Friday, August 10, 2012

James Combs

Truck Overturned
Wood Village, Oregon February 9, 1983
The series of events began on Tuesday evening, October 12, 1982, at about 10:30 p.m. on Interstate 84, approx­imately 20 miles east of The Dalles, Ore­gon. Three men were driving west to­wards Portland in a small pickup truck, equipped with a citizens band radio, an ample supply of beer and a seven-mm rifle. They were chugging the beers one after another, whooping it up and gener­ally having a good time at the expense of endangering the lives of others and breaking countless laws, which were designed to protect all law abiding citizens in the area. But regardless of the rights of other people, these three men were going to do as they damn well pleased on this fateful autumn night.
“Breaker one-nine, breaker one-nine,” said the intoxicated man driving the small pickup as he spoke into his citizen band radio’s microphone, trying to get the attention of the big rig in front of him. “This here’s the big S.O.B., and I’m at your back door. Either haul ass or get your ass out of the way, cause I’m coming through.” He laughed maniacal­ly into the microphone as he shot around the truck in front of him, driving errati­cally and raising his middle finger at the trucker as he passed. The trucker merely sounded a couple of blasts on his air horns in protest as the pickup passed.
About 75 miles east of Portland, truck driver Sterling Martin pulled his 18-wheel rig to the side of the road in an attempt to get some sleep. It was a dark stretch of freeway and, at that time of night, there was little traffic and therefore little noise. Until, that is, a pickup with three occupants pulled in front of the 18-wheeler and backed into the parked truck, bumping Martin back into a wak­ing state of consciousness. Giving him­self a few moments for his head to clear, he watched the three occupants of the pickup urinate at the side of the road. When they had finished relieving them­selves, Martin got out of his rig.
“Why did you back up into my truck?” asked Martin, obviously some­what perturbed. Do you have any iden­tification, just in case I have to file a report for damage?” he asked the driver of the pickup. The driver told him to go to hell, jumped into his pickup and hur­riedly drove away.
Infuriated, Martin climbed back into his eighteen-wheeler and followed the small pickup in hot pursuit, not really knowing what he would do if and when he caught up with it. Even with the pedal to the metal, though, Martin’s load was too heavy for him to gain on the small pickup, and it and the three men were out of sight within a couple of minutes. It had been too dark to get the pickup’s license plate number.
About 25 to 30 minutes, and as many miles later, however, Martin spotted the pickup parked by the side of the road. The three men were inside the pickup, and Martin reasoned that they were either planning to go outside to urinate again or had just finished. Whatever the case, Martin pulled on to the shoulder in front of the pickup and quickly jumped out with a hammer in his hand.
Martin first asked the passengers, par­ticularly the driver, to get out of the pickup and, when they refused, he angri­ly banged on the side of the door with the hammer. He could see that the three were drinking beer which, in his opin­ion, was a menace to all others on the highway. His anger getting hotter, Mar­tin took the hammer and broke out the driver’s side window. This action brought the driver out of the pickup.
The driver shouted an obscenity at the pickup. Before he could utter another word, Martin drew back and punched him square in the face, knocking the beer drinking driver to the ground. Obviously drunk, it was difficult for the man to recover his balance and, wanting to make sure that he couldn’t, Martin began kicking him about the stomach and sides. At this point, one of the other passengers got out of the truck to offer some assistance to his drinking buddy, but he, too, was knocked down by the angry trucker.
As the scuffle continued between the three men outside the pickup (one re­mained inside), another big truck approached from behind and pulled to the shoulder and parked. As that driver emerged from his truck, the two men from the pickup saw their opportunity to flee and did just that. Within seconds they were again headed for the Inter­state 84 towards Portland, leaving the angry but exhausted Martin and the other trucker behind.
In the meantime, Martin alerted sever­al other truckers in the area of what had so far occurred, asking them to be on the lookout for the pickup in question. If spotted, the truckers were asked to obtain the license plate number and report it immediately to the state police.
