Man, 37, dies in Salem camp while running heater in tent

A man was found dead in central Salem Tuesday morning after using a propane heater to stay warm in a tent during an ice storm.

Police identified the man as Johnathan Ryan McCarter, 37.

Emergency dispatchers received reports around 9 a.m. Tuesday reporting a man inside a tent was unconscious, said Angela Hendrick, Salem police spokeswoman.

She said a couple had been staying in a tent at an unmanaged campsite near Southeast 13th and Leslie streets, near the Salem train station.

Officers responded and found McCarter and their dog dead inside the tent. 

Hendricks said a cause of death is pending a toxicology evaluation by a medical examiner, but the circumstances suggest carbon monoxide poisoning. The medical examiner responded and found no signs of foul play.

A 42-year-old woman survived and was transported to Salem Hospital for medical care. Salem Hospital spokesman Michael Gay said she was transferred to another facility on Tuesday.

The death came as the city was enduring its fourth day in a row of sub-zero temperatures. Tuesday had a low temperature of 16 degrees.

Two Salem warming shelters were open overnight during the storm and were generally at capacity, but did not turn people away, said Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, which manages the warming network.

Cherriots buses provide free transportation to warming shelters when they’re open, but Salem roads were icy and nearly deserted following a coating of snow, sleet and freezing rain over the weekend.

Bus service ran Monday, Jan. 15, on a reduced schedule due to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and was otherwise suspended during the storm.

Jones said the shelters at Salem First Presbyterian Church and Seed of Faith ministries sheltered nearly 200 people nightly during the storm. He said that number reflects growing homelessness in Salem.

“That’s twice what it was five years ago despite the fact that we’ve had a massive increase in shelter beds,” he said.

Warming shelters remained open Wednesday night into Thursday morning despite temperatures rising above freezing because of the amount of ice still on the ground around Salem.

“Even if the air temperature is above 40 degrees, if you’re in a tent laying on a sheet of ice surrounded by ice, you’re in an ice cube,” Jones said.

Salem police and emergency managers said they weren’t aware of any other deaths in the city due to the storm.

Correction: This story originally reported the man’s partner called emergency services based on information from an initial police report. Salem police clarified the agency received multiple calls about an unconscious man not from his partner. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.