on the case.

According to the notes, Martinek told the prosecutor he considered his star witness so dangerous that he might kill someone prior to Bryant's trial.

"This was a guy who could kill people, or probably had killed people, in my mind," Martinek told WW. "Everyone knew that."

Mike Ford, an acquaintance of Castro, says the prosecutors' gamble put his family at risk. In November 1999, he, his wife and daughter told Krafve and Peterson that Castro had confessed to the crime and threatened Mike with "war" if they went to the police. However, the detectives didn't believe them and threatened to tell Castro of the allegations--causing their terrified daughter to burst into tears.

"They placed our lives in jeopardy," Ford says.

There were other alleged threats. On Jan. 27, 2000, one week before Castro signed his deal with prosecutors, his sister-in-law called 911 in hysterics. According to the police report, she said Castro, out on bail, threatened to kill her, saying, "They'll never find you."

In May 2000, while serving his Clackamas work release, Castro himself disappeared.

June 1, 2000: Clackamas County jail. Detectives Larry Beckwith and Charlie Bowen are interviewing Steve Webb, an associate of Castro's, about the pot-grower robbery. As the interview ends, Beckwith drops a seemingly casual remark, telling Webb he thought "Maco had probably pulled off the flimflam of all time and ended up getting away with murder."

Webb stops and gives Beckwith a long look.

"You know about that? I know for an absolute fact that he did. ... I got it straight from Maco. I'll take a poly or anything you want. Jimmy Bryant didn't kill anyone."

Beckwith, who faxed a report of the exchange to Peterson, told WW that the Clackamas detectives working the pot-robbery case had come to believe Castro killed Pawloski and Schneider.

Castro eventually made contact with Peterson and Krafve, and later, in June, they persuaded Castro to return. But their case remained shaky. McIntyre had only one witness, while the number of people calling the witness a killer kept climbing.

McIntyre turned to a former cellmate of Jimmy Bryant, who claimed Bryant had confessed to the killings.

On July 12, 2000, McIntyre went before a judge and asked that the inmate, awaiting trial, be given a light sentence for his Bryant testimony, saying the informant "has already been given a polygraph examination, and we intend to proceed with him as a witness in this case."

In reality, the man took two polygraph exams weeks earlier--and failed to pass either of them, according to a police report.

McIntyre would later defend the episode, saying the witness seemed credible. But he conceded to WW that he was by then holding the Bryant case together with "duct tape and baling wire."

Cooke, meanwhile, found three polygraphers who questioned the tests vouching for Castro's credibility.

In September 2000, prosecutor Stacy Heyworth joined the case. Heyworth, who, like McIntyre, is one of Schrunk's best trial lawyers, started reviewing every page of evidence. She didn't like what she saw--especially in November, on the eve of trial, when the prosecution belatedly received several police reports pointing to Castro as the likely gunman.

On Nov. 15, 2000, after a meeting with Schrunk, Heyworth and McIntyre dismissed the case. Bryant was a free man, though after 13 months in jail his hair, which had been mostly black, was now completely gray.

Publicly, McIntyre downplayed the incident, telling The Oregonian he simply wasn't "able to proceed at this time." Privately, this was a black eye. In the culture of Schrunk's unit, former Multnomah prosecutors say, losing a meth case or dismissing a robbery charge is not a big deal--but for a murder case to go south is simply not acceptable.

In December 2000 came another blow to Castro's credibility, when Clackamas prosecutors charged him with attempted murder, saying he'd left a few details out of his account of the Clackamas pot robbery. Specifically, he was accused of shooting one of the growers.

But McIntyre had not given up trying to pin the Gorge murders on Bryant. His now-ex-girlfriend, Kim Clark, faced charges of hindering prosecution and abuse of a corpse, and McIntyre refused to deal, pressuring her to drop the dime on Bryant and allow them to re-indict him.

But Clark refused and instead testified that Castro pulled the trigger--then turned the shotgun toward her, forcing her to cooperate.

Supporting Clark's version of events was a parade of witnesses saying Castro confessed to them. McIntyre obtained a conviction (Clark served 11 months in jail), but the prosecutor admitted to jurors that Castro might have been the killer.

In February 2001, Cooke complained to the state bar, accusing McIntyre of having intentionally withheld evidence of Bryant's innocence.

Instead, the bar blamed the Bryant case on a shoddy investigation. For example, detectives hadn't bothered to transcribe the revealing October 1999 jailhouse tapes of Castro until January 2001.

"Once Bryant was arrested," the bar report said, "the police investigation essentially stopped, because they were convinced they had their man in custody."

In July 2001, Multnomah County charged Castro with the double aggravated murder. The indictment was almost word for word the same as Bryant's had been, only substituting Castro as the shooter.

