A family of criminals and killers

by Stephen J. Lyons

Danielle Marie Cox came from a loving family. She attended private school through the sixth grade, had a 3.8 grade point average in high school, and earned a scholarship to Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. But the impressionable Cox fell prey to the drama and drugs of a homeless Portland street “family” she met in Pioneer Square, trading the structure of college for the free-form life of the homeless. Cox — whose street name was “Shadowcat” — is now serving a 25-year prison sentence for the horrific 2003 murder of Jessica Kate Williams, a young woman with a learning disability.

The twisted road that took Cox from scholar to killer is at the heart of Portland author Rene Denfeld’s disturbing new report, All God’s Children. Portland’s street families are her main focus, but she also includes a grim assessment of a national crisis of teen homelessness.

Street kids, writes Denfeld, are almost always teenagers from white middle-class homes, who fall under the sway of older (in their 20s) “mothers” and “fathers” — criminal types who manipulate the youthful angst of their charges while hooking them on sex, fantasy and violence. The youngsters earn their keep by panhandling and selling drugs. Street families can be found throughout the West, from Seattle’s University District to Tucson’s Fourth Avenue. They practice their own brand of paganism: “It was like The Lord of the Rings, only with methamphe-tamine.”

Cox’s “father” in the Portland street gang was convicted murderer James Daniel Nelson, aka Thantos, “whose entire adult life has been spent in two milieus: prison and streets.” Nelson, now serving a life sentence in an eastern Oregon prison and a member of that prison’s white supremacist pagan gang, helped convert Cox from a gifted student to an aspiring “death knight warrior, whose final test was to kill.”

The arrests and consequent breakup of the Thantos Family in 2003 did nothing to diminish the collection of ragged teen runaways on our streets. Currently, 1.5 million kids squat under our bridges, and in our parks and squares. And the numbers are growing. All God’s Children reminds us — and shames us — that these are our kids. And we are losing them.

© High Country News