Joshua B. Christoffersen, 40, was freed without bail in January after his arrest related to a burglary and pursuit in the Harper area. He failed to appear later for an arraignment. (Photo courtesy of Malheur County Sheriff's Office)

Joshua Christoffersen is a fugitive on the run and in a separate case, state officials have escaped responsibility for two local deaths. The two situations are putting heat on Malheur County’s justice system. The anger is understandable, but we’re not facing a “soft on crime” trend and here’s why.

Let’s take Christoffersen.

He’s the fellow charged with leading civilians and police on a wild chase on New Year’s Eve. He put a lot of lives at risk, including police officers sent to prowl the range and buildings, looking for someone they’d been told had already shot at someone.

Caught and cuffed, Christoffersen was taken to court a day after his arrest. What happened next stunned many. In less than four minutes, Circuit Court Judge Erin Landis ordered Christoffersen be released from jail.

Landis had little choice. The prosecutor before him represented that the state didn’t object to Christoffersen’s release. He mentioned something about a criminal record but put nothing on the record about the risky events that endangered people the day before. Landis couldn’t resort to press clippings to decide. He could only consider what was on the record in his Vale courtroom – and there was precious little.

Was this the prosecutor’s office going soft on crime? Hardly. Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County district attorney, quickly and honestly took responsibility. The prosecutor sent to handle the matter hadn’t been fully briefed. It was, Goldthorpe said, not a release he wanted to see.

Goldthorpe’s record doesn’t need help from us to counter claims he’s letting felons float free. In recent weeks, his office has won convictions in one serious case after another. Most of those defendants are headed to prison for years.

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No one likes a mistake, especially when public safety is at stake. But it’s also a mistake to lace into public officials who ordinarily are diligent about protecting Malheur County. Our bet is Goldthorpe and his staff learned a hard lesson and no more Christoffersens will be walking free.

And then there is the civil case by Jessica Bates against state officials. She’s the widow of David Bates, killed in a tragic morning’s events that have been put at the feet of Anthony Montwheeler. His criminal case drags on, but Bates wanted the state to atone for actions in setting Montwheeler free in the first place.

She took the state to court to do just that. The legal case turned on complex issues of law, but Landis ruled the state agencies weren’t responsible for what happened on that highway outside Ontario.

Many in the community were outraged that Jessica Bates was denied her day in court.

That outrage, though, should be directed where it belongs: Gov. Kate Brown. 

As governor, she could have stepped in any moment since that awful morning in January 2017 to speak up for the victims. She should have forced key state agencies to figure out what went so wrong that Montwheeler could fool state doctors for 20 years. 

Brown still can help the Bates family, Annita Harmon’s relatives, and the community finally get the truth about what happened. Maybe she can’t order restitution to the families. She can order disclosures and answers that the state has fought to keep from the public. 

And meantime, the public needs to take a deep breath and recognize that one, or even two, disappointing court decisions don’t mean the entire system is faulty.

– LZ  

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