Jennifer Ward wasn’t surprised when she saw the photo.
The school board chair had been briefed about the gun. She knew about the sidearm. The knife. The combat vest. So on Sept. 9, as the photo was passed down the line of school board members for Greater Albany Public Schools, she wasn’t surprised.
But with the photo in her hands, her ongoing concern turned to shock. She had known Skylar McCollaum had been carrying an assault rifle, handgun and knife when he was stopped outside of Tangent Elementary School on Sept. 4 by the Linn County Sheriff’s Office. But the photo Principal Gretchen Rayburn took from her office window showed how close he had come to school grounds: 20 feet.
The incident triggered a 40-minute lockout at the school and a series of phone calls between the superintendent, sheriff, district attorney, Albany Police Department, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that stretched over days and culminated in the arrest of the 30-year-old McCollaum’s on Sept. 9.
But the story in Tangent isn’t just about McCollaum, a U.S. Army veteran with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD. It’s not just about the deputies who counseled him on the optics of walking through town in combat gear in the current social climate and let him go. It’s not about the district attorney who brought charges days later or the assistant superintendent who combed through state law all weekend, the superintendent who consulted with local, state and federal law enforcement, Oregon’s red flag law, open carry laws or the Second Amendment.
The story in Tangent is about how all of those things collided to illuminate cracks in a system the next school shooter could fall through — leaving a community exposed to tragedy — and where we go from here.
A man with a gun
GAPS Superintendent Melissa Goff had been on the job for just about two months when she got the call. It was the second day of school and district administrators had left the district office to go out into the schools, welcoming back students and teachers. So when the call came in, Goff was at North Albany Elementary School. Reports on who saw McCollaum first vary, but the information that came to Goff was the same — there was a man with a gun outside a school.
“We have a standardized procedure for what happens once someone is shot,” Goff said of how the district and law enforcement work together. “We don’t necessarily have standardized procedure for what should happen before the bullet (is fired).”
Tangent staff placed the school on a lockout. There was no danger inside the school and the designation would mean no one would be allowed to enter the building. There was a call to 911. Albany Police Department doesn’t have jurisdiction at the school, because it’s outside of city limits. Tangent does not have its own police force and so, the Linn County Sheriff's Office became the responding law enforcement agency.
McCollaum, though, said he had no intention of entering Tangent Elementary.
He had been on his way to City Hall to talk to staff about a recent ordinance that would restrict the number of birds residents could own within city limits.
At the time he was first spotted, buses were pulling in to unload students. When he was seen again, he was on his way back from City Hall and was stopped by Linn County sheriff’s deputies. That’s when Rayburn took the photo and sent it to district administrators.
The photo would not make it to parents, but a letter posted on the district’s website would explain what happened: that Goff had worked with law enforcement throughout the day and would continue to do so.
“Please know that your children and Tangent staff handled this day very well,” she wrote. “Your child may want to share about their lockout experience. It’s also possible that your child just has exciting stories from their learning today since staff moved on with a positive second day of school.”
Goff signed the letter on Sept. 4. McCollaum wouldn’t be charged for five more days.
A gut feeling
Jim Yon has been the sheriff of Linn County for a little over a year. In looking around his office, it’s easy to tell. Not much has accumulated yet. A bookshelf with its residents neatly occupying their spaces, photographs but not enough to clutter, a desk that faces the door and a chair for visitors. The entirety of the office is housed at the Linn County Jail on Jackson Street. After the incident in Tangent, the Sheriff’s Office was facing questions about why McCollaum wasn’t a guest at the jail as well.
Yon released his own statement on Sept. 4 that noted McCollaum was legally carrying a rifle and handgun openly and had been professional with staff he encountered at City Hall. A surveillance video shows McCollaum being led into an office at city hall by an employee — something she would later say she did purposely so that the exchange was caught by the only camera in the building.
In the video, he enters the room dressed in combat gear. His rifle is fully visible, as is a long hunting knife. He’s holding a cup of coffee. He chats with the employee. Both of them laugh at one point.
The knife and combat vest were not mentioned in the release from the Sheriff's Office.
