PART 1: A teen boy’s descent into the Salem gang underworld

The 16-year-old boy evaded police for weeks.

He was wanted for the daytime shootings of two young men in downtown Salem that spring of 2022.

Now, police closed in on Robert “Bobby” Fletemier Brown, a teen with an engaging smile who was close to graduating.

As officers made their move, the high school junior leaned out of a car and let loose a volley of bullets, drawing return police fire.

Bobby fell to the street, mortally wounded, still gripping his SAR9 pistol.

The confrontation was over in 12 seconds, but the impacts continue to this day.

He represents a growing number of teenagers in deep trouble in the community. 

Authorities say teen boys in Salem are increasingly involved in deadly street violence. More and more, shootings and stabbings appear to be a symptom of gang life.

The trend challenges families, schools, neighborhoods and law enforcement. They are up against the limits of the juvenile justice system, which aims to hold youth accountable and work to reform and not punish them, recognizing that kids’ brains are still maturing.

Much of what happens with juveniles and justice in Oregon remains locked away in confidential files. Often, young offenders walk free unless they commit serious crimes. In Oregon, with rare exceptions, even those locked up for serious violence must be released when they turn 25.

As a result, juveniles get chance after chance to shed criminal life.

Bobby had his opportunities to veer away. 

He didn’t grow up in poverty or in a gang-affiliated family. Adults in his life described a bright, creative boy who could’ve gone to college and built a successful future.

But he came of age as Salem was wracked by violence that hadn’t yet come into focus as a broad community threat. The reality that the city was at risk dawned slowly on public officials who only now are considering their responses.


Part 1: A Salem teen, put in state care as an infant, struggles with adoptive parents. He takes to the streets as violence surges in the capital city.

Part 2: Salem’s gang conflicts reached a boiling point in spring 2022, with Bobby Brown suspected of two shootings in public places downtown.

Part 3:  Bobby Brown’s life and his hopes of starting over in another state are cut short at 16 in a fatal gun battle with police.

A 16-year-old Salem juvenile getting into a gun battle with police was a startling development in the capital city.

Reporting by Salem Reporter over several months provides part of the explanation. This account is based on public records obtained from the Oregon State Police, Salem Police Department and Marion County Juvenile Department as well as interviews with family, friends and juvenile authorities.

A portrait emerges of the young son of a physician spiraling out of control, becoming one of Salem’s most wanted.

Robert Fletemier Brown was born Aug. 15, 2005, in Silverton.

His mother was addicted to methamphetamine, and his father was a gang member cycling in and out of the criminal justice system since he was a teenager himself.

The couple already had one son when Bobby came along.

Before birth, Bobby had meth in his system. After he was born, he went into drug withdrawal. Authorities promptly put him in foster care.

Babies exposed to meth often become irritable, cry uncontrollably and struggle to bond with caregivers. Emotional dysregulation – an inability to control emotions – can continue with age.

When he was 4, Bobby was adopted by Heidi Fletemier, then a physician in Salem, and her husband, a retired case manager for AIDS patients. (His adoptive father didn’t respond to a letter seeking an interview.)

Bobby pushed boundaries even in kindergarten at McKinley Elementary School. Once, when he refused to move on to a new activity, his teacher ended up chasing him around the classroom.

By second grade, it was girls who were chasing him. 

“Handsome kid, with a smile that lights up a room,” according to Fletemier, his adoptive mom. “He had a lot of friends. He was the kid who got invited to birthday parties.”

Bobby’s bright personality was apparent from an early age. His mom regularly took him to the library, where he started off with animal encyclopedias and worked up to memorizing all of the major and minor Greek gods. 

Bobby Brown in downtown Bend (family photo)

A young artist, he fell in love with the Parthenon replica at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art and taught himself to sketch action figures.

He was also an outdoor kid who didn’t mind taking risks, frequently climbing trees at Minto-Brown Island Park and on family camping trips. 

