Whenever I travel out of state, I hear that Oregon has a generally positive image among U.S. citizens: naturally beautiful, politically (or at least environmentally) progressive, and a great place to visit. So why does every national news story that comes out of our region have to do with nutcases? (Remember the Rajneeshees, Tonya Harding, a mayor lost her job because she had posed in lingerie on one of the town's firetrucks, and earlier this year, a man who gave other bus riders unwanted haircuts?)
Yesterday, Bethany Storro made her first appearance in court to plead not guilty to three charges of second-degree theft. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, she’s the 28-year-old who made national news after calling 9-1-1 and claiming an African American woman had walked up to her and thrown acid in her face. True, the alleged attack occurred in Vancouver, across the Columbia River from here, and Storro’s plea was heard in Clark County Superior Court, also in the state of Washington, but she was treated for her burns at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center here in Portland, so most of the print and broadcast stories about her have spread across the U.S. from local news outlets.
Storro’s horrific story not only spread nationwide and earned an invitation to the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” but funds to help with her medical expenses were set up at Umpqua Bank (my bank, incidentally), and Riverview Community Bank; and the Safeway supermarket chain started a collection for her because she was employed by a Safeway store. In all, more than $28,000 was donated to Storro from around the world.
Unfortunately, the police could not substantiate her story. The sunglasses that supposedly protected her from being blinded by the acid splash could not be found. The splash pattern didn’t resemble a splash but a careful and even application. Parts of her face that should have been protected by the sunglasses were burned.
Although she provided a fairly detailed description of her “attacker” (late 20s/early 30s, wearing a green shirt and khaki shorts, had three piercings in her ear) and police released a composite sketch of the “suspect,” later they confronted her over the discrepancies and on Sept. 16 the Vancouver Police Chief announced that Storro had admitted the injuries were self-inflicted. She had wiped drain cleaner on herself and hoped to get a new face from the ordeal. Her trial is scheduled for Dec. 20.
Oddly, another woman was attacked with acid in Arizona just two days after Storro’s incident. Derri Dias Velarde, 41, suffered second-degree burns on her face and chest after a woman threw acid on her outside her home in Mesa. I find no mention of an arrest so far, but police say it was not a random attack. Velarde is recovering at her parents’ home in Middleboro, Massachusetts.
What strikes me as especially unpleasant about the Storro story is how quickly and widely her false report was spread, and how easily some people believed it. Perhaps I should say "believed and acted upon it"; it's fine to believe whatever you like, based on what may be incomplete or erroneous evidence, but don't take action because of it, when it's not your business.
Not very many African Americans live in Vancouver, or are seen on its streets, and there have been reports that black women were harassed there in the days following Storro’s hospitalization. She’s obviously a very troubled girl, and it’s a shame she not only hoodwinked lots of credulous and generous donors but indirectly victimized others and heightened racial tensions with her bogus tale.
Although ultimately she needs psychiatric care, of course, I wonder why she was not charged with making false statements to a police officer as well as theft. It’s a sad, sorry story all around.