Fabrication jars, saddens blacks, downtown dwellers

By Stephanie Rice and Erik Robinson

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When Bethany Storro injured herself on Aug. 30, she also cast a pall over Esther Short Park and the relatively few black women who live in Vancouver.

Storro described her assailant as a black woman in her 30s, wearing a green top and khaki shorts, with her hair pulled back and three piercings in one ear.

Louis Byrd, one of the few black attorneys in Vancouver, said Thursday that when he first heard the alleged attacker was a black woman, “I kind of joked to my wife that every black woman in this area is probably uncomfortable.”

Vancouver Police Commander Marla Schuman said Thursday she didn’t know what Storro’s motivation was for saying she was attacked by a black woman.

Blaming a black person for a crime is hardly a new idea, Byrd said.

“What it boils down to is playing to old stereotypes and fears. It’s disgraceful,” Byrd said.

“I’m sad that this young lady has apparent mental health issues that would drive her to harm herself,” he added.

Clark County, population 435,600, is home to an estimated 8,819 black people, according to the state’s Office of Financial Management.

That translates to 2 percent of the population.

“The thing that bothers me the most of all is, of all the people she could have said did it, why did she say that it was an African American lady? And the other piece is that she claimed that she was a Christian. I can’t put those two things together,” said Rev. Joyce Smith of the AME Zion Church in Vancouver. Smith said she recently gave a sermon about how people who are hurting can hurt people.

After Storro’s confession, “I now understand that hurting people even hurt themselves,” she said.

Smith, who has lived in Clark County for 46 years, said she used to feel like she could go for miles without seeing another black person.

“It’s a little better now,” Smith said. “(But) racism is still alive in our little town.”

Early online stories about the case prompted a stream of racial comments. At one point, The Columbian shut down comments after being barraged by posts linking to white supremacist websites.

On Monday, someone called 911 to report that a black woman at the Hazel Dell Walmart resembled the composite sketch of the assailant.

Deputies from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office arrived and questioned the woman.

Another Vancouver woman talked Thursday about how she experienced the impact of the purported attack.

Leann Johnson, a 48-year-old black woman who can pass for someone younger, is director for equity and diversity at Clark College and the mother of two teenage daughters.

Her first reaction to the incident was protective: Don’t let her daughters go to Esther Short Park.

Then, the whole thought of, ‘This just happened in our town,’ was unnerving.

When detectives released a composite sketch of the alleged attacker on Sept. 2, it quickly became personal.

Due to similar physical characteristics, “I did feel a sense of personal vulnerability,” Johnson said. “In all honesty? I have khaki pants; I didn’t wear them. I made sure not to pull my hair back.”

She said she actually kept a low profile that next weekend, concerned by possible reactions from people in a store or on the street.

“I don’t want to overstate it. It was never all-consuming,” Johnson said.

But possible questions, even a confrontation, weighed on her mind. “What would be my response?” she wondered.

“I had a heightened awareness. Is someone going to turn me in, or seek out their own retaliation on me?” she said.

As the investigation grew stale, her worries began to wane.

When Thursday’s news broke, she was relieved and saddened.

“There was just relief that the truth was out there, whatever the truth was,” Johnson said. “It’s very unfortunate. I don’t know what her motive would be to implicate an African-American at all.”

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said the false allegation cast a cloud of suspicion over a relatively small segment of the city’s population.

“I’m certainly open to having conversations with minority communities in our city, and discussing opportunities of taking this situation and turning it into something positive,” Leavitt said.

Fears about park

Storro claimed the attack occurred near Esther Short Park.

Cynthia Mendoza, who has lived in an apartment in the Vancouvercenter near the park for the past year, said she was severely shaken by the prospect of an acid-throwing assailant roaming around downtown.

“I choose to live here to walk to Starbucks, go to the park, walk to the Farmers Market and go to the Anytime Fitness (health club),” she said. “Since this incident happened, I just literally don’t walk anywhere.”

Mendoza was relieved Thursday to learn the incident turned out to be a hoax, but was frustrated by the way it affected her life.

Esther Short Park, and the surrounding downtown streets, have been transformed over the past decade.

By 1996, the Esther Short Park neighborhood was generating more 911 calls than any other place in Vancouver, including more than 2,000 calls reporting suspicious people and more than 1,000 calls reporting fistfights or other disturbances tracked during a four-year span.

Former Mayor Royce Pollard, who spearheaded an initiative to revitalize Vancouver’s once-moribund downtown a decade ago, said he now feels comfortable taking his grandchildren to Esther Short Park. He didn’t feel that way a decade ago.

Leavitt, who lives in the Heritage Place condominium complex directly adjacent to the alleged incident, said he didn’t personally experience any sense of danger around Esther Short Park.

But he acknowledged that the national notoriety of the incident cast a pall over the area.

“I’m glad that we’ve gotten to the bottom of it, and to know that this cloud has been lifted,” Leavitt said. “Folks can get back to enjoying themselves in one of the most enjoyable public parks in the Pacific Northwest.”

Howard Buck contributed to this story.