Bobby’s priority in middle school wasn’t academics, but he thrived in the social environment. He would show up early at Howard Street Charter School to play games with the principal and stay after school to make YouTube videos with his classmates. 

Bobby helped make a poster at the time for the school’s production of “Singing in the Rain” and excelled at writing poetry. He also enjoyed basketball and soccer.

But Bobby’s struggles emerged in fifth grade, when he was 11.

He tried marijuana. He became standoffish toward his adoptive mom. She tried counseling together.

By middle school, he wasn’t scared of things that frightened other kids. 

Most boys at 12 are playing sports, picking up instruments, mustering the courage to ask a date to a school dance.

Bobby was having his first run-in with the police.

A family dispute in June 2018 spilled into the front lawn of their Salem home. Three patrol cars showed up.

Even as a seventh grader, Bobby hated the police, according to his adoptive mom. He blamed them for taking his birth mom away from him.

For two hours, he screamed, spat and cussed at officers. 

It was one of many episodes of emotional turmoil for Bobby. Anytime he got out of control, he couldn’t calm himself. 

Police that night put him in handcuffs but later released him with no charges.

Fletemier and her husband separated a day later. From there, Bobby’s relationship with his parents soured while his behavior worsened.

Later that month, he attempted suicide by overdosing on Tylenol, landing in the hospital.

A hospital social worker told Bobby’s mom that there would be a long wait for inpatient psychiatric treatment. Bobby went on a waitlist for a children’s residential treatment clinic in Corvallis. He never got in.

“If you need inpatient psych treatment for your kid in Oregon, you are so screwed,” Fletemier told Salem Reporter.

Oregon Health Authority data shows the state has 304 licensed psychiatric residential beds for children across eight facilities.

But there are none in the Salem area, according to Justin Hopkins, executive director of the Willamette Health Council. That means the only option for local kids who need such care is out of town and away from their families, friends and schools. Often, there is a months-long wait for treatment that is urgently needed.

Meanwhile, Bobby kept running away from home.

He headed to a homeless encampment of teens at Wallace Marine Park in west Salem, often returning home late at night. There, he met a teen four years older who would be a bad influence for years.

On one occasion in 2018, Bobby returned home, appearing more agitated than ever.

His mom felt intimidated and believed he was having a mental health crisis. She closed the door to keep him outside and called police, hoping they could settle him down.

When an officer arrived, Bobby was standing in the middle of the street and refused police orders to move. He gave the officer the middle finger. 

“(Expletive) you, I don’t listen to cops,” he said. 

This time, Bobby was arrested for disorderly conduct and lodged at the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center. Juvenile authorities referred him to a family support program.

A table shows that Salem homicides and nonfatal shootings doubled between 2018 and 2022 (Screenshot from Salem Gun Violence Problem Analysis)

The juvenile system is intended to hold kids accountable while providing opportunities for reform to keep them from advancing deeper into the system. 

Minor offenses can be resolved with a warning, a formal accountability agreement, community service, diversion, restitution or probation. In more serious cases, judges commit kids to the Oregon Youth Authority to stay in a residential program or in a secure youth correctional facility.

For over two decades in Oregon, offenders ages 15-17 who were charged with violent felonies such as murder or rape were automatically prosecuted and sentenced as adults. After turning 25, those with time left in their sentence would be moved from juvenile facilities to a state prison. 

But a law passed in 2019 left it to judges to decide whether adult prosecution of a juvenile was appropriate. Now, prosecutors have to prove through a long and complicated legal process that trying a teen in the juvenile system wouldn’t benefit them or society.

That happens rarely and young offenders who aren’t moved into adult court must be released from a youth correctional facility by the time they turn 25.

The system is also intended to get juveniles away from the social environment leading them into legal trouble.

Bobby demonstrated that he was interested in a healthier social life. Adult mentors always reported positive feedback. They noted that he wanted to be a normal teenager who goes to high school and has a job.