Less than half an hour later, however, the pickup was spotted by another truck­er at the side of the road once again. He pulled up ahead of the pickup, leaving a lot of distance so as not to arouse suspi­cion. Hopefully, the pickup’s occupants would think the trucker was merely stop­ping to rest. But the trucker had another idea altogether. While the three men were outside urinating, out of earshot of their citizens band radio, the quick- thinking trucker notified all other truck­ers in the area that he wanted to form a caravan so that they might be able to box in the pickup at some point on the free­way and escort it, unwillingly, to the nearest state police station.
When the pickup pulled away at a normal rate of speed, the trucker did likewise, keeping up with the pickup all the while. Within minutes, before the occupants of the pickup knew what was happening, several truckers had boxed the pickup in with their rigs on three sides, with the pickup on the outside lane. It looked like a scene right out of the Sam Peckinpaugh movie, “Con­voy,” except there was no “Rubber Duck” and no Kris Kristofferson.
Just when it looked like the truckers had the pickup boxed in with no possible escape, it veered to the suddenly wi­dened shoulder and shot past its understandably hostile escort and back into the outside lane of traffic. The driver of the pickup had obviously put the accelerator to the floor when he saw this opportun­ity, a move the truckers hadn’t foreseen perhaps because of the inebriated state of the pickup’s occupants. Another move the truckers hadn’t anticipated was the sudden slowing down of the pickup and the subsequent firing of a rifle by one of its passengers!
Even though the shot had clearly been fired at the pursuing trucks, it didn’t hit its target. It was enough, however, to prompt the truckers to back off a bit — a move which allowed the pickup to flee the area. It was one thing to try to get the drunks off the road, but it was quite another to risk being shot in the process.
Police were quickly notified of the chase and the shooting incident by radio, and Oregon State Trooper Kenneth Janes was waiting on the Rooster Rock over­pass. Trooper Janes saw the small pick­up pass under the overpass at approx­imately 11:25 p.m., and he notified other troopers in the area to be on the lookout for it as it headed west on the freeway. In the meantime, Janes pulled Martin over to the shoulder of the road so he could get a better, more complete explanation of what had occurred, and then ordered all of the other truckers involved to pull off at a Troutdale truck stop so they could fill out reckless driving reports on the small pickup.
After the reports were completed, the pack of many trucks pulled back onto the freeway and continued west. A few miles past the Troutdale truck stop was the Fairview, Oregon, exit and, as the truck­ers passed by, they failed to notice the small pickup that had intentionally con­cealed itself from their view. Those truckers who failed to notice the pickup and continued driving west had nothing to fear or worry about. It was the trucker who took the Fairview exit, which leads into a popular truck stop, that was in trouble.
It was too noisy in the cab for the trucker to hear the shot ring out, but he did see the flash of fire and heard the breaking glass. He also felt the impact of the bullet as it hit him in the chest, the searing pain it caused as the bullet ripped and burned his flesh.
“Breaker one-nine, breaker one-nine, this is Ocean Breeze. I’m at your back door and saw somebody take a shot at you. Looked like some pretty raw charac­ters. Are you okay?” asked a trucker who had also taken the Fairview exit, just mo­ments after the first trucker.
“I’ve been hit!” yelled the wound­ed trucker into his microphone. “Those lunatics shot me in the chest. Get some help, quickly.” Before the other trucker could reply, the wounded trucker lost control of his rig and it flipped over on its side. The observing trucker shook his head in disbelief as he slowed to park his rig and attempt to assist the wounded man.
When the trucker reached the over­turned rig, he could see that the driver was seriously hurt. He managed to climb up the side of the truck to the driver’s side, which in its overturned position was topside, and opened the door to try to help the wounded man inside. But by the time he was able to get to the trucker, it was too late. The wounded man simply took a couple of final gasps of air and died.
Within a matter of minutes, the entire exit had been blocked off by arriving state police cars as well as ambulance and other emergency personnel. Several futile attempts to revive the dead trucker were made, all to no avail. The damage from the bullet was just too extensive, and even if they had been able to revive him, he probably wouldn’t have lasted very long.
