Hunting the axeman: Journey into Oregon's past

Nearly 30 years ago, while on a cycling tour of Oregon, Terri Jentz was a victim of a horrific motiveless attack that left her for dead. But in her search for the perpetrator, she made some remarkable discoveries - not least the culture of fear and silence that protected him.
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The Independent US

When Terri Jentz was 19 years old, she fell victim to a crime of such unspeakable horror it remains, three decades later, almost beyond comprehension. She and a fellow undergraduate at Yale, who had joined her on a summer cross-country bike tour, were asleep at a campsite in a remote part of Oregon when, for no discernible reason, a man in a pick-up veered off the road, drove into their tent and rode his front tyres up the right side of Jentz's upper body.

The man got out of his truck, started hacking at the two girls with an axe and came within inches of killing them both. Then, without a word, he stopped, climbed back into his vehicle, reversed the tyres off Jentz, and sped away.

The crime caused a national sensation at the time - an instance of American Gothic so dark it beggared belief - but the assailant was never caught. Jentz, remarkably, recovered from her wounds and retains a pin-point memory of everything that happened to her that night and in the days and weeks following. Her companion also survived, but her eyesight was impaired by a vicious blow to the back of her head and she cannot remember a thing about the terrible events of 22 July 1977.

How does life carry on after a cataclysm like that, a "certain knowledge of life at its farthest edges", as Jentz puts it? In a remarkable new memoir, called Strange Piece of Paradise, Jentz sets out to answer just that question. Along the way, she doesn't just launch an inquiry into herself and her ability to survive, psychologically and physically. She also describes how, after a 15-year hiatus, she went back to Oregon, investigated the crime herself and figured out who was responsible.

Both journeys - back to the scene of the crime, and deep into her own state of mind - are by turns wrenching and enthralling. Jentz has had a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter, but for years she felt herself split into two personas - her "official self", all bright and outgoing, curious and overtly unblemished, and her "scarecrow self", a darker, more fearful person plagued by nightmares of mythical terror and oddly consoled by the most morbid things, like the dark blood stains still inside the sleeping bag she kept from the camping trip for years.

Among the deepest causes of her inner grief was her inability to discuss her experience with the person who most immediately shared it. Her companion, who appears in the book under the pseudonym Shayna, made a decision a long time ago that the only way she could survive was to avoid all mention of that terrible long-ago night in Cline Falls State Park. And so Jentz was left on her own - until she made the decision to face down her demons and travel back to Oregon to uncover the secrets of a community she had had only the most fleeting of opportunities to get to know.

Jentz describes seeing the Oregon state boundary marker on that first trip back in 1992. "To others," she writes, "the sign meant a state in America. To me, it meant a darkening state of mind, an alien place where I knew hardly anyone, a malevolent landscape that would surely trigger an incendiary blast of memory."

Soon, she made some startling discoveries. First, that the man most publicly identified as a suspect in her case, a convicted child murderer called Bud Godwin, who used the skull of a five-year-old victim as a candle-holder, did not remotely fit her memory of the man who attacked her. Second, for all the local police's cluelessness in following up on her case, several people in the community had an extremely good idea who her real attacker was.

The more she looked at the man they were referring to, a drifter and repeat violent offender named in the book as Dirk Duran (his real name is different), the more he fitted the profile. He was the right age and height, had the piercing blue eyes and good looks she had remembered even as the axe blade was bearing down on her exposed flesh, and wore his cowboy clothes with unusually meticulous attention to neatness and detail. He also had a long history of near-psychopathic violence against women.

When Duran, detained for another crime, took a polygraph test in 1995 (with Jentz watching from the next room), he denied any involvement in the axe attack. But he also disclosed that he couldn't get the episode out of his head, that not a day went by without him thinking about it or being haunted by the image of two women being chopped up.

He was, as Jentz writes, "a guy who had told a number of people over the years why he hadn't done it, was obsessed with not having done it, and who varied the details of why he hadn't done it in such a way that his story was never consistent".

Jentz first went public with the voluminous evidence she had gathered against Duran in 1997, but there was not a lot she could do with it. Oregon's criminal law said the statute of limitations on unsuccessful murder attempts ran out after three years, so there was never any question of launching an official prosecution. (Jentz has since successfully lobbied to have the law changed, although it is not retroactive.) To her surprise, her public denunciation of Duran, which attracted considerable local media attention, did not elicit a single new lead from the public. She never did quite work out why the community kept so quiet about the patently dangerous man living among them, or why the police had been so lackadaisical in investigating what was, to all intents and purposes, an open secret.