“The guns were the issue,” Yon said, noting that the sheriff’s office doesn’t always include every detail to avoid people confessing to crimes they didn't commit and to save time. “It would take way too long to put every drop of information in there,” he said.
Yon’s statement also noted that McCollaum was cooperative with deputies, was never on school property and did not aim his firearm at anyone.
"Deputies counseled him on the perception of walking by a school with a firearm and the alarm it caused, considering the recent events nationally," the statement read.
McCollaum was eventually arrested Sept. 9 for violating a state law which prohibits individuals from openly carrying firearms in public buildings, including City Hall.
With the information presented to him on Sept. 4, Yon said the Sheriff's Office could not have arrested McCollaum. Oregon is an open carry state. And while the state recently passed a red flag law that allows law enforcement to seize firearms of those they thought to be a danger to themselves or the community, Yon said McCollaum did not present as a danger.
“Sometimes it’s a gut feeling,” he said. “It’s the way someone looks at you or your hair will stand up. We didn’t know about the PTSD. I can’t explain how difficult it is to assess someone in the few minutes you talk with them. It’s extra tough because PTSD and other mental health issues, we’re supposed to be able to diagnose them in a moment’s notice. It’s not a simple thing.”
Yon said deputies take the entire interaction into account and on contact, McCollaum was calm, answered questions and was on his way home. Deputies offered him a courtesy ride. Yon spoke with Goff but did not consider ORS 166.360, the law barring people from opening carrying firearms in public buildings, as the two spoke throughout the day.
“We were so focused on the kids and the school that we didn’t think about City Hall until it was brought to us,” Yon said.
And while a federal law, the Gun-Free School Zones Act, prohibits individuals from knowingly possessing firearms within 1,000 feet of a school and state law notes individuals cannot open carry in or adjacent to public buildings, Yon said the interpretation of “adjacent” is subject to debate because the way the law is written.
“You have laws but if they were written to say, ‘No guns within 100 feet of a school. Done.’ But the way they write them you need to look at this subsection and a dozen definitions,” he said. “With the what-if, I have to think about it in today’s world. When you talk to someone, you don’t know when you walk away 15 minutes later. You think you have an idea of who they are, but do you know? Are you sure? Are you sure to the safety of everyone else?”
By the law
The law book Linn County District Attorney Doug Marteeny drops on his desk is so thick it lands with a thud. But it doesn’t include a definition of what the Oregon Legislature meant when it said “adjacent.”
It’s a key sticking point in why McCollaum faces no charges related to Tangent Elementary School despite state law defining schools as public buildings, therefore barring individuals from open carrying.
The statute — which if violated carries a Class C felony designation — defines a public building as: “a hospital, capitol building, a public or private school, a college or university, a city hall or the residence of any state official elected by the state at large and the grounds adjacent to each such building.”
Tangent Elementary School and City Hall share a property line,
Marteeny cannot comment on open cases. In terms of federal law, he said it was out of his jurisdiction.
“I’m not a federal prosecutor,” he said of why charges weren’t brought against McCollaum in regards to the federal gun safety zone act. “Just like the Polk County D.A. doesn’t come over here and say, ‘I hear you have this arson in Linn County, I’m prosecuting it in Polk County.’ He can’t do that. ... I have the authority to prosecute state criminal laws in Linn County.”
Lindsay Nichols, the federal policy director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which was started by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband after she was the victim of gun violence, said the federal law isn't commonly enforced.
"It's rarely used," she said. "It's a federal law and most crimes, in general, aren't enforced through federal law, it's through state law. That doesn't mean federal laws don't serve a purpose. They often set a base line and are used by states as a model."
The 1,000-foot boundary is usually enforced at the federal level after an incident, Nichols said.
"It's usually when it's a horrendous violation," she said.
There are currently no federal charges pending in the incident in Tangent.
Locally, Marteeny did not specifically comment on McCollaum’s case but said the state’s red-flag laws, which allow law enforcement to confiscate an individual's firearm, do not operate as a curbside solution. Prior to confiscating an individual’s firearms, law enforcement must enter into a petition process that includes presenting evidence to the county counsel.