“Looks like we’re gonna have to call the meat wagon for this one,” said one frustrated paramedic. “Whoever shot him either took careful aim or was firing several shots rapidly, one of which hit him square in the chest.”
It wasn’t long before several addition­al homicide investigators arrived from the Oregon State Police offices in nearby Portland, along with their crime lab spe­cialists. It was at this time that the dead man was identified as 41-year-old Charles L. Stacey of Salem, Oregon, a truck driver for a trucking company operating out of Payette, Idaho. Stacey’s body was removed from the site and taken to the Multnomah County Morgue in Portland, where an autopsy would be performed the next day.
“We just don’t know what the hell happened here tonight,” said a police spokesman. “All that we know at this point is that a small pickup truck had been reported as driving recklessly down Interstate 84, harassing truck drivers by driving around erratically and by using abusive language over a CB radio. At one point there was a physical dispute with one or two of the pickup’s occu­pants and another trucker, but that had nothing to do with the victim of this shooting. We’re just going to have to work throughout the night and try to sort this thing out.”
One of the state police detectives speculated that perhaps, since the occu­pants of the pickup had been drinking heavily, Stacey had been mistaken as the trucker involved in the physical alterca­tion that had occurred earlier. Or perhaps the driver of the pickup didn’t care at that point if he even had the right man or not, and was simply bent on revenge for the beating he took earlier and, as a result was willing, even eager, to kill the first trucker that came along.
Although it was possible Stacey had been simply killed for kicks, most of the cops at the site, upon recounting the events leading up to the shooting, agreed that anger and revenge seemed the most likely motive for the killing. Due to the type and location of Stacey’s injuries, the possibility of an accidental shooting had been quickly ruled out. After all, the cops reasoned, who in their right mind would be firing a deadly weapon at this time of night, particularly in the vicinity of a heavily traveled freeway? It just didn’t make any sense, and the killing seemed so unreasonable and senseless.
While detectives were busy comparing notes and sharing opinions about the case at hand, a trucker by the name of Harold Adams walked into their temporary “command post” and unhesitatingly announced that he was a witness to the shooting. He told the cops that he didn’t know if what he had to offer would be of any use, and they responded that just about anything at this point in the inves­tigation would be of some help.
Adams told the detectives that he had pulled his rig off of Interstate 84 about half an hour before the shooting took place to get some sleep. He said that the truck stop at the Fairview exit was a good place to pull over and get a few hours of sleep before continuing his trip. Adams had just nodded out when he heard the shot, which immediately awakened him. At first he thought maybe a truck or a car had blown a tire, but when he looked out the window he saw a small pickup hastily pulling away as Stacey’s truck veered off the road and turned onto its side. It wasn’t till he heard talk of what had occurred at the truck stop that he realized what had happened.
“Could you identify any of the indi­viduals inside the pickup?” asked one of the detectives.
“No, I don’t think so,” replied the trucker. “It was too dark and I was too far away.”
“Could you make out what state the pickup was registered to?” asked the cop.
“No, I’m sorry. I just wasn’t alert enough to think to take notice of those kinds of details. I wish I could have been of more help.” The cops took his name and address in case they had to contact him later, and Adams left.
The big break in the case came when detectives, through the cooperation of state police and the many truckers in­volved, were able to obtain the pickup’s license plate number. They got it be­cause one alert trucker had written it down and, although many miles from the crime site by now and unaware of what had happened, had stopped at a pay phone and called it in when he learned of the killing while having coffee at a truck stop near Salem.
Not wasting any time, the cops ran the number through the Motor Vehicle Divi­sion’s computers. Within a matter of mi­nutes, they learned that the pickup in question was registered under Oregon plates to James Thomas Combs Sr. of Portland. Two detectives, a Multnomah County sheriff’s deputy and two Port­land police officers were sent im­mediately to the Combs residence.
