PEDERSEN’S WHITE SUPREMACIST ties, as well as about 70 violations noted in his Oregon corrections file, meant that he spent most of his time in solitary confinement. “If you’re known as an Aryan Soldier prospect or associate, you’re going to the hole and you’re never coming back,” says Dannel Larson, the estranged husband of Pedersen’s girlfriend Grigsby, who also served time in Oregon prisons.
In January 2000, Pedersen and two other inmates wrote threatening letters to Malheur County’s district attorney and two judges. (Pedersen says he was trying to break the monotony of prison. Dan Norris, the DA, says he was targeted because he prosecuted many white supremacists at Snake River.) About a year later, Pedersen assaulted an officer at Eastern Oregon Correctional Facility. He says his fantasies of violence “in the hole” boiled over when he beat the man with a hot iron. “I was waiting for a reason,” he says. “There were a lot of them who had it coming more than him, but he was there.” (He also claims he was shackled after the incident and beaten by guards, who broke his teeth. The Department of Corrections declined to comment.) In a letter addressed to a friend at Oregon State Penitentiary and confiscated by prison officials, Pedersen wrote that the guard’s “pathetic life was saved by an inmate…. As I had the pig on the floor in the corner, attempting to wack [sic] him again with the iron, this good convict slammed me from behind and used his considerable weight to pin me against the wall.” Soon after, Pedersen wrote ominous letters to the Idaho judge who sentenced white separatist Randy Weaver and to an Oregon prosecutor. Those threats earned him federal convictions and a transfer to the famed “Supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado, which houses the Unabomber, convicted 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui, and a collection of crime bosses.
Pedersen read constantly. He discovered a kindred soul in the prisoner-protagonist of his favorite book, Jack London’s 1915 novel The Star Rover. “Solitary confinement, they call it,” the fictional prisoner says. “Men who endure it, call it living death. But through these five years of death-in-life I managed to attain freedom … not only did I range the world, but I ranged time. They who immured me for petty years gave to me, all unwittingly, the largess of centuries.” Gazing at the crisp skies of Colorado, his cell’s only view, Pedersen recalls that he wandered alongside his fictional hero. “I’m always looking to get lost in exercise, or maybe a passionate pursuit (furious and frenzied letter-writing, perhaps),” he writes to me. “Even just walking back and forth in a memory.”
Similar supermax prisons, where inmates spend little or no time outside of cells, operate in 32 states, and solitary confinement is common across the country: the New York Times reported in March that America houses at least 25,000 prisoners in solitary confinement, more than any other democratic nation. The Oregon Department of Corrections holds more than 900 offenders in some form of segregation.
The repercussions of solitary confinement are a subject of increasing controversy. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights stopped the extradition of four British terrorism suspects to the Colorado facility, saying conditions there should be studied as possibly inhumane. Roberts, one of Pedersen’s prison friends, says his own time in segregation has fostered dark obsessions. Currently housed at the Snake River prison, he’s allowed to leave his cell for 30 minutes five times a week—a typical schedule for a prisoner in solitary. “I sometimes fixate on the noises people make and wish I could hurt them to shut them up,” he writes. “For years, I fantasized about getting out of prison and hunting down and killing prison guards.”
Pedersen’s current lawyers retained Stuart Grassian, a former Harvard psychiatrist and one of America’s preeminent experts on forced seclusion. He was slated to speak at a hearing on the conditions of Pedersen’s confinement at Snohomish County jail, but Pedersen’s guilty plea precluded the testimony. “These abused criminals are not going to be shackled … forever,” he says. “They’ll be among us, and they’ll be as ill-prepared to survive—violent, impulsive—as we’ve made them.” In 1993, Grassian submitted a statement as part of the federal case Madrid v. Gomez, describing his findings on the practice. That lawsuit, on behalf of inmates at California’s Pelican Bay prison, ended with a US District Court’s ruling that prisoners in solitary confinement (among other punitive measures) had been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.
In the face of mounting criticism, some corrections officials are rethinking solitary confinement.
“When you’re dealing with the worst of the worst, there has to be an underlying premise of having something positive to look forward to,” James Bruton, a retired warden of a notorious supermax facility in Minnesota, tells me. “Otherwise, they will [hurt] you.” Bruton’s 2004 book, The Big House, spells out a philosophy of rehabilitation that applies to even the most serious cases. “Ninety-five percent of prisoners get out, so you have to find a way to prepare them, and that means less time in the cell,” Bruton says now. Even when interacting with the most violent offenders, he adds, positive reinforcement is key. “You have to operate under the philosophy that being in prison is the punishment. It’s the court’s job to give a sentence. Making the experience worse is just cruel, and even dangerous.”
NEAR THE ANNIVERSARY of Pedersen’s release date, I walk up the narrow stairs to the attic closet where he first stayed when he left prison. The men who live in this small, drug-free group home run by the nonprofit Oxford House call Pedersen’s old refuge “the back cave.” His former roommate leads me through the kitchen, where a note on the refrigerator says “TO DO: Some girls.” He shows me the gazebo where Pedersen did hundreds of push-ups every morning. “Ready to move on and start a family,” Pedersen wrote in an intake questionnaire for Marion County’s probation office. Pedersen’s Oxford House roommate says he was friendly and well-liked, and spent his time looking for work. He also seemed to please his probation officers, though his county officer overrode his initial categorization as low-risk and instead designated him medium-risk. After Salem job prospects dried up, he received permission to move to Portland, where he settled at the Northeast home of a Measure 11 friend’s mother. A state parolee and a federal probationer, he reported dually to a Multnomah County office and to US Probation’s headquarters in Portland. He applied for jobs at 20 different Jiffy Lube locations. Meanwhile, he hung out with ex-convicts and traveled to the Oregon Coast and Reno, Nevada, to participate in three cage fights.
One September night, a Portland police officer responding to a carjacking in the Pearl District stopped Pedersen and another former Oregon prison inmate and took their names. He wasn’t arrested, but Pedersen says he panicked, certain he would be sent back to prison. “I figured I might as well make it worth it,” he says. He and 24-year-old Grigsby—another white supremacist former inmate he’d met through his ex-con friends—embarked on their fatal spree. Chris Whitlow, his Multnomah County probation officer, noted in a report that he became aware of Pedersen’s interstate travel (a parole violation) only after news broke of the Everett killings.
Whitlow declines to comment further, but colleagues say monitoring a case like Pedersen’s is a difficult task. Robb Anderson, the parole officer supervising Pedersen’s Pearl District companion and a specialist in parolees with white supremacist ties, says he knew the association would prove troublesome and worked to end it. “There’s only so much I can do,” he says. “I watch Fox News every night—I know I’m going to see somebody from my caseload. The severity of the damage these people go through in the corrections system, I don’t think the average person gets it. You can’t make cupcakes out of shit.”
The results of Pedersen’s actions were devastating. “Evil has no soul,” said Helen Clark, the stepdaughter of Pedersen’s stepmother, at Pedersen’s sentencing hearing in March. “The defendant is the epitome of evil.” Pedersen’s own sister called him a “sociopath.”
One member of the team who evaluated Pedersen’s competency to stand trial in February put it bluntly: “Once they created him, they should have just killed him, or never let him out.”