More than 41 years ago, Sgt. James D. Shepherd of the Oregon State Police was murdered in Knappa during an off-duty motorcycle ride.
This month, the Shepherd family plans to remind the Oregon Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision why the killer, Michael Edward Sture, should remain locked up.
On Nov. 17, Sture has a parole hearing to determine whether his projected release date in May should be his actual release date.
The default decision would be to release Sture unless the board finds reasons not to do so — for example, severe emotional disturbance, or a lengthy history of disciplinary reports, according to Dylan Arthur, the executive director of the parole board.
“They would need to find a reason to hold him in,” Arthur said.
On May 22, 1980, Shepherd, a 23-year veteran of the state police, was riding a neighbor’s dirt bike near his Knappa home.
“Jim thought somebody was growing marijuana,” his widow, Virginia Shepherd, recalled. “He didn’t know who it was, but he was going to go and check it out.”
As Shepherd approached, Sture shot the officer in the chest, then twice in the head.
The 23-year-old Sture had recently done time for stealing a vehicle and later said he was worried Shepherd would find the marijuana he was growing.
Fellow officer Brian Johnson discovered Shepherd’s body near a logging spur. He encountered Sture, who made the trooper lie on the ground at gunpoint and rifled through his wallet, but left Johnson unharmed. Sture escaped with the borrowed bike, recovered near Williamsport Road.
‘We went bonkers’
Shepherd’s ambush-style murder rattled local law enforcement agencies.
“We went bonkers,” said Mel Jasmin, a retired Astoria Police Department officer. Jasmin was one of several dozen officers who hunted for Sture in the Knappa woodlands.
“When that happened, I was on patrol, and everybody and their brother headed for the hills where he (Sture) was supposed to be,” Jasmin said.
“Everybody got really uptight, short-tempered,” he recalled.
“They wanted to catch this guy. And then of course we found out that he wasn’t even there.”
Sture had made it to central Oregon and was arrested while hitchhiking on a highway near Bend. He was sentenced to prison for “a period of his natural life.”
But unless a convict’s sentence precludes parole, there is the possibility of release.
Although the Shepherd family is confident the outcome will not favor Sture, they make a point to show up at his parole hearings with as many people as possible, “just to make sure that we can remind the parole board that there’s people out there that are still affected by this greatly,” said Carolyn Shepherd, Jim Shepherd’s niece, who was in her mid-20s when he was killed.
Sture’s lack of contrition and the way he justified his crimes unnerves them. At his 2009 parole hearing, Sture said he had to kill Shepherd to save his own life.
“I have my own life because he lost his,” Sture told them. “That brought me to a place that, even though it was a tragedy and it was wrong, it opened my eyes to my own self.”
Both Virginia and Carolyn Shepherd have spoken against Sture’s release at his parole hearings.
“I wish I didn’t have to do this anymore, you know?” said Virginia Shepherd, who is now 88 and lives in Lewis and Clark. She and Jim had two children — a son who now lives in Brownsmead and a daughter in La Center, Washington. “We’ve all survived. It sure made me a stronger person. But I don’t like doing it.”
She added, however: “I’ll go through it until I die. I don’t want him to kill someone else.”
When Jasmin oversaw the Clatsop County Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award, an honor created in Shepherd’s memory, he would invite Virginia Shepherd. The whole thing, he said “was done for her, to honor her, and for what happened to her husband,” he said. “We wanted everybody to keep him in mind.”
In 2011, Jasmin wrote a letter opposing Sture’s release. “I don’t want to see him out,” he said.
District Attorney Ron Brown also opposed Sture’s release a decade ago and plans to do so again.
“I’m going to basically say this guy’s too big of a risk to let go,” he said. “And I don’t know whether that’s going to work or not.”
Brown said he doesn’t yet know what Sture plans to say this time, but the district attorney remembers what stood out to him last time, such as how little Sture had done to improve himself while in the Oregon State Penitentiary and prepare for post-prison life — often critical ingredients in whether parole is ultimately granted.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Brown said. “Usually if you’ve got time to sit in a cell … and think about what you did and how you got there, you wanna get out as quickly as you can. And so there’s jobs you can take in there, there’s educational things you can sign up for to try to learn a trade.”
The last time Sture was up for parole, “he hadn’t taken one single class, nor had he worked a single day since he had been in the institution,” Brown recalled. “And that had been a long time.”
Every time the Shepherds have to deal with Sture, they relive the murder. And they feel the loss anew whenever they learn an officer has been killed.
“When something like that happens in your life, it never goes away,” Virginia Shepherd said. “Never.”