JASON PETERSEN never laid a finger on Charlie Win Chan. According to Oregon law, he didn’t have to.
That became clear March 13, when the Portland Police Bureau announced a grand jury had declined criminal charges against Chan for fatally shooting Petersen—32, homeless, and struggling with schizophrenia—on the afternoon of February 20.
It was foreshadowed by police reports that listed Chan as a “victim” not long after Petersen was found lying in the street with a shot to the abdomen.
And it does not add up to Petersen’s mother, Susan Petersen.
“I can’t understand it,” she says. “I can’t understand that man’s choices. It makes no sense.”
In the weeks since the shooting, Petersen’s death has brought Portland’s difficulties with connecting sick people with mental health care into stark relief. The man’s family says they fought for years to force help upon him, only to be told again and again he wasn’t enough of a threat to himself or to others.
Now dozens of pages of police reports obtained by the Mercury offer the most detailed picture yet of the event that took Petersen’s life. And they give some credence to the belief, voiced by Susan Petersen and others, that a highly charged altercation on February 20 didn’t need to turn fatal.
Petersen confronted the 47-year-old Chan that afternoon in Chan’s place of business: an insurance agency not far from the intersection of SE 82nd and Foster.
Petersen was upset. He’d slept on a covered porch in front of Chan’s business the night before, but had left and come back to find his belongings gone.
Chan was fed up. He and his wife told cops that people frequently sleep in front of their insurance agency, and often have to be told to leave. When the couple arrived at 11 am to find “camping gear and bags” on the porch, Chan threw the items in a dumpster on the property.
Now Petersen had returned, and became “irate” when told his stuff had been tossed. Chan—the sole living witness to the vast majority of the confrontation—told police the man threatened to kill him or burn down the business. According to Deputy District Attorney Adam Gibbs, who handled the case, Chan reported pulling out his cell phone to call 911, but said he was shaking too badly to unlock it.
In any case, Petersen left. Chan’s wife would recall hearing a door slamming in the building. As for Chan, he collected himself, but didn’t call 911. Instead, he told authorities he waited a few minutes then went outside, toting the .22-caliber revolver he is licensed to conceal on his person.
The insurance agent stayed on the front porch for a time, then testified he needed to get something from the rear of the property, Gibbs says. When he rounded the building, he told police, Petersen was laying in wait, “started to come at him with his arms raised,” and threated again to kill him.
Chan pulled out his gun and told cops he didn’t have time to utter a warning before he shot Petersen one time, striking his pancreas, liver, and aorta.
“Mr. Chan told us he knew he was about to be assaulted by the man, so he pulled out his pistol and fired one shot into the man to get him to stop,” says a report written by Portland Officer Gregory Adrian. “He looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t want to kill him, so I shot low’....”
Petersen stumbled out onto SE 82nd, telling confused drivers he’d been shot and asking for help. He died while being operated on at Oregon Health and Science University. Police didn’t retrieve his belongings from the dumpster until his mother asked about them.
Immediately, cops pegged Petersen as the “suspect” in the incident, very clearly finding credence that Chan was merely acting in self-defense.
“Police had an early view that this may well be a justified case,” Gibbs says, insisting that fact had no bearing on how he presented the matter to grand jurors.
Susan Petersen has her doubts about that. Mostly, though, she’s adamant that it should have never come to this. She wonders why Chan didn’t call 911, as he told authorities he’d tried to do. Or why he didn’t exit his business by a back door to access the back yard instead of leaving, armed, in the direction her son had gone.
“If he would have locked the door and called 911, Jason would still be here,” Susan Petersen, a Vancouver resident, said at a recent meeting in a Portland coffee shop. “Of course he’s gonna be out in that dumpster climbing in it to get the stuff he needs to survive.”
Grand juries are held in secret, and Susan Petersen is convinced that prosecutors and police favored the business owner over Petersen in the hearing (again, Gibbs is adamant that’s not true). She doesn’t think Chan is a murderer, but believes he should face a manslaughter charge in her son’s death.
If the shooting had occurred a decade earlier, that might have been on the table.
Until March 2007, state courts found armed citizens had a “duty to retreat” if possible when they were threatened with harm in public. That changed with an Oregon Supreme Court opinion that found state law contains no such mandate. Oregon’s so-called “stand your ground” law says that deadly force is justified if a person is confronted by someone “committing or attempting to commit a felony involving the use or threatened imminent use of physical force.”
“All a jury is instructed in self defense [cases] is: Was the use of force reasonable under the circumstances?” Gibbs says.
Combined with Oregon’s permissive concealed weapons policies, gun control advocates say the law is a recipe for trouble.
“One of the reasons we do not support ‘stand your ground’ is it turns anyone with a gun into judge, jury, and executioner in a matter of seconds,” says Penny Okamoto of Ceasefire Oregon. “What about the person shot? What about their right to due process?”
Chan didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Viewed through the lens of his run-ins with cops, Petersen’s altercation with Chan feels almost predictable. Included in a packet of reports on the case are instances in January and early February where Petersen had made menacing comments to employees of businesses on Southeast Hawthorne when asked to move along. In each case, he was jailed and then released.
Also included, oddly, is a report from March 6 in which a police officer interviewed workers at an East Portland flower shop about problems with thefts from homeless people in the area. There is no indication that Petersen has anything to do with the report.
The grand jury’s decision last week isn’t the end for Susan Petersen. She is talking with lawyers, and hoping to file a wrongful death suit against Chan.
She is also haunted by the timing of her son’s death. Petersen had been on and off the streets for months on the day he died—refusing mental health treatment. He’d told family in late 2016 he was traveling to New Orleans, but they’d seen evidence of his recent Portland arrests.
Susan Petersen says that on February 20 she was getting ready to push, yet again, to get her son help.
“The day he got shot, my girlfriend and I were saying, ‘We’re going to go down to Hawthorne,” she says. “‘We’re going to find him.’”