But Bobby was too smart for his own good as he progressed through the system, according to his juvenile parole and probation officer, AJ Gosney. He learned from early interventions what to expect, what to do and what to say to wind down his restrictions.

He continued to feel abandoned by his birth parents and didn’t connect well with those who raised him.

“It was a culmination of a lot of different things that funneled Bobby’s thoughts and Bobby’s heart to try to fill a hole that wasn’t fillable,” according to Gosney.

Bobby rarely opened up to the adults in his life. 

“He was very sharp,” Gosney said. “I think he knew what to do and how to do it to give the impression that he was fine.”

“He has good social skills and likes to spend time writing song lyrics.”

– Counselor’s report

In 2018, Fletemier asked Marion County to provide Bobby with intensive case management. That would’ve included counseling and allowed Bobby to help create a plan for his behavior and schooling. She said the county declined, saying he wasn’t eligible.

Bobby’s next encounter with police came that summer, when he traveled to Michigan to visit his mother’s family. On one occasion, he walked into the living room carrying a large kitchen knife, terrifying his grandmother and her housemate. Feeling threatened, they called the police but didn’t press charges.

The 13-year-old’s anger at the time was mostly directed at his family. School staff and parents of his peers spoke highly of his behavior, according to a juvenile department report.

“Youth is a smart, articulate, creative boy. He has good social skills and likes to spend time writing song lyrics,” the report said.

But Bobby’s behavior escalated, resulting in his first felony charge. Wielding a fry pan, he had trapped his mother in the bathroom.

“I was trying to get some help for him and trying to make it clear to him that there were hard boundaries you don’t cross with me,” Fletemier said. “There wasn’t anything else I could do.”

Bobby’s counselor recommended another approach beyond just holding him in the juvenile center. His parents arranged wilderness therapy in Utah, where he spent nearly four months.

“He developed a greater awareness of the effects of his substance abuse on his relationships and daily functioning,” according to the program’s report on his departure. “He displayed a significant overall decrease in patterns of negativity, anger, hostility and defiance toward authority figures, and an increase in positive, pro-social interactions with staff members, as well as with his peers. Robert was able to identify factors that contribute to his hostility toward others.”

But program leaders were concerned that Bobby would return to his old habits if he returned home.

He then moved to a youth treatment center on a ranch in rural Nevada, where he spent about 13 months. There, he took high school classes that earned him credit. He learned work skills such as breeding and raising farm animals, construction, welding, auto mechanics, gardening and cooking.

“Bobby has addressed and resolved any issues that suggest that he would need any further residential treatment,” according to a mental health assessment in January 2020. “He will need some support and structure to be able to step-down from treatment into normal living routines.”

Bobby Brown poses with a horse at KW Legacy Ranch, a youth treatment center on a ranch in rural Nevada (family photo)

He returned home in January 2020 and enrolled in South Salem High School. Then a freshman, he was on pace to graduate early.

But within months, he got suspended for taking drugs to school.

His behavior grew so intense that Fletemier couldn’t drive with him in the car. 

“He’d start turning on the emergency lights. He’d start screaming at me in the car,” she said.

Then came Covid. As experts now know, even the most well-adjusted kids suffered. 

The pandemic and resulting school closures left many students isolated and their mental health deteriorating.

That made classwork from home challenging for students and their parents.

The impact of the isolation and disruption was harder on kids already adrift like Bobby.

Check-ins by juvenile counselors were less than ideal.

“It’s hard to see everything on a phone call if a kid’s starting to struggle and go downhill,” according to Marion County Juvenile Director Troy Gregg.

Left to school at home, 14-year-old Bobby instead took to Salem’s streets.

NEXT IN PART 2: How Salem’s gang conflicts reached a boiling point in spring 2022, with Bobby Brown suspected of being at the center of two downtown shootings.

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

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.