Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites


Subject of true-crime book starts new chapter

Liysa Northon, convicted of manslaughter in her prior husband's death, leaves prison and moves to Eagle Creek with her new husband


After 12 years in prison, a woman who killed her husband, and who subsequently became the topic of a best-selling true crime book, is being released with plans to move into her new husband’s Eagle Creek home.by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Liysa Northon and Rick Swart married in the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville on Sept. 18, 2011. Northon, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the shooting death of her previous husband, will be released from prison on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 12 years to the day of the shooting.

Liysa Northon, 50, will be let out of prison Tuesday, Oct. 9 — 12 years to the day after she shot her former husband, 44-year-old Chris Northon, at a rural Eastern Oregon campground.

Oregon’s Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision did not hold a hearing to consider whether to parole her.

It has authority over murder and aggravated murder convictions after 1995, not manslaughter convictions, said Jay Scroggin, the board’s executive director.

Liysa Northon did have to apply for a waiver to be released to Clackamas County instead of Deschutes County — considered by the Department of Corrections the county of record because it’s where the couple was living at the time of the killing. She also must report to a parole officer based in Oregon City.

Northon’s case — called one of domestic violence and self-defense by some, one of calculated murder by others — is a complex one.

During a telephone interview from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville this week, Northon said she was motivated by nothing more than the desire to save her two children and herself from her abusive, alcoholic husband.

True-crime writer Ann Rule sees it differently. In her 2003 book “Heart Full of Lies,” she outlined how Northon methodically planned her husband’s death, motivated by $300,000 in life insurance, property in Hawaii and Bend, reportedly worth $1 million, and free airline flights due to her husband’s career as a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Last year, a former newspaper editor and publisher penned a lengthy investigative article for a Seattle weekly, dissecting how Ann Rule’s book ruthlessly and inaccurately painted Northon as a sociopathic killer.

Two days after the article went to press on July 20, 2011, author Rick Swart made a shocking admission: The subject of his article was his fiancée.

Within two months, he married Northon in the prison visitor’s room.

Now, less than a week before her release, Northon is looking forward to settling into her new home in Eagle Creek with her new husband and writing a new chapter in her new life.

“I’m just a girl who loves her husband,” she said.

***

Eagle Creek is a pastoral unincorporated community located at the junction of highways 224 and 212. It’s south of Damascus, north of Estacada and southwest of Sandy.

Northon’s new neighbors have nothing to fear, she said. “Once they understand the circumstances, they will know that I am definitely not a threat to anybody. … I’ve been misportrayed wildly.”

She was camping with her husband Christopher Northon and their 3-year-old son along the Lostine River in Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa-Whitman National Forest on Oct. 9, 2000, when she shot him in the head while he was either sleeping or passed out. Toxicology tests showed a high level of a heavy sedative in his system, as well as trace amounts of alcohol.

Northon said her husband was abusive, an alcoholic and a drug user. During the camping trip, she said he was intoxicated and on drugs when he choked, beat and tried to drown her. During the night, she heard him stirring and thought he was coming after her. She said she grabbed her son, ran for the car and blindly fired a gun at her husband.

Then she jumped into the family’s Ford Explorer and drove to a friend’s house in Washington state, where her 8-year-old son from a prior marriage was. There, she said, Chris tried to kill her. The county undersheriff found her husband's body later that afternoon.

Speaking from prison, Northon said her husband abused her terribly. When he saw that hurting the children had more of an effect on her, he threatened to kill them, she said.

“He had threatened to chop them up into pieces,” she said. “…Basically the whole issue was keeping my children alive.”

Police ultimately arrested the woman, and she was charged with murder. She told investigators she reported prior acts of abuse to Bend police, who did nothing, and accused her husband of violating a restraining order she had against him.

Ann Rule’s book about the case paints a very different picture of the couple. Rule found that Chris was asleep or drugged unconscious when he was shot in the temple at close range. She described Northon as a talented, wealthy, beautiful woman with a high-paying career as a surf photographer. Rule doesn’t agree with Northon's version of events or her portrayal of herself as a battered woman driven to violence to save herself and her children.

Nothon, however, calls the book “such a bunch of rot.”

As part of a plea bargain, which she said her lawyer pressured her into taking, she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of first-degree manslaughter. The Measure 11 offense carries a minimum 10-year sentence. On July 26, 2001, she was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

***

Rick Swart was editor of the Wallowa County Chieftain, a weekly newspaper, when Northon was arrested and tried for murder. At the time, he didn’t realize the woman appearing in the pages of his newspaper was the same woman who stole his heart more than 20 years earlier when she was 17-year-old Lisa DeWitt.

The two met at Wallowa Lake, and Swart, then 22, was smitten.

But they lost touch with each other.

He didn’t make the connection until years after the trial and plea deal.

By 2007, he’d moved to Portland and became the publisher of the South County Spotlight newspaper in Scappoose, a newspaper owned by Pamplin Media Group, which is the same company that owns the Gresham Outlook and the Portland Tribune. He later went to work for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife as a spokesman.