“My understanding of the procedure,” he said, “is you certainly couldn’t do it on the scene. You have to get a judge to sign that order.”
The issue grows more complicated because the red-flag law is dependent on physical evidence but also, to some extent, law enforcement’s interpretation of an event, an individual and a situation. And GAPS has schools in both Linn and Benton counties that fall under the jurisdiction of two different sheriff's offices.
The process is also a civil one, not criminal. And until McCollaum entered City Hall, he didn’t break a local ordinance in relation to Tangent Elementary unless the word adjacent is interpreted by local authorities to mean a property abutting the property he visited.
McCollaum did break state law in June of this year when he was charged with reckless driving, recklessly endangering another person and failure to perform the duties of a driver.
In that pending case, the district attorney's office asked that McCollaum not be allowed to possess firearms. That request was denied.
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During McCollaum's Sept. 10 court appearance, defense attorney Tyler Reid noted that he had a bed in Utah waiting for him at a facility that would offer treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Prosecutor Lindy Kaladimos said the facts of the case were “chilling” and said McCollaum had mental health issues. She requested a substantial security.
Judge David Delsman set security at $25,000 — McCollaum’s mother, Kate Westin, was able to post 10% for his release, which was conditional. Among the conditions of his release: he cannot possess firearms.
Westin knows there are more Skylars out there who are not a danger to the community— and that they need help.
“I feel like Skylar represents a population now that’s bigger than the communication between the school district and the sheriff,” she said. “He represents a demographic of soldiers with PTSD that have a difficult time fitting back in when they’re back.”
McCollaum joined the Army at 17 and served two tours in Iraq.
“He was a child,” Westin said. “How does a child who was trained to kill people come back and not have trouble? I feel like he fell through the cracks in a lot of ways. It’s my understanding his gun wasn’t loaded and he has a coping mechanism that he feels safer carrying a weapon. That’s common with PTSD.”
Westin said she didn’t believe her son to be a threat to the community.
“I feel like it’s a good conversation for the public,” she said. “I don’t agree with what he did and I think it showed poor judgment. But you have these soldiers coming home and do we lock them up when they’re not a threat or do we find them help?”
Jake Workman has lived next door to Skylar for three years and said he has no concerns about him walking through town in combat gear.
“I love it,” he said. “He’s protecting our community. He is a great person for our community, he’s a good guy. He’s always out serving food to everyone in the neighborhood and sharing fresh produce. He’s a great neighbor.”
Workman said he had heard about the incident in Tangent, like many of his other neighbors.
“I think the bad guy in this story is whoever was calling in being concerned about this,” he said. “It just seems completely ridiculous to me.”
The property is unassuming. There’s not much space between the front curb that hugs Highway 99E and the decades-old blue house that peeks up and through the vegetation. But out back, everything opens up.
Around a bend and through an archway, the temperature drops enough to be noticeable as summer gives way to fall and the house becomes fully visible, standing guard over a small field where a bleeding heart bush flowers next to marijuana plants. McCollaum has owned the home for three years; the grapevine and trees were there when he arrived — the rabbits, chickens, ducks and goats that roam fairly free are more recent additions.
His favorite is a brown rabbit with a puff of feathery fur at the top of its head. Baby chickens scurry after mothers and McCollaum gestures to grapevines and other fruiting plants.
“I have a few weeks of food over there,” he said.
In the Army, he said he started thinking about how we consume food and considered becoming a vegetarian.
“We eat animals like popcorn and I think we should do it more responsibly,” he said, noting his small farm of animals helps remind him. “Bottle feeding goats, they’re like babies. It’s heartwarming.”
McCollaum said it’s his animals that drew him to City Hall on Sept. 4 and have caused issues with some neighbors.
“The older neighbors, they just want it the way it’s always been,” he said. “They tell me to move to a farm if I want animals.”
McCollaum leads the conversation back across the yard and through the archway to the house. He bought it with his now ex-wife, with whom he shares a 5-year-old daughter. After she moved, he started renting rooms out, which helps pay the bills with his disability through the Veterans Administration.