The police units arrived at Combs’ residence, located in the 6800 block of North Campbell Avenue, a normally peaceful neighborhood, with search and arrest warrants. Combs had obviously been drinking all evening and throughout the morning, police noted, because he was visibly intoxicated, staggering and slurring his words. Even in that state, however, Combs was able to talk with the cops in a rational and calm manner. His tone changed, though, when they started searching his house and pickup.
As police were searching for items that might link Combs to the actual shooting, Lt. Daniel Lambert of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department made ver­batim notes of a heated conversation Combs held with a relative, a conversa­tion that was not only shocking but incri­minating as well. When he’d heard enough, he handcuffed Combs and then placed him under arrest. Lambert wouldn’t release details of the conversa­tion, however.
Police confiscated three rifles from Combs’ house, as well as a seven-mm hunting rifle found behind the seat of his pickup. Police also found several empty beer cans inside the truck, which they placed inside bags and tagged as evi­dence. Combs was advised of his rights under Miranda and taken to jail.
After arriving at the jail, Combs began complaining of pain in his sides and abdomen, and was taken to Portland Adventist Medical Center where he was treated for two broken ribs. The emergency room doctor said that although the rib injuries were not serious, Combs had suffered a bruise on the back of his head which needed attention.
While Combs was at the hospital, the doctor told detectives, he made a phone call, part of the conversation of which was overheard. Detectives were told that Combs told someone, “It’s not murder, just self-defense. It’s no problem.”
The next day, following an autopsy by Deputy State Medical Examiner Dr. Ronald O’Halloran, detectives were told that victim Charles Stacey died from a single gunshot wound to the chest, prob­ably fired from a rifle. Although the in­formation was nothing that the cops didn’t already know, the cause of Stacey’s death had been made official.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said John Drum, public information officer for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department. “Apparently it had something to do with the Combs’ driving. Their pickup had been reported as reckless driving to the Oregon State Police by truckers, one of whom supplied us with a license num­ber.” Drum also said it was not believed Stacey had been involved with the Combs’ pickup, but it was possible that Combs had mistaken Stacey as the truck­er who had roughed him up earlier that evening.
Meanwhile, detectives received a re­port detailing tests done on Combs’ rifles by the state police crime labs. The state criminologist who wrote the report said that tests on the bullet recovered from Stacey’s body were consistent with tests done on bullets fired from Combs’ seven mm. hunting rifle into slabs of thick wax. Although the riflings were fairly consistent, there was not enough microscopic evidence to conclude that the bullet could have been fired from no other rifle.
Combs was swiftly indicted by a Multnomah County grand jury on charges of murder in the shooting death of Charles Stacey, and Combs just as swiftly pleased innocent to the charges. Multnomah County Circuit Judge Richard L. Unis appointed Emily Simon of the Metropolitan Public Defender’s Office to represent Combs. Trial was set for February 1, 1983.
In the meantime, detectives continued to probe for answers in the senseless slaying, and learned the identities of the other two passengers riding with Combs the night the shooting occurred. One of the passengers was a relative, and the other a hitchhiker who Combs had pick­ed up near The Dalles on that fateful evening. Neither of the other two pas­sengers were charged with the crime. The hitchhiker, 22-year-old David Chambers, however, told cops some de­tails they had not been able to obtain from Combs.
Although he was not an eyewitness to Charles Stacey’s actual shooting, Chambers told the cops that Combs ordered the other passenger to get a rifle from behind the seat and load it with ammunition. Chambers told the cops that once the rifle had been loaded, the other passenger fired one shot out the window at the many large trucks chasing them. “That’s when I asked to be let out of the truck,” Chambers told detectives. Chambers said that Combs let him out of the pickup at the Fairview exit, near the spot where Stacey died.
Chambers also told the cops that he and Combs had been drinking beer that night and, although inebriated, “We were not falling-down, slobbering drunk.” He also confirmed the truckers’ reports that they’d stopped alongside the freeway several times that night to urin­ate. The cops thanked Chambers for his information, and told him that it was likely he’d be called as a witness for the state.
