CARRYING A SUPERMARKET rose, David “Joey”Pedersen walked to his mother’s apartment in Salem on May 24 last year. The sky, he recalls, was blue and white, vast and strange. He wore new slacks and a collared shirt. A cheap red tie bothered his neck, covering the tattooed initials of “Supreme White Power” that circle his throat. He marveled at the people, streets, and stores, sights he’d only imagined during his time in solitary confinement—11 of the almost 15 years he’d spent in various jails and prisons. He was 30, free for the first time since he was 16.
“It was surreal, being able to relax around people and not see them as a potential threat,” he recalls.
Pedersen’s new life was short. On September 26, he and girlfriend Holly Grigsby enacted a scene in Everett, Washington, that he later said he’d planned for years: Grigsby told detectives she slashed his stepmother’s throat, killing her; Pedersen killed his father, shooting him in the head. Then, driving through Oregon in his father’s car with the man’s body slumped in the front seat, Pedersen and Grigsby allegedly murdered Cody Myers, a 19-year-old from Lafayette who happened to be in Newport for a jazz festival, stole his car, and fled to California. The California Highway Patrol captured the couple on October 5, the same day Myers’s body was found in a forest near the Oregon coast. Police announced that Pedersen and Grigsby were also suspected in the racially motivated killing of a black California man named Reginald Clark.
The spree drew national media attention, especially after Grigsby told California detectives that she and Pedersen were headed to Sacramento to “kill … Jews.” Pedersen elaborated in a statement that police found in Myers’s car, which he later reprised in a letter: “May this act serve notice to all Zionist agents, here in America and abroad … that there exists yet a stout-hearted resistance to those forces seeking to destroy our race.” Authorities hint that the murder count could still climb. “All I can say is, they’ve only found four bodies,” says Craig Matheson, the prosecutor who worked Pedersen’s case in Everett. “The investigation is still very much ongoing.”
On March 16, the state of Washington handed Pedersen two life-without-parole sentences after he pleaded guilty to the Everett killings. While Grigsby faces a September trial in Everett, Pedersen currently lives in 23-hour lockdown at Washington’s Monroe Correctional Complex, awaiting possible extradition to Oregon and California. His lawyers say the federal Department of Justice may eventually take the tangled, tristate case.
In his first teenage mugshot from the ’90s, Pedersen’s face is clear and handsome. Today, his occasional smile displays broken teeth, and his skin seems lost under a pernicious ivy of tattoos that range from Hitler’s face on his abdomen to a Viking battle symbol on his left cheekbone. In many statements, he shows no remorse for the murders. “When murder is necessary,” he’s told me, “it’s like taking out the trash.”
As the case unfolds in the courts, specialists in various fields say Pedersen’s transmogrification—from wayward teenager busted for stealing about $1,000 to unrepentant killer—was shaped at least in part by his prison experience. “A time bomb was created,” says Paul Frick, a youth behavioral specialist and former editor of the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. Frick sums up Pedersen’s incarceration as “15 years of training in how to be antisocial.”
Whether Frick’s view is right or wrong, Pedersen’s long record provides a case study in how Oregon handles both young offenders and hardened inmates. As the state’s politicians weigh reforms of sentencing and corrections, some experts say Oregon’s practices in both areas fall short of emerging consensus on how to handle serious criminals and protect the public.
I WAS AN INTERN at the Oregonian when I first interviewed Pedersen, the weekend after his California arrest. (I have also attempted to contact Grigsby, but her most extensive response so far was a note: “This is on or off the record: fuck off, whore!!”) He was brazen then and throughout our correspondence of letters and phone calls. “Let me jump right into it, young lady,” he wrote to me recently. “I represent everything you have been … taught to loathe. I kill people. Given the opportunity at a ‘second chance’ out in society, I would change only my tactics.”
Pedersen spent his early childhood in Camp Pendleton, California, where his father and namesake, David Jones Pedersen, was a marine sergeant. In 2007, his mother sent a letter to the junior David Joseph (“Joey”) in prison, alleging that his father, remarried and living in Everett, molested Joey’s older sister. (His sister later told the media that the abuse did occur.) Pedersen says now that after receiving that letter he began planning to kill his father.
Pedersen’s mother, meanwhile, suffered multiple personality disorder, according to court records. When the couple divorced in 1993, neither parent sought custody of Pedersen or his sister. The siblings moved into the house of an aunt living in Stayton, Oregon. “Those were the best years of my life,” Pedersen tells me now. “Every holiday, she went all out…. There were people coming over. It was warm, and she baked Christmas cookies.” His favorite teacher sent him home with weekly behavior reports: “He was a bright, peppy kid. He never followed the rules, but he never hurt anybody….There was nothing malicious in him.”
Later, Pedersen’s mother offered to take the children back, and he moved to her Salem apartment. As a teenager, Pedersen ran with Salem kids who haunted the railroad tracks off of State Street, drinking Olde English and painting over local gang tags with pretend monikers. At 14, he began experiencing random panic attacks. A doctor at West Salem Clinic ultimately prescribed 200 milligrams of the antidepressant Zoloft daily, a “high normal” dose Pedersen kept taking through his incarceration. Classes at North Salem High School bored him, and he drifted into shoplifting, getting arrested and sent briefly to juvenile detention at 15. When Pedersen dropped out of school during his junior year, his mother kicked the 16-year-old out. He bussed tables to earn rent at the house of his restaurant manager’s brother.
“Joey was a pleaser,” says Tricia Penrose, his former manager. “He wanted everyone to like him, and everyone did like him.”
But in the fall of 1996, Pedersen quit his job at Old Country Buffet. Wanting money to take out girls, he says, he pointed a gun wrapped in a paper bag through the window of a coffee stand, taking about $600 in cash and personal checks from the college student working the register, who told police that Pedersen’s hands were shaking. (“Have a nice evening,” he called as he fled.) A couple of months later, he robbed another coffee stand and then a McDonald’s, using a gun that police later determined was not loaded. On January 13, 1997, he was arrested at the McDonald’s.
The sergeant who handcuffed Pedersen wrote in a report, “I took the suspect to my car and … he said, ‘The money … is in my left rear pocket.’ I patted him down for weapons and found, just as he had told me, cash wadded up in his back left pocket.”