This is where Van Strum has lived since 1974. On New Year’s Eve 1977, her house burned down, killing four of her children, aged 5 to 13, from her previous marriage. They’re all buried on the property, out back near the apple trees. After the tragedy, Van Strum didn’t have the money to rebuild, so she made a home from what was left amid the ashes: The garage became the living room; a second story was constructed on top of it; and a bedroom was built on the side for Jordan, who was adopted on the day of his birth in 1981, and his brother, Nikko, who is the biological son of Van Strum and her ex-husband, Paul Merrell.
Now even those additions have fallen into disrepair. The staircase is boarded up, and Jordan’s old bedroom has a blue blanket nailed over the doorway. The room’s roof has collapsed, and a Star Wars poster and stuffed Keiko doll are the only remaining evidence of the children who used to live here. If you need to use the bathroom, you have to trek to the outhouse. Or the nearest bush.
This is where Jordan grew up. There are pictures of him near the computer; he’s dressed in prison blues, hair usually woven into tight rows, looking hard. On the inside they call the 26-year-old “The Professor” for his propensity for reading—everything from Tintin to books by physicist Richard Feynman. And while a few photos on the wall attest to happier times, a darkness seems to have followed Jordan Merrell since the day he was born.
In an affidavit from his biological grandmother, Jordan’s birth mother is described as mentally ill; his real father has never been found. Because of his mixed race—one of his parents was African American and the other was white—Merrell was exposed to incidents of racism. According to Van Strum, he was one of only two nonwhite kids at Waldport Middle School, and at basketball games, people in the crowds would say things like, “Kill the nigger.” His adoptive father, Paul Merrell, was abusive. “It was bad,” Van Strum says. “That’s why we split up.”
But it wasn’t just the kicking and punching. Paul spent over two years in Vietnam as a psychological operations specialist with the 5th Special Forces Group, and Steinberg’s report notes that after returning home, he was considered to be 100 percent disabled by Veterans Affairs, which cited diagnoses of schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other afflictions.
In a memo that she kept for herself detailing Paul Merrell’s abuse, Van Strum described one particular incident: “To punish Jordan?…?Paul keeps him up almost all night, forcing him to sit in a chair without moving, making him do push-ups every time he moves a finger or starts falling asleep.?…?Paul holds Jordan’s Walkman in Jordan’s face and systematically rips it apart and smashes it beyond repair, then threatens to do the same to Jordan, pulls off his vest to do so, starts to go for him until I pick up a fire poker.”
On January 13, 1995, at the age of 13, Jordan tried to kill himself with an overdose of aspirin and ibuprofen.
It was the beginning of a downward spiral for the teen. In February 1995, after Van Strum and Paul Merrell had separated, the Lincoln County Circuit Court issued a domestic violence restraining order against Paul. Four months later, Jordan was popped for spray-painting gang-related graffiti (“OGJSM,” which stood for Original Gangster Jordan Scott Merrell) on a wall at Waldport Middle School. He was charged with criminal mischief and placed in the Lincoln County Shelter Home, a juvenile facility. He told therapists he’d been dabbling in pot since the age of 6, hallucinogens since the age of 7, and alcohol since the age of 10.
Steinberg’s investigation shows that numerous counselors documented Jordan’s deteriorating mental state. He was described at various points between 1995 and 1997 as being “self-destructive,” “depressive,” “at-risk.” One psychologist described him as “dysphoric,” an agitated state often associated with depression, psychosis, and thoughts of suicide.
Partly as a result of the graffiti incident, Jordan was accepted at Bob Belloni Ranch—a juvenile treatment center in Coos Bay—but when asked to sign a consent form, Paul Merrell opposed the treatment plan.