She can, of course, speculate, and she uses that speculation in her book to build up a picture of powerful Western archetypes and their broader meaning in the culture beyond her own extraordinary circumstances. Foremost is the archetype of the rough frontiersman, a person living in "a world of hatchets and fists, the raw physicality of fighting", as she put it in an interview with me. Violence, in such a setting, is often accepted, even tolerated - especially domestic violence and violence against women. One of the book's most startling moments is the realisation that the statue that adorns the top of the Oregon statehouse in Salem is a bronze, bearded pioneer wielding an axe.

Jentz also sees the great Western outdoors as fostering a libertarian ethos where everyone is guided by an intense cult of individualism and the inclination is to stay well away from other people's affairs - even if they happen to be dangerous psychopaths. There is a fine line, of course, between minding one's own business and straight denial. As she explained the community dynamics: "People were muted into silence in every way by what happened. It gets to a point where people can't even handle it ... the community looked to law enforcement to solve the crime. The police expected the community to call in tips, except they didn't call in any tips." Duran is just a couple of years younger than Jentz but in far rougher shape - he recently lost all his teeth. When Jentz was first interviewed about her book on CNN a couple of months ago, Duran was in the county jail awaiting trial on yet another assault charge - this time against a terminally ill man he first befriended, then attacked. As the broadcast went out, he became so wild his cellmates feared for their safety.

Last month, Jentz arrived in the tiny town of Sisters for a book reading just as Duran was being released. (His victim, who would also have been the star witness for the prosecution, had died, and the district attorney let the matter drop.) Some people said they were too afraid to attend the reading; the local police sent four uniformed officers to patrol the venue to make sure there was no trouble.

Since then, Jentz says she has received surreptitious messages and e-mails alerting her to Duran's whereabouts. Having long since lost his attractiveness to women, he has, she has learned, taken up with a man brain-damaged in a car accident.

"They're terrified he's going to hurt someone else," she said. "Here I am a thousand miles away in southern California, but the community sees me as their protector." Jentz comes across as an almost improbably sunny personality - bright, funny, and able to switch from the most intense of topics to the breeziest without missing a beat. As her writing demonstrates, she is also extraordinarily sharp-minded, precise in her description of emotions and personality types, and supremely competent in marshalling vast reams of material - police files, newspaper clippings, lega l documents, personal effects - that occupy a long shelf of her book-strewn Santa Monica office.

But it is perhaps her knowledge of herself, and the long psychic journey she has taken over the past 29 years, which is ultimately most impressive. What is most moving about the book is not, in the end, the crime itself - its horrors are such that Jentz approaches them obliquely, from many different angles, over several dozen pages before confronting them directly - but rather the moments of terrible thirst for human connection.

When Jentz first talks to the woman who, along with her boyfriend, rescued her and rushed her and Shayna to hospital, she realises this is the first time in more than 15 years that she has discussed the crime with someone who was actually there. It was, she writes, "a remarkable experience, consoling to my psyche".

Conversely, her inability to talk to Shayna causes her a deep and abiding sorrow. The two have lost touch, although they hear each other's news indirectly.

"That I was unable to tell her the tale seemed to call its very existence into question," she writes. "Alone with my memories, I sometimes entertained the notion that the event wasn't real. That it hadn't taken place at all." Jentz told me: "Arguably, I wrote the book because she would not listen to the story." Shayna did nothing to prevent the book's publication, but now the book is here she has neither embraced it nor shown any inclination to read it. Jentz says: "She hasn't responded to the book, nor has her family.I understand."

However, one of Shayna's best friends approached Jentz at a reading and thanked her for writing the book and describing everything accurately and passionately. "That was a huge gift to me," Jentz said. "To know she feels OK with the book being out there."

Strange Piece of Paradise is a narrative of survival, taking its place alongside similarly harrowing stories such as Jonestown or even the Holocaust. Jentz knows she had what it took to survive the most terrifying of circumstances, and takes considerable comfort from the fact that when she was bloodied and half-dead she experienced no pain and could move about and cry for help. Such are the solaces of a horror beyond imagining.

Jentz says she’s sometimes wondered what might have happened to that 19-year-old Yale student if the attack had not occurred and she and her friend had continued their cross-country biking tour unmolested. At this point she simply can’t imagine it. The 19-year-old’s bike disappeared over a hill a long time ago, and Jentz has no idea what might have become of her.