Photo contributed by Monty Severe
Gail Wilson’s surreal Saturday started when a naked man stepped through her front door and said, “Hi, honey.”
Wilson, who has muscular dystrophy, had been sitting in a stuffed lift chair drinking soup when the man appeared at the doorway of her Southeast Pendleton residence. She set her soup aside.
“He had a big grin on his face,” she said. “He came walking toward me with his arms open wide. I kept saying ‘Get away from me. Get out of my house.’”
She was home alone. Her husband Roger, her son and her daughter were away. When the man leaned over to give Wilson a hug, she pushed him off. Wilson, a former correctional officer at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution said her training kicked in. She didn’t look him in the eye and remained calm and firm. She thought about her pistol in her bedroom nightstand.
Wilson would have to push Steven S. Burton, 30, away several times. He dragged the Wilson’s affectionate black lab, Hunter, down the hall and shut him in a back room.
“I thought, ‘This is it, I’m going to be raped or murdered,” Wilson recalled. “I’d more or less accepted my fate. Today was my day. But I wasn’t going to let him take me gently.”
She managed to dial 9-1-1, and soon police drove up the Wilson’s long driveway. Burton, who had wandered outside to inspect the Wilson’s shed, took off running. Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts said Burton dashed north, scaled a cyclone fence and dove off the side of a 40- or 50-foot bluff that borders the Umatilla River near the Riverside Bridge. When officers heard no splash or other indication the man had hit bottom, they ran to get a better view.
“When they got there, they looked down,” Roberts said. “He was hanging upside-down in a tree.”
Roberts said the apparently drug-intoxicated Hermiston man was combative. Burton hung, his left ankle wedged in the crotch of a tree and his head about five or six feet from the bank.
Officers called for assistance from Emergency Medical Services and Umatilla County Search & Rescue. Pendleton firefighter/paramedic Jeremy Keene, who made his way down a steep game trail, was the first to reach the injured man.
“He was hollering for help,” Keene said. “He was struggling to get free.”
Keene had been warned by law enforcement that the man was combative. He pulled back until Dwight Johnson, a Umatilla County Sheriff’s Deputy and sergeant with Search & Rescue, joined him. They pondered how to dislodge the contentious fugitive.
“He flailed at us a bit,” Johnson said. “We worked to keep him calm.”
Johnson recognized that Burton seem to be in “excited delirium,” a state sometimes triggered by drugs. Drugs might also have earlier driven Burton to remove his wet clothes on the riverbank below the Wilson home.
“With drugs such as PCP and acid, the physiology changes,” Roberts said. “People sometimes get hot and start disrobing.”
Johnson said the rescuers had three priorities: “get this guy out of the tree, keep him from escaping and keep ourselves from getting injured.”
Eventually, Burton allowed Johnson to wrap a rope around his chest and another around his ankle. From above, others manipulated the lines, bringing him horizontal and then lowering him to the ground. The group of rescuers and law enforcement had grown to about 20, according to Keene. At one point, the agitated Burton lunged toward the weapon of Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office Deputy John Reitz. Soon, they talked the man into getting into a suspended stretcher, handcuffed and sedated him and had rescuers at the top of the bluff lift him to safety. Firefighter/paramedic Jared Uselman, on his first official call as a Pendleton firefighter/paramedic, clipped in to the stretcher with a carabiner and accompanied Burton as he used another rope to climb.
Burton was taken to St. Anthony Hospital for an examination before heading to jail. He faces charges of burglary, harassment, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Wilson said she feels grateful to police, firefighters and SAR personnel who responded. She won’t forget the kindness of Sgt. Charles Byrum who stepped inside the house numerous times during the three-hour rescue operation to check on her.
Wilson remains feisty about the experience and said she moved her pistol to the front room.
“I’m not afraid to use it,” she said.
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 541-966-0810.