Nathan Thomas’s parents reflect on his death, whether Portland police learned anything from it

By Steve Duin of The Oregonian, September 19, 2010

On the last Sunday of September, the Nathan Thomas 6 v 6 Fall Tournament will be staged for the final time at Grant High School.

In its 19th year, the tournament isn’t showing its age. It isn’t slowing down. The neighborhood tradition is simply moving on without its inspiration and namesake. The tournament will resume next year as the Portland 6 v 6 Fall Tournament.

That’s what we’re supposed to be talking about, here in the living room on Hazelfern Place, the house where Nathan died.

The tournament has always been “emotionally complicated” for Nathan’s parents, a reminder of how long he’s been gone and all that he missed. I don’t know how to begin the conversation, and Dr. Greg Thomas and Martha McMurry are as gentle with me as they are with everyone else.

We talk about the weekend. I’m going to a wedding. They just returned from one.

Benjamin’s. Nathan’s younger brother. At Arches National Park in Utah.

When I ask why Utah and why that park, Martha crosses the room to a 5×7 photograph on the mantle. Inside its frame, her two sons are sitting side-by-side in the shadow of Delicate Arch, almost 20 years ago.

Martha takes the photo in her hands. “This,” she says, “is going to make me cry.”

“On January 16, 1992, when Nathan was 12 years old, a man took him hostage. Police officers tried to rescue Nathan, but gunfire erupted, and Nathan was accidentally shot. He died a few hours later.”

That’s the tournament version, the one on the large placard Greg Thomas hangs each year on the baseball backstop at Grant. The one parents can read on a fall afternoon with their children, strikers and goalies and center mids who were not yet born when Officers Rod Lucich and Steve Larkin knocked on the door at 3:58 a.m. and told Thomas, “We think there’s an intruder in your house.”

What happened in the next 14 minutes is, in the emotional history of this city and its police force, James Chasse squared.

Greg rushed up the staircase to the boys’ second-floor bedrooms to roust Benjamin and spirit the 8-year-old from the house.

Martha? “I went into Nathan’s bedroom,” she said. “And Bryan French was in bed with him, with a knife to his throat.

“He said, ‘Get out. I’ll kill him if you don’t.”

“When you walk up those steps, they creak,” Greg says now, his voice still ruled by an unworldly calm. “How did I not hear Bryan French coming up the steps?”

Especially because the 20-year-old French was mentally ill, drunk and suicidal. Before he went out marauding that night, armed with the 12-inch knife, French left a note at his apartment, saying, “I hope to die tonight.”

As the cops retreated to the bottom of the stairs to regroup and radio for help, Greg and Martha took refuge in Benjamin’s room, huddling around their youngest son. They were separated from Nathan by a bedroom wall.

“We could hear everything that was going on,” Greg says. “We could hear what the police were saying. We could hear what Bryan French was saying. Right up to the time they shot Bryan and Nathan, we thought this was going to turn out all right. One of the things Bryan whispered to Nathan was, ‘I’m sorry about this, kid.’

“And Nathan said, ‘It’s OK.'”

No. It wasn’t.

French — who had moved with Nathan to the top of the stairs, using the boy as a shield — was screaming and irrational, and the police were increasingly frantic that the night was spinning out of control.

Only Lucich, Greg said, continued talking to French.

“I was trying everything,” says Lucich, who had tracked French to the house with his police dog and had training as a hostage negotiator. “I had a son who was a year older than Nathan. I knew they were 100 percent dependent on us.

“I pulled out all the stops. Trade me for him. Whatever. I did a lot of things to make sure he thought he could get away, knowing I could track him later with the dog.”

But the conversation ended when Larkin and Officer Randy Gottwald, positioned outside the house, thought they had clear shots at French through the window at the landing where the staircase took a 180-degree turn.

Larkin fired his .45-caliber semiautomatic, Gottwald a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson.

Both missed.

“That was the turning point,” Greg said, “the shots through the windows. I don’t know who made that decision.”

