From the Author
Gerald Strebendt's reputation as a military- and MMA-trained killer allowed both police and prosecutors to pre-judge him as guilty. Afraid that the defendant could kill with his bare hands, the authorities made Strebendt spend a year awaiting trial in the roughest and most isolating of conditions, solitary confinement in an under-funded county jail. Even when the evidence cast strong doubt as to who was the real aggressor on the night of the shooting, the murder charge stubbornly stuck. Why? Because people had bad stories to tell about Gerald Strebendt. The police didn't even have to pick up the phone to find critics who painted Strebendt as a habitual fighter, an inveterate taunter (if not bully) and, yes, a road-rager. The knocks and negative accounts about the man poured in almost entirely unsolicited - by mail, by email, and on Facebook.
"...he stopped his car in front of us, blocking us, and demanded to know why we were following him...."
"...he said he was a trained killer, that he'd killed people before...."
"...I was afraid to ride with him in a car...."
"...he told me there was a gun under the seat and I should point it at the other driver..."
They all were ready to condemn Gerald Strebendt as a likely killer. There were complete strangers who stepped forward to recount a threatening incident on the road or elsewhere, something that just happened to involve "that guy I read about in the paper, the one connected to that shooting." A sheriff's deputy said he was so unnerved by Strebendt's hostility during a traffic stop that he made a note in a database to warn other officers who might encounter Strebendt. There was an ex-wife, too, who alleged that Gerald"road-raged" three to five times a week.
What chance did Gerald have against all of these breathlessly told tales and their tellers? Not much of a chance, but just enough for two small-town defense attorneys to help Strebendt evade the worst sentence, 25 years to life in prison.
Throughout the long legal fight - one that felt personal not just for Mike Arnold, but for his entire law firm - Gerald Strebendt accepted responsibility for his legal predicament. Not for shooting his aggressor, of course, but for the life experiences and the poor choices that led up to his decision to shoot an unarmed man who was 20 years his senior.
Strebendt grew up rough, possessing neither a solid father figure nor a clear sense of right and wrong. A born warrior, Strebendt dreamed of a mixed-martial-arts career that he briefly achieved. Drawn to the military, Strebendt chose the lonely, thinking-man's life of a Marine sniper. When he had a chance to return to society as a civilian, Strebendt didn't. He chose to do two tours as a "contractor" for Blackwater in Afghanistan, with all the urban, shoot-first-ask-questions-later action that implied. And when Strebendt came home from the close-range skirmishes and the threat of exploding IEDs, he forgot to leave the wary watchfulness, the aggression, and the swashbuckling bluster in Kabul. It came home with him. It caused trouble for him, even as he began building a reputation as a respected local businessman. Once, when asked how he'd gotten himself in a position to be so wrongly accused for something that he did not do - namely, shooting an unarmed man in cold blood - Strebendt gave a chillingly self-aware response:
"Because I have been a scoundrel and an asshole for years and Allah, Karma, and God have finally caught up with me."
Finishing Machine invites readers to consider how the whole of a man's life can lead to a single moment from which he may never recover. It encourages us to think about how ill-equipped the justice system is to handle a case where a man who seems to have done everything wrong can be put in legal jeopardy for an incident in which he possibly did everything right. The book reminds us of what we already know - that the line between the "bad guy" and the "good guy" can be very hard to discern indeed.
On the night of the shooting, Gerald Strebendt stood alone against a man who said he had a gun, with only a 911 operator to talk to. Throughout the year-long investigation of the case, Strebendt sat alone in an 8-by-8 cell, with only Mike Arnold - a young attorney who had never tried a murder case on his own - on his side. Was Arnold up to the task? Could he clear away his own demons to fight Strebendt's past and win the case?
BOOK EXCERPT: Prologue: Predator or Prey?
The evening was cool and a haze hung low over a dark, rural road where only a truck's headlights provided illumination. It was January in Springfield, Oregon, so a low fog was not unexpected. But as the evening deepened, the clouds suddenly gave way to a brief, un-forecasted downpour.
One man, trained as a Marine sniper, found himself standing alone.Moments before, he and another man - a stranger - had been in a confrontation.Then came the rain. And now there was only a lingering mist, backlit by the headlights.
He had been trained by the military for exactly this: a coolly evaluated threat, followed by a split-second decision to take action. But he wasn't on the gun range, not tonight. He hadn't calculated his move through the lens of a scope, and he hadn't picked off his target from a safe and detached distance. There were no instructions from afar. This was different. It was up close and personal. The cloudburst had not been rain, and the mist was not made up of water. It was bits of blood, brain, skin and skull.
The shooter lowered his gun, and raised his cell phone to his ear. He needed an ambulance. A man lay shattered on the pavement, his life ebbing away as cars continued to flow past the scene. All around, an audience of dark homes, fences and trees stood as silent witnesses to what had occurred. A woman, having left the safety of her vehicle to investigate the sounds she had heard, screamed at the sight of the long black gun and the violence it had wrought.
Was there any doubt who was the predator, and who was the prey?
Chapter 1: A Potential Case?
I was at home on my small farm outside Creswell, Oregon, on the night of the shooting. Having put my four-year-old daughter to sleep by reading Dr. Seuss' "The Pale Green Pants" a couple of times front to back, I had returned to the living room to relax. The house was quiet, the lights dimmed.The wood stove was stoked with Douglas fir rounds that I had bucked from a fallen tree from the wooded part of our property the previous year. While enjoying the warmth of the fire, I alternated between reading a case file and online news stories. I noticed a story of gun violence pop up online. Curious, I began reviewing the sparse but gripping details on the small screen of my iPhone.
My name is Mike Arnold and I am a criminal defense attorney who specializes in complex cases. I am the managing partner of an eight-attorney firm located in Eugene, Oregon, almost two hours south of Portland ... and just across the Willamette River from Springfield, where the shooting I was reading about had occurred.
The criminal defense section of my firm was built on the bread and butter of low-level crime, cases involving domestic violence, driving under...