Lesbian. Black. Wheelchair-bound. Suffering from brain cancer. It was hard to imagine a more vulnerable target.
In May 1992, when a 40-year-old former corrections officer named Azalea Cooley said that vandals had spray-painted a swastika and "Burn, Nigger, Burn" on her house, Portlanders reacted with a reflexive kick of outrage.
The mayor, the Police Bureau, the Urban League, the No on 9 Campaign, the Anti-Bigotry Coalition, the Metropolitan Human Rights Commission--everyone jumped to condemn the attacks.
Despite the outcry, the harassment continued. Swastikas. Threatening letters. Burning crosses. One morning she found a black plastic doll on her front porch with a .38-caliber bullet lodged in its forehead.
These crimes touched a raw nerve. After the murder of Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw by skinheads in 1988, and the battle over homophobic Ballot Measure 9, Portland no longer seemed like the friendly, tolerant town we once believed in.
Community activists rallied around Azalea, holding all-night vigils and setting up video cameras on her porch to nab the perpetrators. All to no avail--the cameras malfunctioned, and the sinister stalkers seemed unperturbed by potlucks and prayer drums.
By mid-September, the Portland police had gone from baffled to suspicious. Without telling anyone--not even then-Police Chief Tom Potter--investigators set up cameras in a neighbor's apartment.
On Nov. 1, supporters held a rally to "Take a Stand Against Hate," which began with a spiritual "wombing," after which Azalea, in her wheelchair, led a throng of 500 protesters in a march across the Hawthorne Bridge to Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Those protesters had no idea that a secret police videotape from that very morning showed a woman with close-cropped hair step past her wheelchair, stick a wooden cross in a flower pot on her back porch, and set it alight.
It was Azalea.
When detectives confronted her with the evidence, she slashed her wrists and was hospitalized. A week later, she penned a handwritten note, confessing that the incidents had been staged, and admitting that she didn't have cancer or need a wheelchair.
The news stunned her supporters. "You don't know, 'til you've met someone like this, how bizarre it is," one friend recently told WW, recalling how Azalea shaved her arms and dyed her eyebrows to simulate the effects of chemotherapy, and earned extra fem cred by claiming that her cancer was being treated with black-market RU-486. "That woman's agony was real. She was really lonely--in some deeper sense than just not having friends."
Twelve years later, it remains unclear why Azalea faked the attacks. But the reason she got away with it for so long is painfully obvious. At some level, we wanted to believe her. Her story seemed to confirm a dark, paranoid vision about the forces of hate running loose in America--an anti-fantasy that gave us permission to distill our shock and empathy into a jolt of pure rage.
Indeed, America was so hungry for victims in the early '90s that some activists continued to champion Azalea's case even after she admitted making the whole thing up.
Following her confession, Azalea dropped out of sight. WW tried to locate her several times over the past decade. The last we'd heard was a vague report from her former lawyer saying that she was living in California and working with the mentally ill.
WW finally tracked her down in Vallejo, Calif., a working-class suburb north of San Francisco, where she lives in a one-story house not far from Interstate 80.
By all accounts, she remains a reclusive figure. Neighbors say she lives with her sister, Linda, and a black-and-white Maltese, Mitchell, in the house where she grew up.
She was not eager to speak to WW.
"I have nothing to say that anyone in Oregon should be interested in," she said. "I was sick during that time and I'm better now. I haven't forgotten what happened up there. It never leaves me. I can't go back and change what happened in Oregon. It's the most painful thing in my life. But that life is over. I have a new life. A better life.
"I went through a lot of therapy, a lot of hospitalization, and I have become a healthier person. I have a relationship. I have a dog. I am a normal person. In fact, you couldn't pick me out of the crowd if you saw me walking down the street."
Which is puzzling, because neighbors in Vallejo say Azalea does not seem to be in good health. They say she uses a wheelchair and takes a long time to answer the door. They say she told them she has cancer--a tumor in her spine.
Azalea was not interested in pursuing this issue. "I have started a new life," she said. "Let me just get on with my life. Find someone else to harass, OK?"
Intro | Tonya's Mob: Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly & Shawn Eckardt | The Crusader: Gordon Shadburne | The Meteor: Billy Ray Bates | Satan's Pilgrim: Rex Diabolos Church | The Firebrand: Ron Herndon | The Bad Boy: Frank Peters | The Broken Halo: Michael Stoops | The Crack Mother: Anita Nichols | The Veejay: Kennedy | The Girl from Electra: Treva Throneberry | The Perfect Victim: Azalea Cooley | The Grappler: Dutch Savage | Wonder Boy: Pat Gillis | The Ex-Files: Marcia & Steve Moskowitz | The Witness: Dave Mazzella | The Prankster: Igor Vamos | The Intern: Monica Lewinsky | The Runaways: Diane Walden & Peter | Top Cop: Mark Kroeker | Sprawl Kitten: Kate Schiele | Authority Figure: Rocky Balada | The Hulk: Dry Dock 4 | The Candidate: Gail Shibley | The Super: Ben Canada | The Organ Grinder: Dr. William J. Brady | Pillars of the Community: The Lovejoy Columns | The Survivor: Giles Thompson | The Contender: Andy Minsker | Space Invader: The Phantom Dialer | The Red Menace: Ma Anand Sheela