PORTLAND, Ore. — To Portlanders, in a story about heroes, George Elwood Tschaggeny was a villain.
In surveillance video and photos viewed far and wide, a man is seen walking off with a backpack in the chaos of last month’s horrifying MAX attack. It belonged to Ricky Best, one of three men stabbed — two fatally — while trying to protect two girls from a man shouting racial epithets at them. In addition to the pack, it was later discovered the thief had taken the wedding ring off Best’s finger as he lay bleeding to death.
That man, police say, was Tschaggeny.
But those who knew him say that, before addiction destroyed his life, George Elwood Tschaggeny would have been one of the heroes who stood up on the train.
That may seem improbable to those who followed the story. The 51-year-old became, in the public’s eye, the person who committed the unfeeling, “completely heartless” act, as police characterized it. He was arrested June 3 at a small homeless camp near Interstate 84. He was wearing Best’s wedding band.
Known as “Elwood” by friends and family, Tschaggeny was once a hero himself, honored by police in 2010 with a civilian medal for stopping a bank robber armed with a knife.
He was the sort of guy who’d pull over on the highway to help a motorcyclist after a crash, put the motorcycle in his truck and drive the injured biker to a doctor — like he did in 1998.
He was a military veteran, like Best, who lived in North Tabor with his wife and their five dogs. He loved hiking, biking and Westerns.
That’s the man his ex-wife remembers, before the painkillers prescribed for a knee injury turned into an addiction, first with pills, then heroin.
“Not in my wildest dreams would I ever imagine he’d be facing what he’s facing,” she said. “This is just not him.”
The Oregonian/OregonLive is not identifying Tschaggeny’s ex-wife at her request for safety reasons, as she has a protective order against him.
She first met Tschaggeny in 1997, shortly after he moved to Oregon from his hometown Salt Lake City. She worked with his mother, who introduced the pair at a Thanksgiving celebration.
Three years later, they were married, on April Fools’ Day 2000.
For the next 16 years, Tschaggeny’s ex-wife remembers, they built a great life together.
Tschaggeny introduced her to Australian shepherds, and soon, they had four — Chris the Dog, Darwin, Howl E. Bones and Ted-E — plus one Jack Russell terrier, Jack Jack.
They spent their days hiking, mountain biking and lifting weights. At home, their TV was always tuned to the Western movie channel. Tschaggeny tended to the rose garden in their yard and, every day, he made his wife lunch for work and then dropped her off.
Tschaggeny was honored by police in June 2010 for stopping a bank robber a few months earlier, Portland police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson said. The robber led police on a car chase, then crashed into a bus at Providence Hospital. The robber ran into a nearby neighborhood.
Tschaggeny, who was in his front yard of his home with another man, Scott Morales, saw the robber with a knife in his hand running from officers. They chased him down and took him to the ground, holding him there until police could arrest him.
The awards ceremony lauded the men’s “courageous and selfless” actions.
Tschaggeny worked in property management after a stint in construction. According to court documents, Tschaggeny said he was self-employed, buying and selling property. But, his ex-wife said, he dreamed of the two of them opening a breakfast restaurant, where he could make his signature omelets.
“It was just a happy life,” she said.
Then his knees got worse.
Tschaggeny started going to a clinic for knee pain he still had from injuries he’d gotten as a child. To help him deal with the pain, his ex-wife said, the clinic prescribed him pills.
“That’s how it all began,” she said.
The change happened slowly. Tschaggeny’s ex-wife noticed he was angry and not interested in their usual activities.
At some point, though his ex-wife isn’t exactly sure when, he began to use heroin.
Four in five new heroin users reported they started out abusing prescription pills, according to a 2016 report by the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Many say they turned to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription opioids, the report says.
Tschaggeny would be in and out of rehab at least four times in about five years, his ex-wife said. But each time, he would succumb to addiction.
“He always said, ‘It calls you, it calls you, it calls you,'” his ex-wife remembered. “And every time something let him down or he let someone down, it led him back into this deep hole.”
In February 2015, she filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences,” court documents show. She told The Oregonian/OregonLive that she filed because of his addiction.
In April 2015, Tschaggeny went to a rehab program in Palm Desert, California, according to a 2015 jail interview and his ex-wife.
After he returned, the couple tried to reconcile. For a time, Tschaggeny seemed to be better, his ex-wife said.
“He was so proud of himself for accomplishing that and getting over it,” she said.
But when he started acting angry and despondent soon after, she suspected he was using drugs again.
She filed a restraining order against him in June 2015, court records show.
His first arrest came a few weeks later for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and trespassing. In an interview with jail staff, he said he wasn’t using heroin at the time but had been using daily until his recently completed rehab program. He also said he was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD.
The divorce was finalized in May 2016, according to court records. After that, his ex-wife said, he became homeless.
It was devastating, she said, but she couldn’t help him.
He was arrested again in September 2016, court records show, this time for attempted burglary. He told jail staff he’d been homeless for six weeks and hadn’t used drugs since April 2015. He said he had been employed by a janitorial company for a few weeks but had been unemployed for a couple months.
Earlier this year, Tschaggeny pleaded guilty to unauthorized use of a vehicle in Washington County on Feb. 17.
His jail mug shots from 2015 to 2017 show a steady physical deterioration common among people addicted to drugs.
After his arrest in the MAX theft, Tschaggeny declined to speak to jail staff during his intake interview, court records show.
Portland police said Tschaggeny took Best’s belongings as people tried to help the stabbing victims: Best, Taliesin Namkai-Meche, 23, and Micah Fletcher, 21. Namkai-Meche, like Best, died from his wounds. Fletcher survived.
Detectives did not know whether Tschaggeny was on the MAX during the stabbing or came on afterward.
Tschaggeny’s sister, Camille, believes her brother’s gut reaction was to try to help Best, but he took Best’s belongings when he realized he could not.
“Elwood did a desperate act that desperate people do,” she said.
She thinks the government failed her brother by not providing more resources for mental health and opioid addiction. She declined to comment further.
Tschaggeny’s ex-wife said nothing excuses the crime police say he committed. He should have to face the consequences of his actions, she said. But, she said, before his addiction, he would have never done anything like this.
Still, she has hope that her ex-husband will get the help he needs and finally beat his addiction.
“He’s just not that person,” she said, “and he doesn’t want to be that person.”
Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, http://www.oregonlive.com