It was just after Easter of 2008 when Jason Centrone left Portland. He had canceled his cell phone and e-mail account. There were no goodbyes to speak of. Not to his best friend or the members of his poetry group or the production team with whom he was working to make a film. He had mentioned in an e-mail to a friend that he was thinking of heading to Central Oregon, but that was as much of a clue as he left.
As one friend put it, he had erased himself. The quick-witted, outdoor-loving artist had left behind a life in Portland marked with a few close friends and an array of artistic ventures, but he was also shadowed by mounting medical bills and lawyer fees from a bicycle accident. He never called or wrote and there were times when those who knew him as a friend wondered if the talented 37-year-old was still alive.
On October 13, some 18 months after Centrone seemingly vanished from his Portland home, he was indeed still alive and sitting on a bench outside of a Wal-Mart on the south end of Bend. His hair had grown long and he'd cultivated an unkempt beard, a stark change from the mostly clean-cut appearance he'd kept two years earlier. When Bend police arrived at the store, they learned that Centrone told a Wal-Mart employee that he had a warrant out for his arrest. The officer checked and found no record of a warrant and told Centrone to leave, but he wouldn't, telling officers that "there would be problems" if they let him go. After trying to shoo what they say was a visibly intoxicated Centrone from the store's property, the officers finally arrested him.
By the next morning, Centrone - the same man who on the other side of the Cascades still held a reputation as a loving friend and deftly talented artist - was in the headlines, accused of fatally stabbing two men in a transient camp where he'd been living on Bend's southeast side.
Jason was the closest friend I've ever had in my life and I haven't heard anything about him since he disappeared," said Gregory Filardi, just minutes after discovering that Centrone had been arrested on suspicion of killing two men.
Both relief and sadness intermittently dotted Filardi's voice, the uncertainty of his camping buddy and musical collaborator's fate now settled, but confusion still remaining as to how the sensitive man he'd grown so close to could end up not just homeless, but charged with two counts of aggravated murder.
Fran Bozarth, who got to know Centrone in the poetry group they both belonged to, was listening to public radio the morning after the alleged killings and was stunned when a news story listed her friend as the suspect.
"I was shocked to hear about my friend described as a homeless man, let alone a murder suspect. It doesn't sound like the Jason I knew here in Portland a year and a half before," says Bozarth.
Filardi befriended Centrone in the spring of 2007, two years after Centrone had settled in Portland from Ohio, having moved west with a girlfriend, a relationship that would soon fizzle out. Filardi paints his friend as caring and curious, independent, humorous and oftentimes private, but able to communicate well with others.
"Although Jason could be a loner, he had really great empathetic skills," says Filardi, "He was a very dependable friend."
But now, a month after Centrone's arrest and a year and a half since Filardi last saw Centrone, Filardi finds himself in awe of the things he didn't know about his friend.
"I'm surprised I don't know this," says Filardi, trying to find an answer to a question about Centrone's younger days.
He knows Centrone grew up in Upstate New York and that he had attended college, but as to what college or what he studi ed, that's still a blank. Filardi knew little about his family (who didn't return requests to comment for this story) or many details about his life before Portland.
The two met on a construction site where Centrone was working as a carpenter and Filardi was a personal assistant to the woman whose home was being remodeled. Soon finding themselves both unemployed, Centrone and Filardi soon dove into creative endeavors, traveling and generally just feeding off of each other's senses of humor.
"He's so much fun. We could go into any coffee shop and we could charm the pants off of any barista," says a laughing Filardi, who now teaches elementary and middle school-aged students in Portland.
The two took camping trips together, as both men were experienced outdoorsmen, Centrone especially so, having taught wilderness survival to teens. He was also a devout conservationist who would stop and snag a piece of garbage, tossing it into a trash can rather than letting it continue to float down the street, recalls Jill Mulligan, an associate producer on "X and Y," a community-based film project that Centrone was collaborating on.
Mulligan also described Centrone as a skilled naturalist, who could point out the names of plants when walking through the woods.
"He originally discovered loosestrife [an invasive plant species] in a Portland park. It was called into several agencies and there was actually a newspaper article written about it," says Mulligan, adding that in keeping with his low-profile style, Centrone's name was never mentioned in the story.
But again, there were still things about Centrone that he didn't willingly offer to these friends and acquaintances. It seems to be a little-known fact that that drinking had, at times, given him problems. Yet friends like Mulligan had only been tangentially aware that alcoholism had crept in and out of her friend's life. Filardi knew that Centrone could and would drink more than him, but felt that for the most part the addiction was under control.
Centrone, it seems, began twisting into the downward spiral that brought him to Central Oregon in early summer of 2007. Like has happened to so many others, it was a medical issue that brought on a trying and financially crippling hardship.
In keeping with his conservation ethic, Centrone also made a habit of riding his bike most places he went. While riding to work he was nudged by a passing truck, sending him out of control, crashing and ultimately breaking his arm. The doctor's bills began to mount, as did those for lawyers as he attempted to get the driver of the truck to cover his medical expenses - and all the while he was unable to work. He largely kept the details about the accident to himself, but friends had a feeling that the weight of this stress was bearing down on him.
"It sounded as though the truck driver refused to take responsibility for the accident so the bills were just pilling up, but he's a rather private person. He doesn't talk about his finances or things like that," says Mulligan.