An RV whose owner is renting property from him sits a few feet away, not far from the wooden stakes city workers drove into the ground that morning. The easement, they told McCollaum, belonged to the city and they were taking it back. McCollaum had just finished piling dirt in the area to make it usable. Where his tenant will go, he doesn’t know. A bench marks the entrance to the back door of the house. There, McCollaum props himself against the door frame and recalls the events of Sept. 4.
It’s not unusual for him to complete his morning exercise in his combat gear or to patrol his property line to check on his animals, he said, but the reason he was wearing his gear on Sept. 4 was because he had heard about a string of thefts in the area and possible cougar and coyote sightings. He also said that when he first stepped outside around 7:30 that morning, his fence was gone. He checked in with his roommate who left for work an hour before.
“He said the fence was there when he left,” McCollaum said. “So I was more on guard.”
While he was out patrolling, he said, he decided to walk the six-tenths of a mile from his house to City Hall.
“I had heard also the same day that there was a new city ordinance about roosters so figured while I was out there I would get the ordinance. I had my rifle swung on my back and my coffee,” he said. “I went in there and it was no big deal, got the paperwork came out and the sheriff was out there in front of the school waiting for me as I walked on by.”
McCollaum said the deputies talked with him for a few minutes and offered him a ride home where he put his weapons inside and continued to speak with deputies.
At this point, McCollaum's version of events starts to differ from official accounts.
“Eventually they told me to put my arms up and handcuffed me and told me I was disturbing the peace, that I made someone fearful for their life over there and that’s what they were arresting me for,” he said. “They told me I needed to relinquish my weapons and I told them no. It made me terrified.”
McCollaum said he was placed in a sheriff deputy’s car while law enforcement searched his yard.
“They came back to the car and they kept telling me, ‘You have two options: surrender your weapons and go to jail or go to jail and we’ll get a warrant, kick in your doors and take everything.’ I told them no, I want my third option — go have breakfast and not deal with this. So, then they let me go eventually,” he said.
There is no record of McCollaum being arrested or detained on Sept. 4.
Lisa Harlan returned to Tangent on Sept. 23.
The assistant superintendent for the Greater Albany Public Schools district was there to lobby the City Council, which has since installed more cameras in City Hall and is looking into additional safety measures.
“We want to hopefully give some definition to the state law,” she told the board, citing the lack of definition to the word “adjacent" in state law.
It’s part of an effort GAPS is undertaking to attempt to bring clarity to laws that already exist. In Tangent, Harlan suggested a 400-foot zone around a school, citing existing ordinances within the city that default to 400 feet as a marker.
Mayor Loel Trulove wondered out loud how many people in town had a concealed carry permit. Then he asked for a show of hands in the room. One attendee shouted back, “It’s none of your business, sir.”
GAPS hasn’t approached the Albany City Council yet, but says it has plans to and will join forces with COSA — the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators — to lobby the Legislature for changes that make the laws easier to enforce locally. Districtwide, there’s talk of signs.
Goff told the school board that she was advised to place signs marking the school zone so that individuals would be “knowingly” entering the space with a firearm. The word "knowingly" is a point of contention. McCollaum contends he didn't know he was in a school zone as he walked past school buses unloading kids and a sign that read Tangent Elementary School. However, even if signs were installed and the school zone was more clearly defined against open carry, private residences, concealed weapons carried with a concealed permit, police offers and other exemptions are already built into state law.
The district is also making internal changes.
“We want our staff to have agency,” she said. “If a bus driver sees a man with a gun we want them to feel like they don’t have to pull in, they can drive elsewhere with the students to another location.”
“This isn’t about open carry,” Goff added. “It’s not about guns, it’s about keeping kids safe and having a uniform procedure. This is all to keep kids safe.”
Sheriff Yon said he’s unsure if new laws would help.
“How many laws are on the books about drunk driving? It’s hard to legislate every issue,” he said. “I think it’s a complicated issue — this man, Skylar, is not a monster.”