“It was a little hard to negotiate once that happened,” Lucich agrees. Adrenalin was the rage at both ends of the stairwell. French sounded more erratic. The cops were increasingly nervous about Nathan’s safety until, at 4;12 a.m., three officers — Tim Sommerville, Lonn Sweeney and Sgt. Rich Barton — charged up the steps, guns drawn.

“Initially, they told us Nathan had been stabbed,” Greg Thomas says, 18 years later. They didn’t learn the truth until they reached Emanuel Hospital. Greg was filling out the insurance forms when he noticed the letters “GSW” in the box marked, “Reason for admission.”

“What’s GSW?” he asked the admitting clerk.

“Gunshot wound,” she said.

“That,” Greg says, “is how I found out he’d been shot.

Nathan Thomas was just 12, when an intruder broke into his Laurelhurst home. In the attempts to rescue him, Portland police accidentally shot him, firing into the house 18 times. He is photographed with his younger brother, Benjamin, in the picture at right.

Nathan Thomas was fascinated by Delicate Arch. He’s far from the only one. Edward Abbey once wrote that the “illogical geologic freak” reminds us “that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship …

“For a few moments we discover nothing can be taken for granted.”

When the Thomases lived in Salt Lake City, the boys’ school took the students on weekend camping trips each spring. Like the rest of his class, Nathan missed the third-grade trip to Delicate Arch because the road to the trailhead was washed out.

He couldn’t get that arch out of his head. Nathan was fascinated by the idea that a rock monument formed millions of years ago could collapse at any moment. He was determined to see the arch before it surrendered to gravity and time.

“And we,” Martha says, “were determined to get him there.”

In November 1990, eight months before they moved back to Portland, the family drove to Arches National Park. They worked their way across the rocks. Nathan stood quietly beside his brother in the delicate grip of the arch while their father steadied his SLR and snapped the photograph that would survive him.

They never wanted to sue. Nathan’s parents, especially Martha, just wanted to reason, reflect and talk. And they were surprised about just how few of those who witnessed their son’s death, or investigated it, cared about what they had to say.

The Multnomah County grand jury — the one assessing the wisdom of the 18 shots fired at the top of the stairs — didn’t. “Yes or no questions,” Greg says. “I wanted to elaborate. They wouldn’t let me.”

Pierce Brooks, the one-time Eugene police chief who wrote the independent review, didn’t. “He was doing this investigation and about to write it up, and he hadn’t interviewed us,” Greg says.

When they called him on this, they said Brooks told them, “I didn’t want to bring up bad memories.”

More than anything, Martha wanted to talk to the officers who came to their Laurelhurst home.

“I wanted to meet with all the men who shot their guns that night,” Martha says. “I wanted to do that from the very beginning. We were all there together, all devastated by the way it turned out. We were all grieving.

“But there was no way we could get them to deal with us in the human-to-human way I wanted. They couldn’t handle it. They were afraid of me. Their pain was bigger than mine. I think they felt that.”

Martha was especially disappointed not to talk to Lucich. “I wanted to thank him. He was the one who kept his head.”

Lucich, who retired in 2008, was nervous about such a meeting.

“It’s a tightwire,” Lucich said. “You want to reach out and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ but sometimes that’s not welcome.”

Lucich eventually agreed to speak to Martha but only if her husband was present. Greg, dealing with grief in his own way, had no interest in that conversation, and the meeting never happened.

Unlike the Chasse family, Greg Thomas and Martha McMurry never sued because they didn’t think it would accomplish what they wanted.

“We wanted the police to take Nathan into their hearts and souls,” Martha said. They wanted the police to be better prepared before another child was taken hostage. They wanted to inspire the police with the Nathan Thomas Memorial Award, which is annually given to an officer who uses communication skills to turn down the volume on a violent encounter.

You can imagine how Thomas and McMurry felt when Karl McDade, the winner of the first award, publicly supported the conduct of Officer Chris Humphreys, the cop who did so much damage to Chasse, then fired a beanbag shotgun at a 12-year-old girl.

