Terri Jentz,
Strange Piece of Paradise
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)

"Strange things happen to people in America. Some bitterly cruel. And some so beautiful that faith is retired forever."

To Terri Jentz, Oregon is a dark and strange piece of paradise. After her freshman year at Yale, Jentz and her roommate Shayna set off on a summer 1977 Great American Journey -- crossing the country from Oregon to Virginia on a BikeCentennial route. On day 22 of the journey, Jentz and Shayna separated from a couple they had met on the road and then decided to stop for the night in an unapproved campground. They awoke that night to the unimaginable horror of a pickup truck driving through their tent, and then a handsome phantom of a cowboy striking them repeatedly with an axe.

Jentz was physically damaged by the event, but she moved on with her life as a woman unafraid of telling her story, unafraid of the dark and still willing to tent-camp. Her companion Shayna had amnesia about the night and barely survived with limited vision. She distanced herself from Jentz and the memories of that night as much as possible.

Fifteen years later, Jentz returned to Cline Falls, Oregon, to investigate her past. "Could I ever apply meaning to what had long seemed a senseless act, one that happened without pattern or reason?"

"Who was the man who emerged that night in a desert park, bent on destruction?"

The statute of limitations on attempted murder in Oregon was a mere three years, so Jentz's adult odyssey was truly a personal exploration, not a formal legal investigation. In Orgeon, Jentz teamed up with victim's rights advocate Dee Dee, who puts it best: "We kind of reward you because you're not very good at what you do. The only difference between attempted murder and murder is that somebody was inadequate in what they tried to do. Their intent was the same. That person is as great a danger to society as the person who completed the murder. Maybe they're a bad shot. Why would you reward them?"

It was the lack of formal legal recourse that allowed Jentz access to the closeknit community of Cline Falls. Over the course of a decade, she traveled to Oregon repeatedly to chase down leads, interview police, talk to witnesses and reunite with her rescuers and the hospital staff who cared for her. The girls "who got chopped up at Cline Falls" were ingrained in the collective memory of Oregonians and the nation, and everyone had a flicker of recognition when Jentz identified herself.

She quickly discovered that the town had long suspected one of their own, an alcoholic, abusive sadist with a long history of domestic violence, as the perpetrator. He even had a nickname: Dick Duran the Hatchet Man. In candid prose, Jentz describes the bureaucratic mistakes made in the investigation of her case (it became a turf war between three local agencies), as well as the 1977 public relations nightmare of talking about two girls who "asked for it" by camping alone in an unapproved area, and the face of crime in the 1970s (the term "serial killer" hadn't even been invented yet, and there were no crime tabloids and TV shows).

Despite the inconsistencies and missteps Jentz discovered in the official investigation, nothing about the case is open and shut. Jentz finds witnesses who contradict one another and previous statements, and people who made claims but have been influenced by the gossip around town in the two decades since the crime. Her research is exhaustive, and she accepts nothing at face value. The author should be commended for her dedication to factual accuracy (she refused to accept hearsay); however, the extreme detail does weigh the action down partway through the book.

As an armchair detective, I would have gladly accepted a more condensed version of interviews. This is still, without question, a topnotch narrative that succeeds both as a personal memoir and a criminal case study.

by Jessica Lux-Baumann
12 August 2006

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