While he was dealing with the fallout from his injury, he continued to make music, largely electronic compositions that he would later compile and send out each year to friends and family. The disc Centrone sent out in 2007 was dubbed "Live at Cape Blanco," titled after a spot where he and Filardi had camped during a weeklong trip that summer. "Cape Blanco" is more than a mere mix tape, but rather a formulated concept piece that he and Filardi laid down. Centrone's crisp voice begins the recording, welcoming the listener to the telephone service of a vaguely described financial institution called New Freedom, offering up the sort of annoyingly typical options one would hear upon reluctantly phoning a bank. The music in and of itself is brilliant and far from amateur, but when coupled with the hilarious lampooning of the dreaded on-hold scenario, it hits another level. But now, looking back on the record, Filardi sees something different in the disc and its title.
"I think back, never realizing at the time [what] Jason was probably going through... on-hold with lawyers, health and finances," he says. "We didn't mean New Freedom to reflect our own lives, but it did."
As he rode in the back of the Bend Police squad car, reports say, Centrone leaned up to the opening in the partition, telling the officer that he'd never had any trouble with the law and that, in fact, he liked police.
When he sat down with Deschutes County Sheriff's detectives, according to a search warrant affidavit, Centrone told them about a homeless camp in south Bend where he'd been living with two other men, whom he called friends, saying that they'd never had any arguments. He acknowledged, with little prompt, that he had "reluctantly" stabbed the men. Detectives asked why he'd stabbed them, and this is how detectives paraphrased his response in the affidavit:
"Centrone told deputies that he decided that no one in the camp was getting any better, so he decided it would be best for them all to start over. Centrone said he saw all of them as a sad group of people."
The affidavit says that deputies then headed to where Centrone told them they would find the camp: west of Baker Road and south of the railroad tracks. Indeed, this is exactly where they found five tents situated around a rock pit where a fire still smoldered. A chair and a barbecue grill lay on their sides on a ground littered with beer bottles and malt liquor cans. From one of the tents extended a leg and inside a deputy found a body, cold to the touch. Moments later another body was found.
These were the bodies of David Wade and Gregory Spikerman, two men well known in the homeless community and known to have been longtime friends.
Jason Centrone can write - and write quite well. He was part of a poetry group in Portland where the members of the collective saw his skills build as he continued to workshop his pieces up until the time he left town. Fran Bozarth got to know Centrone in 2005, first through his poetry and then as a friend.
"The group would break up and reform and every time it reformed Jason would be there. He started to get pretty good before he left the group. He was starting to come up with some really good stuff," says Bozarth.
It is from Centrone's writing that the blank space begins to fill in - the gap in time shrinking between his disappearance from Portland and the appearance of his ghostly mug shot on the newspapers, blogs and television news reports. Almost a month after Centrone had been arrested, he responded to a piece of correspondence from Filardi in a long, impeccably handwritten letter.
I can only describe my state as being lost in a lugubrious fog. I'm afraid nothing at the time made sense at all. Now a year later, nothing makes a glimmer of sense.
It's the only explanation, or near explanation, he provides for leaving Portland. He then tells of getting a ride into the Santiam National Forest where he camped, but it was April and the winter of 2008 had been a long one. Snow still blanketed the ground and the firewood Centrone could gather was still wet and smoky. He made his way down from the mountains after a few days and got a motel room where he stayed for a week until his money ran out and he returned to the road.
He then found himself riding into Springfield where he says a family took him in for a while. He elaborates little about the family or how long he was with them, skipping to the point where he once again ascended into the Cascades, climbing McKenzie Pass and arriving at the Dee Wright Observatory. I made a fire, slept a while and continued down to Sisters where I was met with 70-degree weather. Another day's walk brought me to Bend, Centrone writes.
It was peaceful in the desert, he writes, telling Filardi that he spent much of his time in the Bend area exploring the wilderness, climbing the buttes, following the river and spending a night on Broken Top. He says he was never hungry, finding food in dumpsters or elsewhere and was never cold, thanks to the blankets and sleeping bag he'd equipped himself with.
Lynda Johnson, the executive director of the Shepherd's House, the mission on Bend's Division Street, says that Centrone had come through the shelter several times, and had never caused a problem.
"The side of Jason that we knew did not fit what was portrayed. All three men [Centrone, Wade and Spikerman] were really good guys from what we knew," says Johnson, who, along with her staff was shocked to learn what had happen to the three.
The initial description in Centrone's letter reads like reminiscence of good days, better days, despite the fact that he was eating from dumpsters. But his tone soon changes when the story comes closer to the present. In the last few months here, alcohol was starting to come by frequently and I wasn't resisting, he writes, going on to describe a sensation of sinking lower and lower.
Chris Clouart, the program director of the Bethlehem Inn, another Bend shelter, says that there's no record of Centrone ever staying at the Bethlehem Inn, but offers some general thoughts on homelessness and how a seemingly bright, educated, skilled man like this could end up destitute.
"How many mistakes can you make before you fall down? The guy living in a penthouse might be 50 mistakes from the bottom. With homeless people all that stuff is closer to the surface," says Clouart.
For the families and friends of Spikerman and Wade, there are few answers as to how or why this all happened. Centrone's friends have for the past month tried to wrap their heads around where their friend has landed, and the reaction is almost universally that of denial - they seem unable, and understandably so, to grasp that the man they knew could possibly be the same man in that jail cell.
"Knowing Jason, for him to go from the happy, caring sensitive person to someone put in jail and charged with murder was unbelievable," says Jill Mulligan, who is not convinced of Centrone's guilt, wondering if there is more to the story of what happened at the camp that night.
Writing from his cell, it seems Centrone himself hasn't made sense of this - not just his status as an accused killer, but the whole ordeal that tossed him into such a circumstance in the first place. These are the words Centrone uses to describe the past 18 months of his life:
It's funny, it's tragic, it's diabolical.