During opening statements in the courtroom of Circuit Judge William Dale, Multnomah County Deputy Dis­trict Attorney Norman Frink told the jury he would prove that James Thomas Combs Sr. was the man who killed Charles Stacey. Even though the de­fense, who earlier had questioned poten­tial jurors about their knowledge of guns and about their drinking habits, con­tended that Combs was drunk and couldn’t have fired a single shot with such accuracy, Frink said he would prove that Combs knew what he was doing and was alert enough to carry out the killing.
“Combs laid in wait at Krueger’s Truck Stop,” maintained Frink, “fired the shot that killed Stacey, and then turned on his lights and took off. The defendant was fueled by drink, and he was drunk; but he had his wits about him and knew what he was doing at the time of the shooting.”
Defense Attorney Emily Simon told the jury that her client was heavily in­toxicated the night Stacey was shot, and that the fatal shooting occurred after Combs had been put in fear of his life by a trucker, Sterling Martin, who had knocked Combs down and kicked him repeatedly in a brutal altercation by the side of the road. Attorney Simon also contended that the fatal shot was actually fired by, the relative riding with Combs that night, even though police and de­fense investigators were unable to sub­stantiate that claim.
In order to establish the victim’s cause of death for the jury, the prosecution called Dr. Ronald O’Halloran, deputy state medical examiner, to the stand. De­puty state medical examiner since 1979, O’Halloran’s sub-specialty training is in forensic pathology and he is certified in anatomic and forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology. O’Hal­loran told the jury that Stacey died as a result of a seven-millimeter bullet that struck him in the chest and severed his aorta, causing him to die of internal bleeding.
Sterling Martin, the trucker who had the altercation with Combs, was called to the stand to recount the events of the evening of October 12th. Martin told the jury that he had pulled his 18-wheel rig to the side of the freeway approximately 75 miles east of Portland to get a little sleep when he was suddenly awakened by a jolt, as if something had bumped into his truck. He said the driver of a small pickup truck, whom he identified as Combs, had parked in front of his rig and then backed into it. Martin said that when he asked Combs for identification, Combs fled.
Martin recalled how he chased the pickup and found it, eventually, parked alongside the road about 25 miles ahead. He said that when Combs refused to get out of his pickup, he banged on the door several times with a hammer and finally got mad and broke out the driver’s side window. After Combs came out of his pickup, Martin said he thought he saw one of the passengers with a knife in his hand. It was at that time that he knocked Combs to the ground and kicked him seven or eight times. Martin testified that he also knocked down David Chambers, a passenger with Combs, when Cham­bers came out of the pickup to get in­volved.
During closing arguments the pro­secution recapped all its evidence, in­cluding the admission that Combs made as police searched his house, the testi­mony of the hitchhiker who said Combs ordered another passenger to fetch a rifle, load it with ammunition, and the fact that Combs’ pickup was seen speeding away from the crime scene.
Prosecutor Frink emphasized that the en­tire incident was Combs’ fault, including the altercation, and probably wouldn’t have occurred had he not been abusive with the truckers over his CB radio.
On the other hand, Defense Lawyer Emily Simon contended that the state failed to prove Combs actually fired the shot which killed Charles Stacey, sug­gesting that perhaps someone else fired the fatal bullet.
When another big rig pulled in behind them, Martin said, Combs and Chambers jumped back into the pickup and fled once again. It was then that Martin alerted several other truckers via his citizens band radio, a move which even­tually enabled several truckers to box Combs’ pickup in on three sides.
The hitchhiker who was riding with Combs the night of the murder, David Chambers, was called as a witness. He said he could not recall being involved in the altercation with Martin, and could not remember being struck by Martin or any­one else that night. Chambers also said that after he and Combs sped away from Martin, it wasn’t long before they had been boxed in by at least five truckers. After Combs escaped from the boxed in position, Chambers said the other pas­senger fired a rifle at the pursuing trucks, a move which caused them to back off. It was then that Chambers asked Combs to let him out of the truck.
“Did it seem to you that the truckers were chasing you?” asked Emily Simon, combs’ attorney.
