Corrections department releases 1989 Albany church arsonist from supervision

| February 26, 2010

ALBANY – Linn County’s most heavily-supervised felon today became a free man.

Parole ended Wednesday for Bruce Erbs, who served a 13-year prison sentence and more than six years of probation for burning down St. Mary’s Catholic Church in 1989.

Erbs, who turned 64 in December, declined a Democrat-Herald interview request to talk about his freedom. “The past is the past,” he told Parole and Probation Officer Kari Henderson, who has supervised him since July 2003.

Henderson is hopeful for Erbs’ future. All six years, he met every requirement and toed every line. He leaves her supervision with a clean record.

“He has done remarkably well, much better than we anticipated,” Henderson said. “We expected, unfortunately, failure, and we haven’t seen that at all.”

In Linn County, 35 percent of people with felony convictions offend again within three years of starting supervision, said Rick Bergey, director of Linn County Parole and Probation. Erbs isn’t among them.

During Erbs’ probation, he has been required to stay away from alcohol, incendiary devices, St. Mary’s Church and soup kitchen, and places where children congregate.

He has been required to take medication for schizophrenia and check in regularly with mental health; every week at first, then every other week.

At the direction of then-Sheriff Dave Burright, Henderson kept a tighter rein on Erbs than on any of the other 50 to 65 people on her caseload.

For three years, he met with her every day. For four years, every weekend he went to the sheriff’s office to blow into a breathalyzer. That stopped in June 2007, and parole check-ins dropped to once a week. For about the last six months, he’s been checking in with Henderson monthly. He never missed an appointment.

“I don’t think in my career I have seen anybody daily other than him,” said Henderson, who joined Parole and Probation in 1995.

No family or resources

Erbs was released to Albany’s Parole and Probation office on Dec. 24, 2002, without family or resources of any kind. With nowhere else to go, he remained in the Linn County Jail until July 22, 2003.

Erbs had spent his childhood in and out of institutions and most of his adult life behind bars as a convicted sex offender with mental health issues.

Burright felt, then and now, that the combination made Erbs particularly dangerous. He had argued against Erbs’ release and, when efforts to find him housing continued to fail, erected a tent on the jail grounds to keep him under close supervision.

Burright, who left the sheriff’s office in 2005 and is now retired, gives Henderson and the parole office credit but worries about Erbs: “Now that no one’s watching him, he’s free to do whatever he wants.”

Henderson has hope.

After a bout of pneumonia in November 2003 forced Erbs to leave the tent, she spoke with six counties and more than 70 landlords, trying to find him housing. One landlord finally agreed but turned Erbs out after 12 days, saying three of his other four tenants had threatened to leave unless he did.

In early 2004 Erbs at last found an Albany duplex that would permit him to stay. It was the first time he’d had a place to call his own, and he was proud of his new home, Henderson said.

“He’s never had his own things before, ever. People are involved in his life in a positive way. I think because of that, he’s thrived on doing well.”

Social Security and the Oregon Health Plan keep Erbs financially afloat. He is allowed to work but prefers to volunteer to keep his own hours, Henderson said.

Erbs had asked to start smoking again, but in their last contact, he had decided against it. She is encouraging him to stay away from tobacco and alcohol, remain in contact with mental health and keep taking his medication.

It’s likely he’ll stay in the mid-valley, she said. He thrives on structure, and his sources of support are here.

“I’m hopeful,” Henderson said. “I guess that’s the best I can say.”

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Category: Church Security

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