'Divorce' and deceptions end in court
This is a cautionary tale to remind people not to believe everything they hear, read, or even see.
The antagonist in this story didn't cause physical harm to people or the environment, or take things that didn't belong to him. The harm he caused was primarily emotional. He caused a woman to wonder if she can ever trust again.
In the fall of 2004, according to court papers, Christopher Curtis Elliott, now 40, began an online relationship with a woman from Salem. Initially cautious, Renee Zipser, now 52, was gradually taken in by Elliott, who told her he was divorced, but living with his ex-wife to provide stability for his young child.
Zipser met Elliott, a former Warm Springs police officer, in a chat room on the Internet. He was one of several officers who lost their jobs with the Confederated Tribes in July of 2004, following rumors of a walkout. The firings resulted in a lawsuit against the tribes. There was an immediate rapport, according to Zipser, because she had also lost her job as a probation officer for Marion County after 20 years, and was suing for wrongful termination.
Over time, he began to visit her regularly on her farm, where she serves as a short-term therapeutic foster parent for at-risk children. Once, she said, he even brought his young child to ride horses.
"He brought over his personal items in anticipation of his permanent move here in September of 2005," she said, noting that she still has a whole wardrobe of his "ranging from work clothes to evening out attire," as well as a tanning bed, a small boat named after his child, and tools.
For a while, she believed that he was actually divorced and would be moving over. He established a farm account and had mail sent to her house, she said, and they bought horses together.
"Despite his openness and supposed sincerity, I was still concerned and insisted on seeing divorce papers," she recalled. After repeated requests, on June 17, 2005, Elliott faxed her what appeared to be a divorce decree signed by a former Warm Springs judge, dated Sept. 25, 2003.
Their relationship continued, and he became even more entrenched in her life, becoming close to her son, now 21, and her elderly mother, Zipser said.
When September rolled around, he was supposed to sell his house in Madras and move to her place in Salem. Around 2 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 6, 2005, she said, Elliott was very upset when he called her to say that the deal on the house had fallen through, and he was losing the house because he had fallen behind on the payments.
She suggested that he move over anyway, but "he said he couldn't come over and mooch off of me because that was not being a man of integrity," Zipser said, noting that he had an answer for everything.
Later, she checked with a local real estate office and the Jefferson County Assessor's Office, and found that the house had sold two weeks before.
That's when she took a closer look at the divorce decree and discovered that the word petitioner was misspelled "petioner," and she began to wonder if it was fake.
A friend of hers called Elliott's supposedly ex-wife, and found that they were still married. Devastated, Zipser confronted Elliott over the phone, but he insisted that he was divorced, according to the police affadavit.
As it turned out, the divorce decree was a forgery. The judge examined the document, said the signature was not his, and pointed out that he did not do divorce procedures for nontribal members.
Elliott was arrested and charged with identity theft, and first- and second-degree forgery. He pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of second-degree forgery on June 8. The other two charges were dismissed.
"Sometimes people do things under stressful conditions that they might not ordinarily do," Elliott's attorney, Jonathan Ash, said before sentencing, noting that Elliott was desperate to maintain the relationship with Zipser.
"This court can't judge me any harsher than the community already judged me," said Elliott. "She's a wonderful lady who deserved everything I promised her."
Judge Dan Ahern sentenced Elliott July 7 to two days in the Jefferson County Correctional Facility with credit for time served, 160 hours of community service, and five years of probation. Elliott is not allowed to engage in public safety work of any kind throughout the probationary period, and he must surrender his public safety certification.
Zipser, who drove to Madras Friday for the sentencing, was happy with the outcome, but still feels traumatized by the episode. "My concern is that the community knows," she said, so it can't happen again.