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Crime hits Hillsdale

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF PORTLAND POLICE BUREAU - School Resource Officer John Romero, who was shot in the line of duty March 12, is shown here in December.Hillsdale may seem to be the furthest thing from a hotbed of crime — and usually, it is. But for a few days in March, that all seemed to change.

On March 12, a few minutes before 3 p.m., the Portland Police Bureau announced to the public via an online news release that its Youth Services Division had been made aware of “two instances where students walking home from Southwest Portland schools observed an unspecified colored van driven by a male (who) followed them and acted in a suspicious manner,” and added that “The Portland Police Bureau is providing additional patrols in the area and is investigating these incidents, but is not aware of any crime at this time.”

These weren’t the first such incidents; multiple Robert Gray Middle School and Wilson High School students had reported being followed by suspicious-looking vans.

Portland Police School Resource Officer John Romero, who serves the Wilson cluster, had received some detailed information from a Wilson student and his sister including a partial license plate and suspect description, according to Wilson High School Principal Brian Chatard. With that information Romero went out and joined Central Precinct officers Sze Lai and Edgar Mitchell in Hillsdale in pursuit of the van and its suspicious male driver.

Following a 911-call report, Mitchell pursued a van on Southwest Dewitt Street, but the driver did not match the description provided and he told Mitchell he was going to the library. After he drove away, however, Mitchell noticed that the van’s front and back license plates differed and the front one included a number reported to be associated with the van being sought.

While Mitchell and Lai went to search for the man at the Hillsdale Public Library, Romero went back to the van and saw the suspect walking down Cheltenham Street. Romero commanded the man to stop, but he ignored Romero. Around 4 p.m. the suspect and Romero engaged in gunplay that left the suspect fatally wounded and Romero with non-life-threatening injuries.

The deceased, who was the same man reported to have been following kids, was Kelly Vern Swoboda. According to Deputy State Medical Examiner Larry Lewman, who performed the autopsy on Swoboda, said he was shot three times and that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the heart. In his coat pockets he had two ropes and another magazine.

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS - Wilson students signed a get-well card for Officer John Romero, who was shot in the line of duty March 12. Portland Police reported that “federal officials and other jurisdictions were actively looking for the suspect,” as there was a warrant for Swoboda’s arrest for robbery and he was also a suspect in bank robberies and other crimes in multiple jurisdictions, as well as a suspect in a kidnapping and attack that took place in January.

But the suspicious activity in Hillsdale did not end with Swoboda’s life. The following morning, on March 13, a Wilson student was walking to school when a man in a white van approached her.

“I’m just thinking, ‘Oh my god, there’s two creepy vans,” Chatard said. “I don’t know what to make of it all.”

He added: “I don’t know what this whole thing means, but it certainly isn’t encouraging that there’s more creepy vans that are pulling up and talking to kids. Especially considering that the one that people were talking about was certainly a really sketchy person, it’s not like it’s not real.

I’m taking it very seriously that it’s possible that there’s another person that either by himself or as part of this other guys’ routine ... out in this area.”

Chatard noted that a group of Hillsdale-area neighbors have long maintained an email distribution list that, among other things, serves as a watchdog for suspicious activity.

“In recent weeks there has been shared observations about one or more suspected prowlers, so the neighborhood was on high alert when this recent unfortunate event unfolded. In another incident, a child realized that they were being followed by a green van, took evasive action, shortcutting their path, and noticed that the green van attempted to anticipate where they might re-appear. The child hid and immediately called a parent who rushed to get the child. The neighborhood was quickly alerted to the incident,” said Arnie Rowland, one of the neighbors, via email. “A few days later, there was another report of a green van following a child. Because of the information shared in the neighborhood, the child knew to take evasive action and immediately call the police. We then had extra patrols and enforcement units in the neighborhood for several days, up to the incident at Capital and Cheltenham.

“While we cannot with certainty allege that the neighborhood email list was responsible in preventing a tragedy, we all feel confident that our pattern of alerting other neighbors to unusual behaviors may have been a contributing factor in protecting our children. All too often, one person has just a small piece of a larger puzzle, and our lives are so busy that we seldom have opportunities to put the pieces together. Clearly, we were all on very high alert watching for a green (and also white or cream-colored) van.

He added: “The real story, in our collective opinion, is how neighborhoods can use new technologies to surmount the social isolation that busy schedules create. We can watch out for each other even when we don’t see, or perhaps even know, each other. Protecting our families, our homes, our neighborhoods is a collective endeavor — something with which we must all engage.

“And of course, the ‘hero’ of the incident is a very alert, caring, watchful, and concerned school safety officer that choose a career of putting his life on the life to protect our children and keep us safe. He is due a lot of gratitude, and thankfully, is able to receive that gratitude in person.”

Romero will remain on paid administrative leave during the ongoing investigation. Once the investigation is complete, the entire case will be presented to the District Attorney’s Office, who will schedule a grand jury.

Drew Dakessian can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 503-636-1281, ext. 108.