SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Police in rural southwest Oregon were on high alert: A man with a history of kidnapping and torturing women in two states was on the run in their territory.
When a tip came in from a cab company that had given him a ride, they went house-to-house to check on residents. Peering through a window of one home, they found a gruesome scene: the bodies of two men who had been beaten to death.
The discovery Tuesday near Grants Pass, Oregon, was a bloody link in a chain of dramatic events that ended hours later with the suicide of the wanted man, 36-year-old bartender Benjamin Obadiah Foster. The finale, played out on a normally quiet residential street in Grants Pass, marked an end to the largest manhunt in the state in recent memory and brought relief to terrified residents in the region of forested mountains.
Authorities in Grants Pass say none of this would have happened if authorities in Nevada hadn't been so quick just over a year ago to release Foster from prison, where he was serving time for holding his then-girlfriend in Las Vegas captive for two weeks and torturing her. And a Grants Pass woman would not now be in a hospital, comatose and in critical condition, they say.
It's “extremely troubling,” Grants Pass Police Chief Warren Hensman said.
In the 2019 incident in Las Vegas, Foster broke seven of his girlfriend's ribs, gave her two black eyes, choked her to the point of unconsciousness and forced her to eat lye before she managed to escape, authorities said. Foster already had a suspended jail sentence on a concealed-weapons charge and was awaiting trial in another domestic violence case.
In a plea deal with prosecutors, Foster was sentenced to one to 2 1/2 years. He was set free on Oct. 21, 2021, the same day he was transferred to a Nevada state prison because he had already served 729 days in jail for the crimes before he was sentenced, according to a Nevada corrections official.
Fifteen months later, Foster was living in Oregon and in a relationship with the Grants Pass woman. On Jan. 24, her friend grew concerned because she hadn't been seen for several days. The friend went to the woman's house, where she was found bound and beaten to unconsciousness.
The case rattled the town of 40,000, which has seen high unemployment and poverty rates and public safety layoffs with the decline of the timber industry. Law enforcement authorities said they were bringing all their resources to bear to find Foster.
On Jan. 26, police, sheriff’s deputies, an Oregon State Police SWAT team and federal agents carried out a raid in Wolf Creek, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) north of Grants Pass, after receiving word Foster was there. Agents seized his car, but Foster had vanished.
The next day, police announced that Foster was using dating apps to find people who could help him avoid the police or find new victims. Authorities offered a $2,500 reward for Foster and set up a tip line.
Then, a major break in the case. One of the tips came from a cab company saying a man had requested a taxi from Sunny Valley, just south of Wolf Creek, Hensman said Wednesday.
Police went around checking homes Tuesday in Sunny Valley, to ensure residents hadn't been harmed. But in one house, they found the bodies of Richard Lee Barron Jr. and Donald Owen Griffith, who were killed sometime between Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning, according to Oregon State Police Capt. Kyle Kennedy.
“It’s a brutal scene, unfortunately, that we’re processing,” Kennedy said Wednesday, adding that police firmly believe Foster had killed the men, who lived together. Barron, age 73, and Griffith, who was 64, apparently didn't know Foster.
Several items were taken from the house, including the men's dog. On Tuesday, Foster was spotted in Grants Pass — with the dog. Police rushed to the neighborhood, the same one where Foster's girlfriend had been found.
The officers, carrying rifles and using an armored personnel carrier, massed outside the house. Area residents were told to shelter in place.
“While we’re deploying teams to secure the residence, we also have to take into account what this man just did: He brutally murdered two innocents in Sunny Valley, and we didn’t know when he was going to stop,” Hensman said.
Police searched the house, but didn't find anyone. Then they sent a sheriff’s department robot to a crawlspace and found signs that Foster was burrowed deep underneath the home. His presence was confirmed by a camera. The fugitive had water and other supplies stashed there, apparently in hopes he could wait out the police presence undetected.
The officers expected a gunfight. Instead, Foster shot himself in the head, Hensman said. Police found Foster still breathing, unconscious and holding a .45-caliber pistol. Officers had to cut into the floorboards to extract him.
Foster was taken to a hospital, where he died Tuesday night.
Associated Press writers Rio Yamat in Las Vegas and Martha Bellisle in Seattle contributed to this report.