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Scorned Ex-Convict Is Forced to Camp Out

Bruce Scott Erbs is a schizophrenic, arsonist and sexual predator. He lives in a tent behind the county jail because no shelter will take him.

August 11, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

ALBANY, Ore. — Behind the county jail, in the farthest corner of a gravel lot, sits a small dome tent. It is bright blue and, from a distance, stands out like an ornament in a field of gray dust. The tent is sweltering in the afternoon sun.

Out steps a small, wiry man in black polyester pants and sleeveless shirt. His name is Bruce Scott Erbs, 58, a paranoid schizophrenic and convicted arsonist and sexual predator. He's best known around town as the man who torched St. Mary's Church, a historic landmark, 14 years ago.

Erbs lives in the tent because no one wants him.

Since his release from prison on Christmas Eve, Linn County officials have searched in vain for transitional housing for him: No shelter or halfway house in this town of 40,000 would accept him. This is the first time it has happened in this mostly rural community in the Willamette Valley, Linn County Sheriff David Burright said, and it underscores the growing problem of housing ex-convicts -- particularly registered sex offenders -- once they're released.

Communities throughout Oregon and Washington wrestle with the issue, and tents in some areas have become a last-ditch, if unofficial, solution.

For six months in neighboring Polk County, commissioners arranged for a half-dozen parolees, five of them sex offenders, to camp in a parking garage. Protests forced the camp to be disbanded in July, but officials said they would reestablish the setup once they find a more remote location.

In Shelton, Wash., this year, transportation workers stumbled upon an encampment of registered sex offenders off of a busy highway. Local police knew about the camp and monitored it, but the camp was legal under Washington law.

Washington state Department of Corrections spokesman Veltry Johnson said sex offenders commonly live in encampments along the Interstate 5 corridor, often because they have no place else to go. Sex offenders are among the least-tolerated and most vilified of criminals, and few communities want to take chances with them.

That's been the case with Erbs.

Most Oregon counties and most states offer some kind of transitional housing for even the most dangerous ex-convicts. In Oregon, carrying out parole policies is the responsibility of each county.

When Erbs was first paroled he was housed at the county jail. The Sheriff's Department moved him into the tent at the beginning of August. The Parole Board gave him 60 days to find other accommodations. If he doesn't, neither he nor Sheriff Burright knows where he will go.

"He's a predatory sex offender, he's been a fire-setter since he was a juvenile, and, on top of that, he's mentally ill," Burright said, explaining the difficulty in placing Erbs.

Burright's office contacted all the usual transitional places in the area, including homeless shelters, motels and low-income apartments and trailer parks, but once the operators were informed of Erbs' history, they refused.

And Burright doesn't blame them.

In fact, Burright admits he feels better that Erbs is in a controlled environment where he's closely watched. "If we didn't provide housing, he'd go live under a bridge or in a park where we couldn't watch him," he said.

The sheriff, with obvious disdain in his voice, said he believes Erbs' freedom is a reflection of the failure of the state's mental health system. Too many dangerous people like Erbs, he said, "fly under the radar" of the system.

"There's no doubt in my mind this man should be institutionalized," he said.

Under conditions approved by the Parole Board, Erbs must follow a strict curfew: He's free to leave the prison grounds after 7 a.m. but must be back in his tent by 8:30 p.m. Burright said he bought him a watch so Erbs wouldn't have an excuse to be late.

Erbs must check in with his parole officer twice a day. Mental health workers make sure he takes his medications, and he's tested daily for alcohol consumption. Most important, he's not allowed to make any contact with juveniles. Any violation of these conditions could send him back to prison.

His tent is monitored by a surveillance camera around the clock, and at night a prison guard checks on him every hour. Such vigilance is deemed necessary for a man who has shown a lifelong proclivity to hurt people and burn down buildings.

Burright said Erbs, a drifter whose life is mostly a mystery except for his crimes, has been in and out of prison since he was a young man. As a youth, he once tried to burn down his family's house. He seems to have no family left, or at least anyone who wants anything to do with him, Burright said.

His first felony was in 1971, near Portland, when he was convicted of attempting to rape an 11-year-old girl. He was convicted again in 1976 for sodomizing an 8-year-old girl. Erbs was suspected, but never convicted, of a rape in the town of St. Helens, where he lived for a time.

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