You can imagine how they weigh the irony of knowing that one result of the police investigation into Nathan’s death was to arm officers in hostage situations with AR-15s, the rifle Officer Ronald Frashour used to shoot and kill an unarmed Aaron Campbell on Jan. 29.

“We’ve been told 100 times that the whole bureau was shaken by this. I wanted to believe that,” Greg says. “But when you see the stuff that’s gone on regardless, particularly the Aaron Campbell shooting, you wonder if we should have done something differently and if anything has changed.”

T.J. Browning will speak to that.

In January 1992, Browning was six months pregnant and the editor of the Laurelhurst newsletter.

“I don’t think anyone read it,” she says. “I was constantly on the bandwagon about building community. I don’t think anyone cared.”

Then Nathan Thomas died.

“On the night he was killed,” Browning says, “my phone started ringing just after four in the morning. The neighborhood was so upset. ‘What can we do? How can we take care of that family?’ They wanted to repair the windows. They wanted to take care of Benjamin. They didn’t know who else to call.

“By midnight that night, I had an entire legal tablet filled with the names of people who wanted to reach out and help.”

And an entirely different view of human nature.

It didn’t matter that Greg, Martha and the two boys had lived on Hazelfern for less than six months. The random cruelty of that night overwhelmed everyone. A 12-year-old boy had died in the neighborhood, in his home, inches from his bedroom door, with 20 Portland police officers on the scene.

I don’t know that the ripples of change in this community have ever slowed.

Sue Ofstad, whose daughters were in the same classes at Fernwood Elementary, launched the soccer rec tournament that quickly became known as the Nathan Thomas 6 v 6 Fall Tournament. When she wasn’t passionately involved in police reform, Browning helped start the Nathan McMurry Thomas Fund, which provides scholarships for Grant students.

A new soccer field, the Nathan Thomas Field, opened in the Laurelhurst Park Annex.

For years now, Greg Thomas has come down to Grant on the night before Nathan’s tournament, lined the field with friends, then retired to the Laurelhurst Pub.

While Greg and Martha have decided to move on from this memorial, they will never leave the house or the neighborhood. The house was the last place they had with their son. “We still have his name on the refrigerator in magnetic letters,” Greg says. “Nathan’s magnetic letters.”

And the neighbors? It’s hard to describe the bond Greg and Martha have with Jon and Jeanne Goodling and Dennis and Maureen Simmonds, who live in the two homes just west of theirs. The “three houses” were a safety zone when all their children were alive, and the three households are closer now than they’ve ever been.

The families gather on Nathan’s birthday each year to read from Debra Frasier’s “On the Day You Were Born” and share memories of Nathan. They leave town every year on the anniversary of his death, just to be together. When asked if the three houses would have this history had Bryan French picked a different street on which to break through a basement window, Maureen Simmonds shakes her head.

“I don’t think it would have happened,” she says. “I don’t think we would have been so vulnerable and open and raw with one another.”

She pauses, remembering. “A lot of the time,” she says, “it was their hand out to us, not ours to them.”

“For people who were around then,” Browning says, “there’s a bond that will never be forgotten. Look at what could have happened. We could have had riots. Instead, we have play structures and soccer tournaments and playgrounds. That’s an amazing legacy. There’s a soccer field in his name. There’s a playground in his name. The day we laid the sod, there were too many people and not enough sod.”

They had the block party first, Benjamin Thomas and Keri Nelson, then the wedding.

“Very Benjamin like,” Maureen Simmonds says. “Very unconventional.”

They invited the neighborhood, of course, for the July block party, but the August wedding was a very private affair — parents and siblings only — at Delicate Arch.

“Nathan thought it was the most beautiful place in the world,” Martha says. “And Benjamin wanted the wedding to be there because he wanted his brother to be part of the ceremony.”

They hiked in at dawn, the bride and groom in T-shirts. Asking to be alone — almost alone — Benjamin and Keri quietly exchanged vows less than five yards from where Nathan and his brother once stood when neither knew how precious the moment was.

Greg and Martha waited in the distance, breathing in the unique and fragile beauty of the morning.