A man who murdered an Oregon State Police officer in Knappa 41 years ago argued at a parole hearing Wednesday that he is ready for release.
But members of the Oregon Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision worry about whether Michael Edward Sture will stay sober, and minimize his risk of violence, if he is freed.
The hearing, Sture’s first in 10 years, was an exit interview to determine whether the board should firm up or defer his projected release date in May.
Sture shot Sgt. James D. Shepherd to death in the Knappa woodlands on May 22, 1980.
The trooper was off duty, riding a borrowed motorcycle and looking into possible malfeasance in an area near his house. Sture shot Shepherd three times — first in the chest while the officer was on his bike, then twice in the head. He used two different guns.
The reasons for the shooting are still unclear.
Sture, then 23, had already been in prison for car theft. He told the parole board on Wednesday that he sensed Shepherd was a cop and feared being taken back to prison. Although Sture said years ago that he didn’t want Shepherd coming across his marijuana grow site, Clatsop County District Attorney Ron Brown said at the hearing that “the police never found marijuana plants.”
When state trooper Brian Johnson found his colleague’s body, Sture made him lie on the ground at gunpoint but didn’t physically injure him. He took off with Shepherd’s bike.
A manhunt ensued, but Sture had left the North Coast. He was apprehended days later while hitchhiking in central Oregon.
Sture was eventually sentenced to prison for a period of his natural life, but the possibility of release always hung in the air.
Unlike at his previous parole hearings, Sture apologized to the Shepherd family.
“I’m sorry. I am so heartsick about what I done. The last 40 years, every year that goes by, it just gets heavier and heavier,” he said. “And I just wanted to say that.”
The parole board will decide Sture’s fate at a later date. He will receive a written decision.
Much of the parole board’s discussion with Sture on Wednesday focused on his lengthy history of drug abuse, a habit that ran through his decades in prison.
A psychologist who evaluated Sture before this week’s hearing diagnosed him with antisocial personality traits and a host of substance use disorders involving alcohol, stimulants, cannabis and heroin.
John Bailey, the parole board member who led the hearing, read from the psychologist’s report, which concluded that Sture’s risk of violent behavior was low, but that the risk goes up if he starts drinking or using drugs.
Sture told the other board members present — Greta Lowry and James Taylor — that he has been clean for almost two years.
This time frame, Bailey pointed out, isn’t that long; the board often interviews inmates with many more years of sobriety behind them.
Given how often Sture has relapsed while incarcerated, Bailey said he has to decide how likely Sture is to relapse once he is back in the community. “I want to be transparent with you and tell you that I’m concerned about that,” he told Sture.
“I’m not going down that road anymore,” Sture responded. “I am not going to hurt anybody the way I hurt Sgt. Shepherd. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.”
Taylor pointed out that drugs are easier to obtain outside of prison than they are inside — and marijuana is now legal in Oregon.
“What do you think it will take to keep you sober?” Taylor asked Sture.
“Conviction,” Sture replied. “Conviction and work. I’m not going to fall anymore.”
Sture said he planned to find a job, take advantage of mental health programs and join Marion County’s Narcotics Anonymous community.
His close relatives attended the hearing. His sister, Cindy Wiggins, said that her family will help Sture if the board grants him parole.
“If any of us thought that Mike would be dangerous to be released into society, we would most certainly not be making this statement today,” Wiggins said.
The religious studies group that Sture has been involved with in prison also said they would support him.
“We live in a society that believes in the rule of law, the importance of the rule of law, and for that reason, we incarcerate people who make serious errors,” said Douglas Parker, a volunteer with the religious studies group. “But we also look at the rehabilitation and the reentry, the reclamation of these lives that (is) possible.”
Sandra Bierschied, Shepherd’s daughter, was 14 when her dad was murdered. She said she “heard the shots in the distance that took his life.”
“I had reoccurring nightmares that (Sture) is outside my house with a gun shooting at my family,” she said. “And these nightmares are part of who I am now.”
When she wakes up, she at least has “the security of knowing that this man is in prison and this helps me move forward every day.
“The thought of this man being paroled is incomprehensible.”
Brown said that Sture should remain locked up because of “the enormity of the crime.”
“This was not a drunk-driving crash or something like that,” Brown said. “This was monumental.”
Brown said Sture allegedly told one of his friends who was interviewed about the original crime that “it would be easy to kill someone on a motorcycle.” Brown maintains that Shepherd’s murder was “arguably a ‘thrill kill.’” And that’s very concerning because that could reoccur.
“He was executed, Jim Shepherd was, in cold blood,” Brown continued. “We only have Mr. Sture to tell us whether he ever suffered much after he was shot the first time until he was executed by two shots to the head.”
Calling Sture a “potential time bomb waiting to go off with his drug and alcohol issues,” Brown asked the board to push back his parole for at least two more years, “to give him time to build a better track record.”
Sarah Shepherd, Shepherd’s grandniece, is a deputy district attorney in Clatsop County. She wasn’t yet born when her uncle died. But she became a prosecutor, she said, “definitely in part because of what happened to my family, and the generational trauma that our family has gone through because of what happened to my uncle.
“Everything about this process is why I became a prosecutor, because I don’t want other families to suffer as mine has suffered,” she said.
She noted that, after more than four decades in prison, Sture was still at step No. 4 of the 12-step Narcotics Anonymous and isn’t active in the program at the moment.
“From the work that I’ve done in drug treatment programs, Mr. Sture is not someone we would even consider for graduation,” let alone “released from prison,” she said.
If the parole board releases Sture, she said, it will put him in the same position he was in in 1980.
“He knows that when he relapses and when he fails, when he commits a new crime, he’ll be facing coming back to prison. And he now knows more about prison than he did when he was 24. He knows how terrible it is.
“So what’ll happen to the next person who catches him?” she continued. “If it’s his PO (parole officer) walking up to his residence and he has drugs there, if it’s a police officer doing a traffic stop when he’s chosen to abscond, what’s going to happen? I know what’s going to happen.”