“Yes, it did,” answered Chambers.
Truckers, called as witnesses, testi­fied that Stacey’s only involvement with Combs was as part of the chase. He was at the rear of a small convoy of six trucks because he was driving a slow moving vehicle, but that was his only involvement. Stacey had not been in any physical altercations with Combs.
One of the chief witnesses at the trial was Lt. Daniel Lambert of the Mult­nomah County Sheriff’s Office, who !bade verbatim notes of statements made by James Combs on the morning he was arrested, statements which were indeed incriminating. Lambert testified that Combs was speaking to a relative, in a loud and emotional voice with sentences sprinkled heavily with profanity.
Lambert quoted the defendant as saying that he had fought with truckers. “They beat me. I fought for my life,” Lambert read from his notes. “If I killed him, that’s fine with me,” Lambert quoted Combs as saying. Lambert said Combs stated he didn’t intend to kill the truck driver, but he fired the shot through the window of the truck Stacey was driving. Lambert quoted Combs as saying that the other two men in the pickup with him were not involved in the shooting.
A relative living with the defendant took the stand and said that when Combs returned home that fateful morning after a hunting trip he was drunk. “He was intoxicated, drunk,” testified the rela­tive. “He said that a bunch of truckers had beaten him up. He said the truckers had tried to kill him, and that he was fighting for his life. He said, when police were searching the house, that he had killed a truck driver and that he wasn’t sorry.”
The defense lawyer said that other statements were made to the relative by the defendant out of earshot of police, statements which would indicate that someone else did the actual shooting, the pulling of the trigger. But Judge Dale ruled that the statements were inadmissi­ble, being hearsay.
During the final hours of the trial, the 43-year-old Portland railroad worker charged with murder listened intently, showing little emotion as he was por­trayed in different ways. He was por­trayed by the prosecution as an intention­al murderer, and he was portrayed by the defense as a man who was simply trying to cover up what had happened, possibly to protect another person.
“Whatever happened that night was not James Combs’ fault,” Simon argued. Acknowledging that Combs’ driving was “idiotic,” Simon said Combs was “drunk, scared and beat up. Sterling Martin has blown this whole thing sky high. The reason the prosecu­tion can’t prove my client is guilty is because they can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. They can’t prove the gun was in his hands when the shot was fired.” Simon argued for an outright ac­quittal, but she also recited legal defini­tions to the jury covering manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, both of which the jury could consider during deliberations.
On Wednesday, February 9, 1983, at 10:00 a.m., the jury began deliberating the difficult case. Late that night, after asking Judge Dale to repeat his legal instructions on murder and manslaugh­ter, the jury found James Thomas Combs guilty of murder.
At his sentencing, in a statement pre­pared for Judge Dale, Combs apologized to the court. “I apologize to the court and to the state for the things that have happened in the past. I drink a lot. I know it has caused a lot of trouble for my family.” When the shooting occurred, Combs told the judge, he was under “ex­treme emotional shock,” from having been beaten up by one trucker and from having been drunk at the time.
Combs was sentenced to life in prison by Judge Dale. “The court has no discre­tion to alter that sentence,” said Dale in ordering the sentence. “I am not indicat­ing, Mr. Combs, that I would.”
In response to a motion made by the defense for a new trial, Judge Dale stated: “The court sees no basis to grant a new trial in this case. The court sees no newly discovered evidence that falls under the state statue for a new trial. Mr. Combs, in my mind, had a fair trial.”
“Every member of the public should know that an innocent man is not being sent to prison commented Deputy Dis­trict Attorney Norman Frink. “All the physical evidence and testimony at the trial would make it impossible for what the defense contended to actually have happened.”
James Combs is serving his life sent­ence at Oregon State Penitentiary, and the actual time served will be decided by the Oregon State Parole Board.
Editor’s Note:
David Chambers, Sterling Martin and Harold Adams are not the real names of the persons so named in the foregoing story. Fictitious names have been used because there is no reason for public interest in the identities of these persons.

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