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Cattle heads story significant for voters

A story that published in last week’s issue (“Severed cattle heads concern Warren residents,” Jan. 31) prompted a range of reader responses, including considerable backlash from the owner of the property where the cattle heads were displayed. The owner of the property is Colleen DeShazer, who also is an elected official on the Port of St. Helens Commission.

The story became even more expansive when it was picked up by news wire service United Press International, resulting in placement in news outlets across the nation.

Oddly, this story ranks near the top when considering the volume of newsroom discussion we had at the Spotlight office prior to its publication. The story, which initially came in at 22 inches, published at a final length of eight inches on page A11.

Our interest started when we received a Facebook notification via a passerby on Bennett Road in Warren, where several severed cattle heads were displayed on the side of the road. Contrary to DeShazer’s later claims that complaints about the heads originated solely from neighbors involved in a land-use dispute with her, the original complaint we fielded was not from a neighbor. To our knowledge, the first person to report the heads was unaware the heads were placed on a farm belonging to DeShazer.

Some on Facebook who had cause to drive Bennett Road were complaining about the heads, and there is little doubt some of those complaints stemmed from the aforementioned dispute with the neighbors. But others were simply motorists or joggers who saw the heads and thought they were grisly, out of place — even for a working cattle farm — and displayed in poor taste, regardless of their position in a rural community. There were some reports the heads had attracted scavengers, which were seen gnawing on them.

In time, the discussion, as it appeared on Facebook, took on a life of its own, with some people concerned crimes, such as sanitation and nuisance violations, were being committed. There were legitimate questions about why the heads were positioned as they were. It was easy to prospect the placement was retaliatory, considering the land-use dispute. There was no proof, however.

Reporter Robin Johnson corresponded by email and telephone with some who also thought the heads were inappropriately placed. He traveled to the property where they were located and documented their existence with a photograph. He spoke to Sheriff Jeff Dickerson, who said he believed the presence of the heads was the result of a neighborhood dispute involving DeShazer. Dickerson also said the county had no ordinance against the display, but added that the addition of a nuisance ordinance could prohibit such actions.

Johnson then contacted DeShazer to ask her about the heads.

DeShazer did not initially respond, the result of her being out of the area on vacation. Johnson left her messages, though, and she called him back after she returned.

She was angry we were looking into the heads. She vehemently denied they were worthy of news coverage. She told Johnson it was common practice for her to save the heads after slaughter, as the cleaned skulls are then sold. She said that, because her fiancée is Native American, she could “pull the religion card out” if she had to.

In a follow-up phone call to me, Publisher Darryl Swan, DeShazer claimed she had no knowledge of the heads’ location on her property prior to leaving for vacation. She also said she had personal issues, including several suspected medical conditions, and that our coverage of the heads would add to an increasingly heavy personal burden.

There were several contradictions in the story she told Johnson and the one she reported to me.

We considered her story, and following multiple lengthy and somewhat spirited discussions about the newsworthiness of the heads and the merit of her explanations. we held ours.

Several more newsroom discussions occurred over the following week. One point that continued to resurface was DeShazer’s reaction to pretty straightforward questions about the heads and the contradictions. Her anger about being questioned, foremost, and what appeared at times to be implied threats if we were to publish the story. Her reaction, viewed through the lens of her role as a port commissioner — a person at the helm of this county’s economic development efforts and one integral to important county land-use decisions — became the story.

Several of her comments and the context of her role in this story clearly bear on her capacity as a Port of St. Helens commissioner. When interviewed about the port commission’s decision to allow an increase of rail traffic to Port Westward in November, DeShazer addressed critics of the plan with her comment, “I empathize with those who live next to the rail — I live two miles from the highway ... if you don’t like it, move.”

When asked about the cattle heads, she said, “If you don’t like it, don’t live in the [expletive] country next to a farm.”

For us, that — in addition to the fact the cattle heads remained in place, despite DeShazer’s knowledge of the neighborhood’s concerns — solidified our decision to publish the story, regardless of her vehement and charged requests for us not to.

In a final voice message to me, DeShazer asserts the newspaper has “stooped” to a low level, that it, and I, have compromised the character of the Spotlight.

I disagree.

In fact, to bury the story would have yielded that very disservice to our readers, many who have voted for DeShazer in past elections — she most recently ran for Columbia County commissioner in 2012 — and deserve a window into how she reacts to such issues and her decision-making ability as an elected official in general.

Since publication, we have learned via comments on the story from a person claiming to be DeShazer’s son that the heads were positioned as a message to the neighbors who were in dispute with the DeShazers over land-use issues.

With that, we would also like to offer another option, one other than moving, for those who disagree with DeShazer’s decision-making skills: vote.

— Darryl Swan, publisher

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