Saturday, November 14, 2009

Histories of Violence

J.D. Chandler is a fan of the matrix (lowercase “m,” no pills, white rabbits or anyone named Neo).
The matrix Chandler is fond of is the one that allows him to unravel Portland’s history of violent crime. It’s a puzzle matrix and one that he learned about early in his career watching the movements of Russian forces in Europe during the Cold War.
Chandler, no relation to Raymond, was a cryptanalyst with a Russian language specialty. His job was putting together puzzles.
“A radio operator would uncover a piece of information and my job was to put it into the matrix of what I already knew so I could interpret its meaning,” said Chandler. “We wanted to have as much warning as possible if (Russia) decided to attack.”
The basic skill was one that he was able to apply to his other pursuits, particularly as a history enthusiast and a fan of true crime tales.
In his spare time, Chandler haunts the Portland Central Library and scrolls through the microfilms of old newspapers. He mines them for true crime stories to include in his blog, Slabtown Chronicle.
Portland became known as Slabtown in the 1880s because of the rough-and-tumble nature of the port city.
“The name was used to describe the district from Oldtown stretching westward from the river to today’s Pearl District,” said Chandler.
At the time, sailor boardinghouses, saloons and brothels infused the area with a mean streak and it was said that visitors were more than likely to end up on a slab.
Chandler felt the name was a natural fit for the work he was doing.

Anna Banana
On April 20, 2006, Anna Svidersky was stabbed to death while cleaning tables at the Vancouver, Wash., McDonald’s where she worked.
Chandler was off work early the day of the murder. He went home and stumbled upon Svidersky’s mySpace page while online.
“It was a compelling story with an attractive and sympathetic victim who had an online presence and it was local,” said Chandler.
The following night he posted his telling of Anna’s story on his new blog and waited to see what would happen.
Soon, members of Svidersky’s family left comments on the blog and sent e-mails thanking him for the “sensitive approach” he used to tell the story.
“The comments from Anna’s family touched me deeply,” said Chandler. “I felt as if my writing served a real purpose and that it is worth doing. “
Unlike some other true crime writers, Chandler attempts to empathize with the both the victims and the family of the killer.
“There is a lot of judgment, vindictiveness and a revenge attitude in the writings of most true crime authors. I personally feel that perpetuates crime,” said Chandler.
Those who would accuse him of ignorance couldn’t be further from the truth.
James Lee
On March 13, 1991, James Lee, 27, was shot and killed while driving a cab in Seattle.
Omar Hakim Chapman called Lee’s cab company to request a pick-up in one of the seedier areas of Seattle’s Central District.
In court, Chapman claimed that there was a dispute, that Lee pulled a gun and that the killing had been in self-defense. The prosecution theorized that Chapman had been trying to force Lee into the trunk of the cab. It was fashionable, at the time, to kidnap cab drivers and use the vehicle for crimes with the driver in the trunk
Lee had been Chandler’s best friend for the previous three years.
“My first career was as a political activist for the Central American Peace Campaign. James and I joined the group about the same time and formed a strong bond right away,” said Chandler. “When I bought a home, James moved into my basement. He was a fun person to be around because he was always making music.”
Two months prior to the murder, they had a falling out over a phone bill.
“I was pretty much cut off from the world at the time it happened,” said Chandler. “My daughter had moved in with me and I was trying to figure out how to be a single-parent for the first time. I didn’t even have a telephone so friends had to come over and tell me he had been shot.”
Being in the courtroom during a murder trial is incredibly difficult for anyone with a connection to the victim, but the family of the killer is often overlooked. It was the demeanor of Chapman’s father that Chandler took notice of during the trial.
“He was absolutely broken. The father had already been a heroin addict before the killing and his son had just come up from California for a visit. He was more broken than James’ family,” Chandler said.
He was also amazed at a number of similarities between himself and the killer.
“We had even attended the same high school in California. I thought, There but for the grace of God go I,” said Chandler. “The best I could figure it, (Chapman) wasn’t a gangster from L.A. but he was pretending to be one for the friends he’d made in Seattle.”
Chapman was sentenced to 25 years in prison with no possibility of parole, but Chandler learned then that violent crime deeply affects everyone with a connection to it. The lesson was reinforced by the messages he received from Svidersky’s family.
Michelle Gates
Shortly after Christmas 1979, 4-year-old Ruth Anne O’Neil was killed by her 13-year-old neighbor Michelle Gates.
Gates admitted to drowning Ruth Anne after intercepting the child’s trip to a local drug store as well as another drowning the year before, that of her own 3-year-old cousin.
We All Scream for Ice Cream, the first post to the Slabtown Chronicle other than a brief introduction, was Chandler’s retelling of the murder.
He was nervous about posting it at first. Since the murders, Gates has changed her name and was arrested for conspiracy to commit murder and arson in 1992.
Gates is now free from prison and, as Chandler puts it, she “haunts his dreams.”
Mystery draws Chandler to many of the cases he investigates, but with Gates he almost knows too much. Her story has been the most difficult for him on a personal level.
“I considered not blogging about it, but after talking with a friend I decided to go ahead with it. He promised to write about it if she killed me,” said Chandler.
On deeper levels, Gates’ actions challenge his feelings about rehabilitation and the death penalty.
“I don’t want the state killing someone in my name,” he said.
On the other hand, he realizes that those who kill and get away with it are more likely to do it again.
“I have been in touch with several people who know (Gates) in her new life and she still scares me,” he said.
Chandler admits he is “calloused” to violent crime. Most people naturally cringe from violence, but Chandler approaches it with an inquisitive mind.
“I like the things that don’t make sense. If I don’t understand something, I keep picking at it until I find the thread that unravels it,” he said.
Over time his research has also given him a different outlook on the potential existence of a higher power.
“I’ve come to the feeling that our purpose is to respond to things that are horrible. What makes us human is the way we respond to these acts,” said Chandler. “Maybe (God) is an emotion-eater and this is what we’re meant to do.”
Chandler’s preservation of the stories for a new and future generation is enough to satisfy him. If a higher power is calling upon him to do it, he’s okay with that too.
Slabtown Chronicle can be found online at In addition to blogging, Chandler is a novelist, poet, and old-time radio enthusiast. Check out the links on his web site for his other endeavors.

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