Man convicted in 1994 murder of foster teen granted early release to Salem

The Oregon State Penitentiary (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A man convicted of killing a teen in 1995 was released from prison into Salem earlier this month after Gov. Kate Brown granted him clemency April 15.

Kyle Hedquist, 45, pleaded guilty when he was 18 to aggravated murder, court records show. He had been charged with killing 19-year-old Nikki Thrasher in an “execution-style” killing in Douglas County earlier that year, according to a Statesman Journal article published in 1994.

Former Douglas County Circuit Court Judge William Lasswell sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole, court records showed.

His early release is part of a broader effort by Brown to shift the state’s criminal justice system toward rehabilitating youth, instead of lengthy and costly prison sentences.

The decision made national news and drew backlash from elected officials about Hedquist being released into the community instead of serving his initial life sentence, including from Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson, Douglas County District Attorney Richard Wesenberg and most recently U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden.

“This case represents a shocking lack of concern by the Governor’s Office for the safety of our community, disregard for the transparency of any process and apathy toward the normal safety protocols for such an obvious risk,” Clarkson wrote in a statement. “A Judge in an entirely different part of the state determined that this offender should never be out of prison and yet he is now living in our county without the proper safety assurances. Our community deserves better than what our state leadership foisted upon us here.”

Liz Merah, spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said Hedquist’s sentence was much stricter than an 18-year-old would likely receive today.

“Over the next 28 years, he worked to rehabilitate himself, and exemplifies the type of personal transformation we should all hope to see from people incarcerated in our criminal justice system,” she wrote in an email. “Granting clemency is an extraordinary act that the Governor generally reserves for individuals who have made incredible changes to rehabilitate themselves, take accountability for their crimes, and dedicate themselves to making their communities a better place.”

On Nov. 24, 1994, Hedquist and a friend, Jonathan Timmons, stole a number of items from Hedquist’s aunt’s home while she was away for Thanksgiving. They stashed them at the apartment of Timmons’ girlfriend Misty Dalton and her roommate, Nikki Thrasher, who was unaware of the burglary, Wesenberg wrote in a Feb. 23 letter to the governor’s office opposing Hedquist’s release.

Thrasher was a foster teen, according to a statement by Clarkson’s office.

The morning of Nov. 27, Thrasher saw some of the stolen items and asked Hedquist about them. Concerned she would find out they were stolen and report him, Hedquist decided he had to kill her “to keep that from happening,” Wesenberg wrote in his letter.

Hedquist lied and told Thrasher one of her friends had left a message wanting to meet her on a hill west of the Melrose area, where he offered to drive her. Once they drove to the bottom of a mountain near the location, Hedquist pulled out a pistol, told Thrasher he was going to kill her and forced her to walk up the dirt road “so he could find the most appropriate place to kill her,” according to Wesenberg’s letter.

Thrasher after walking some distance started hyperventilating and Hedquist, frustrated that she was unable to continue walking, raised his pistol and shot her in the back of the head, Wesenberg wrote. “Hedquist then grabbed Ms. Thrasher’s lifeless body and dumped it in a less conspicuous place on the roadside.”

More than 26 years later on March 22, the state Department of Corrections informed Marion County Community Corrections that Hedquist was seeking release from Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem into Marion County due to “community concerns” over residing anywhere in Douglas County, according to the statement by the Marion County District Attorney’s Office.

“No details of these concerns were noted,” it said, but the only possible Douglas County address provided was the residence of Hedquist’s aunt, the victim of his previous burglary. “This was determined inappropriate as he is not allowed contact with her and she possessed unsecured firearms in her residence,” the district attorney’s office wrote.

Hedquist was also sentenced for convictions in 1995 of first-degree robbery and three counts of second-degree kidnapping for a separate incident where he robbed a local Pizza Hut at gunpoint and took around $3,000, according to the statement. He was sentenced to six years and eight months in prison for those crimes.

Community Corrections on April 13 did a field investigation into whether the Marion County address he was seeking was appropriate and denied it because the owner had never met Hedquist and had only spoken to him over the phone. Hedquist has no family or other significant ties the community in Marion County, according to the statement, and his only connection is a job located in Salem.

The state corrections department responded saying the governor’s office had provided a new possible address in south Salem, for which community corrections requested additional time to do another investigation. The state requested it be completed by April 15, “an unrealistic timeline for Community Corrections, which requested Hedquist be released back to Douglas County,” according to the statement.

The parole board on April 15 notified the district attorney’s office that Hedquist would be released to the south Salem address, and he was released noon that day.

He is living with someone who is a former parole and probation officer and retired chaplain who worked at the Department of Corrections and Community Corrections for decades. The conditions of his supervision are more stringent than most other similarly situated releases,” including lifetime supervision and current GPS monitoring, Merah said.