Meanwhile, Northon had filed complaints against her former attorney, Pat Birmingham. The Oregon State Bar Association dismissed the complaints in 2009. She also sued Ann Rule, a suit that a federal judge dismissed that same year.

In December 2010, Swart wrote to Northon in prison. She said he presented himself as a journalist interested in her story. A few weeks after Swart mailed the letter, Northon agreed to an interview.

On Feb. 24, 2011, Swart's wife of 19 years filed for divorce. She is still employed by Pamplin Media Group.

And on July 20, 2011, his freelance article titled “How Seattle’s Queen of True Crime Turned a Battered Wife into a Killer Sociopath” hit the streets of Seattle.

He skewered Rule, dissected errors in the book and challenged its depiction of Northon as “a sociopath who’d spent years lying about abuse to provide an alibi for cold-blooded murder, and, afterward to cash an insurance check.” Rule never even interviewed Northon for the book to get her side of the story, he wrote.

But after months of poring over 1,000 pages of court documents and interviewing roughly 25 people tied to the case, “I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the title of Rule’s book, ‘Heart Full of Lies,’ better describes the author than her subject,” he wrote.

***

Two days later, the editor of the weekly newspaper that printed the article made a startling discovery: Swart and Northon were engaged, a relationship that Swart failed to disclose when he pitched the story to the Seattle paper.

When confronted about the conflict of interest, Swart defended the article as factual.

And on Sept. 18, 2011, he and Northon got married in the visitor’s room at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. It was 12 days after his divorce became official on Sept. 6.

Earlier this year, on Feb. 22, he wrote an article called “Why I fell on the sword for Liysa Northon,” published by Wallowa Valley Online.

In it, Swart wrote that when he admitted he was in love with Northon, newspapers refused to print his story about the injustices she endured. “So, instead, I systematically shopped a product that was completely factual, and I was prepared to answer any questions that came up in a matter-of-fact and honest way,” he wrote.

And it was worth it, he claims.

“In the end I achieved the greater victory,” he wrote. “I resolved a difficult ethical dilemma by choosing the course that did the most good and least harm … and I got the girl. She recognized my hard fight, the risks I took, the sacrifices I made, and it won her heart and hand. Now I have a beautiful, courageous, tenacious wife, who is very grateful.”

But, he also contended, that in his great personal sacrifice to expose the truth, “I hurt no one.”

Rule disagrees.

She is considering a libel lawsuit against him. Rule said she has two years to file in Washington, and that window closes next July.

***

As for Northon she’s looking forward to seeing the stars at night, feeling grass and smelling soil when she’s released on Tuesday.

She’s especially looking forward to spending time with her family, including her sons, who are now 15 and 20.

“You can’t ever make up for all the lost time,” she said. “I hate the fact that I had to lose 12 years of my kids’ lives, but who wouldn’t to save their kids’ lives?”

Northon hopes one day to be known for something other than killing her husband. She also doesn't want to be blamed for the break-up of Swart’s previous marriage.

“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life explaining myself,” she said. “You don’t want to be defined by your worst experience. … It was him or me. It was not something I enjoyed doing. It was sheer desperation.”

Nicknamed “Surfer” by her fellow inmates, the fit, petite woman — at 5 foot 3 inches tall, she weighs 108 pounds — can see herself teaching exercise classes, yoga, maybe even this new fitness craze she’s heard about called Zumba.

She already has a photography contract. She also hopes to do some public speaking on domestic violence and lobby the Legislature for tougher laws against batterers.

In prison, she’s met so many women whose lives have been turned upside down by domestic violence, herself included, she said. “Hopefully I can take this and turn it into something positive and make a difference in someone’s life,” she said.

One thing is certain: She’s determined to live a quiet, private life with Swart, who shares her love of the outdoors, diving and skiing.

“I am lucky to be married to Rick,” Northon said. “He has a lot of courage. He’s like a folk-hero type guy.

“It’s a really happy ending because I have this man who would literally crawl through glass for me. He loves me, and I don’t have to question it. It is such an amazing sense of security.”

With all that’s been printed about her, she knows some people may be uneasy about her living in Eagle Creek. “They just have to meet me,” she said. “ … That’s been a really hard thing, wearing this kind of freak label. … They have more to fear against meth addicts and identity thieves.”

Swart knows some people may question his sanity or even fear for his safety.

But neither he nor the community is at risk, he said.

“She is a kind and gentle soul,” Swart said. “And I have the utmost love and respect for her. She’s been through a lot, and I’m very much looking forward to her coming home after this long ordeal. I’m looking forward to the next chapter in our lives.”



Local Weather

Light Rain

60°F

Gresham

Light Rain

Humidity: 64%

Wind: 20 mph

  • 25 Oct 2014

    Rain 61°F 49°F

  • 26 Oct 2014

    Rain 56°F 47°F