But because prosecutors had spent more than a year arguing that Bryant was the killer, Castro's case was a defense lawyer's dream.

Last week, with Schneider's daughters somberly watching from the back of the courtroom, Castro was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser conspiracy charge.

For Castro, it was an easy decision. He had been looking at almost 23 years in state prison, based on his Clackamas charge and other offenses, including hindering prosecution and abuse of a corpse.

Folding in the time he's already served, this plea deal means he'll serve essentially the same amount of time--only in federal prison, with more programs and activities. In fact, according to informed sources, as he was being escorted from last week's plea hearing, Castro boasted to a sheriff's deputy, "I just got the homicides for free."

While Bryant faced the prospect of lethal injection for the same crime, Castro could be a free man at age 60, which doesn't please Cooke. "I'm no fan of the death penalty," she says. "But I would say that Castro is one of the very few natural candidates that I have run across."

Bryant won't speak to the press. However, it appears that 13 months facing the death penalty has been good for a man who, according to his friends at the time, was killing himself with crack cocaine. He now drives a truck for a construction company.

Kim Clark, too, is living the straight and narrow, working as an accounting assistant and raising Bryant's son, with whom she was pregnant at the time of the murder. Though they are no longer together, Bryant pays child support and visits with his child.

"Jimmy Bryant is clean and he is sober and involved with his kid," says Cooke. "He has worked hard to make himself a good person."

But Cooke isn't ready to say all's well that ends well. She and civil-rights lawyer Tom Steenson have a pending civil suit against Multnomah County and Gresham over Bryant's incarceration.

"I think McIntyre felt that Jimmy was a bad guy, a doper, and it doesn't much matter that he wasn't guilty of the thing he was charged with," Cooke says.

McIntyre defends the decision to charge Bryant, arguing that the people pointing at Castro were not credible. Clark, for instance, did not pass a polygraph. And he defends Castro's initial work-release deal as a good tradeoff. "The fact that he's resurrecting murder cases and robbery cases in Clackamas County goes a tremendous way," he says, "because he's giving you information that you otherwise don't have."

He also claims Bryant isn't so innocent. Even if he simply told Castro to "take care of" the Pawloski dispute, McIntyre contends, then Bryant is culpable. "Frankly, it doesn't matter to me who's pulling the trigger," says McIntyre. "They're all responsible."

McIntyre's boss, Schrunk, says he's pleased with the results. Between the Gorge murders and the Clackamas County killing and robberies that Castro solved, they identified 15 criminals. "When you look at this group, 14 of them got convicted."

But Schrunk concedes that this case provides another example showing the criminal-justice system is not infallible. "I may as well be honest," he says. "That's why I don't believe in the death penalty."

Dec. 13, 2003: Humberto Castro Soler sits on a stool bolted to the floor of a visiting room in the Multnomah County Detention Center. He picks up a telephone handset, fixes his brown eyes on me through a thick slab of security plexiglass and jabs his finger violently in the air.

"I didn't kill nobody," he says. "I'm telling you, they do this all the time."

Castro says his plea was a pragmatic way to avoid enemies in Oregon state prisons. "I pled to something I didn't do," he tells me. "The conspiracy charge is a joke. I never conspired to kill nobody. Jimmy never conspired to kill nobody. It just happened--everything happened so fast."

But then he adds, for the sake of argument: "If, in fact, I was the killer, what does that say for the judicial system?"

A $5,000 reward was offered for information leading to the killer of Vincent Pawloski and Jodie Ann Schneider.

Detectives Bob Peterson and Keith Krafve declined to be interviewed for this article; Krafve cited the pending lawsuit.

Most of Maco's family had come over from Cuba when he was an infant; his father joined them as part of the 1980 Marielito boatlift, when Fidel Castro emptied his prisons onto American shores.

After police arrested Jimmy Bryant and Kim Maree Clark, they confirmed that the murder had taken place at their house. Pawloski's crossbow was in the woods, and a section of the porch had been broken off and burned to dispose of evidence.

Because of their unreliability, polygraphs are not admissible as evidence in court. Local cops and prosecutors have numerous anecdotes of polygraph mistakes; some say the machines have a blind spot for sociopaths.

In a deposition, Bryant said he owed the Castro family $20,000 from using too much product and was making meth for Castro to pay off his debt.

In April 2000, Castro testified that he and Bryant were moving a pound of meth a week.

Krafve and Peterson did not write a report of their conversation with the Ford family. Krafve later said he might not have believed their allegation that Castro confessed to the killing.

Contrary to police records, McIntyre and witness accounts, Castro denies ever telling anyone he killed Pawloski and Schneider.