Joe Kast, Marion County sheriff, said in the statement that the community should be aware of Hedquist and potential safety risks his release may cause. “I have every confidence that my office and our Community Corrections professionals will do their best to appropriately manage his reintegration into society, despite our objections and the obvious shortcomings the State’s process presented,” Kast wrote. 

Merah said the district attorney is required under state law to notify victims of a clemency application and get their input for the governor’s decision.

Hedquist, she said, has a documented history of rehabilitation, including cognitive behavioral, anger management, skills-based and religious programs as well as over 20 years volunteering for hospice care services and mentoring other people in custody.

He was awarded “honorable mention in memoir” in the 2019 Prison Writing Contest for a piece he submitted called “Confessions of Penitentiary Death Dealer” to PEN Amierica’s Prison Writing Contest.  

“He also helped bring new programming to Oregon’s prisons and received support from countless members of our corrections system. Importantly, Mr. Hedquist has also taken accountability for his crime, and expressed remorse for his actions,” Merah wrote.

The governor’s office shared around two dozen letters supporting Hedquist’s release, which spokeswoman Liz Merah said made up most of the letters of support. Those who submitted letters included corrections officials and staff, contracted chaplains who did work at state prisons, pastors and educators.

Nathaline Frener, assistant director of the corrections department’s Correctional Services Division, said in a June 17, 2021 letter that Hedquist has been employed for most of his incarceration in several work positions and been involved in multiple productive programs, classes and activities. Hedquist plans to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree, which he could not do while in prison due to his sentence length not meeting the corrections department’s college degree criteria.

He quoted a program coordinator at the University of Oregon’s Inside Out Prison Exchange class as saying, “Kyle Hedquist has been a backbone of our leadership group supporting educational efforts on the inside. Not only has he been an excellent member of multiple classes, but he has also offered wisdom and strategic insight to creating new programs and recruiting more participants. He is in large part to thank for us expanding our reach to hundreds of additional inside participants each year.”

Dell Schomburg, who served as a chapel volunteer at the state penitentiary and Oregon State Correctional Institution from 1997 to 2010, said in a Feb. 16, 2021 letter that “it is my firm conviction” Hedquist will never pose a threat to himself or anyone else in the community.

“He is a different person than he was when he took a human life while he was in high school. I would not hesitate to live next door to Kyle in the community, so certain am I that he will never commit another crime for as long as he lives,” Schomburg wrote.  

Jeremy Hays wrote in a letter Feb. 12, 2021, that his own sister was murdered when they were in their 20s. “The man who killed her is serving a life sentence in another state. I do not take lightly these issues of crime and punishment. However, my experiences in recent years and in particular my interactions with Kyle Hedquist made me realize that it is possible for people to transform themselves, to redeem themselves, and that acknowledging and honoring redemption is good for everyone – the guilty, the victims, and society at large,” he wrote.

Hays said he worked with Hedquist in a storytelling group in 2019. As a crime victim, he said he longs to see some good come of the consequences of his sister’s murder.

“What would be truly satisfying is if, somehow, that terrible pain and loss spurred some positive growth in someone else and led them to help some other people and contribute to making the world better,” he said. “That is what Kyle has done. By granting Kyle clemency, you allow him to be an asset to our community, to continue to serve and contribute without the limits of incarceration. You allow him to demonstrate the values that Oregonians have for life, liberty, and the potential we all have to become better people and make positive contributions to our communities

Wesenberg wrote in his letter that it was clear many who support Hedquist’s clemency request “are not aware of the severity of his conduct, and likely have been fed this new fantasized version of events.”

He said Hedquist in his petition blamed others including the victim for his actions, engaged “in self-gratifying exposition” and tried to minimize his culpability.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for Hedquist’s petition before publication.

Hedquist previously applied for clemency three times and was denied in each instance, Wesenberg wrote in his letter, adding that Hedquist’s background, “the heinousness of the murder” and the materials in his petition show he is not an appropriate candidate for clemency.

“This clemency decision is wrong on every level, starting with its callousness toward the crime victim’s family and extending to all Oregonians counting on public officials to make decisions with public safety in mind,” Wyden wrote in a statement. “Plain and simple, I oppose this grossly irresponsible use of the clemency powers.”

Wyden after speaking with Wesenberg this week wanted to give a statement that leads to “much greater care about future clemency decisions” and share the message that people convicted of the most serious crimes should serve their full sentences, said Hank Stern, spokesman for Wyden’s office. “Senator Wyden believes clemency is an important tool for justice and has its uses. This case is not one of them.” 

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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