Oregon rock climber’s life collapsed years before alleged mass shooting plot
By the time a Michigan family court judge issued her Sept. 27 ruling in his divorce, Samson Garner owned little more than two video game consoles, a 2012 Subaru, a few guns and a court order to get a “full psychological evaluation.”
Three weeks later, police would arrest him on accusations he plotted to kill random people at a climbing festival in Central Oregon. The Deschutes County District Attorney’s office has said Garner had multiple handguns and a semi-automatic rifle – as well as writings expressing “generalized anger” – when he was arrested Thursday. The 39-year-old faces 27 felony charges, including the attempted murder of multiple people.
The accusations against Garner, a climber himself, have rattled some in Oregon’s outdoors community.
Acquaintances and former coworkers who spoke to OPB described Garner as seemingly happy and hard-working when he was active as a climber and ski guide around 2018. Some said they couldn’t fathom him owning a weapon, let alone threatening people.
But divorce records obtained by OPB detail tumult in Garner’s life in the years leading up to his arrest, as he engaged in increasingly erratic and vindictive behavior toward his ex-wife and toddler children.
By most accounts, Garner’s life before the pandemic seemed idyllic on the surface. He’d been married since 2011, earned a six-figure salary, owned a home in Portland, and socialized regularly through his hobbies, which centered around the outdoors.
Ali Gray volunteered with Garner on a ski committee for the Mazamas, a nonprofit outdoors education group, and went on a Mazamas-organized overnight skiing trip with him in 2018, though she said in an email that she “didn’t know Samson very well.”
Gray described him as “happy, fun-loving, and hard-working back then.”
“This definitely comes as a surprise and a bit of a blow,” she said of the accusations against Garner.
Several people who knew Garner and his ex-wife expressed similar sentiments upon learning about his arrest.
Eric Person, a systems analyst at a Portland environmental technology company where Garner started working in 2015, described him as a “serious guy,” but not someone with a temper or violent streak.
“I couldn’t even imagine him owning a gun,” Person told OPB.
He said Garner “disappeared” on the job around 2017 and simply stopped showing up for work. Garner would go on to land another information technology job at LegitScript in October 2018. The Portland-based company, which helps other businesses find and stop fraudulent transactions online, confirmed that Garner has not worked there since February 2020.
Garner seemingly has remained unemployed since leaving his $110,000-a-year job at LegitScript, according to divorce records.
Garner’s involvement with the outdoors community in Oregon also appears to have frayed around the same time.
Layne Russell, a volunteer with the Mazamas, said Garner described a “disagreement regarding a policy” as Garner’s reason for leaving the outdoors group around 2019, though Russell could not recall specifics.
Rebekah Phillips, who has been executive director of the Mazamas since June, declined to answer further questions about Garner’s interaction with the nonprofit, citing the ongoing police investigation.
In a previous statement, Phillips said his involvement was “limited” since 2018 and that the group was “devastated” by the alleged mass shooting plot.
Though online records list 2019 as the last year that Garner officially participated in a Mazamas event, he contacted the group as recently as last year. Following a November 2022 email seeking volunteers, Garner typed a reply and sent it to hundreds of people with the Mazamas.
“What does Bernie sanders say?” he wrote. “Have the hipsters and scene-sters ruined indie rock? I’m extremely concerned.”
The message, though bizarre, was mild in comparison to actions Garner was taking in his personal life.
The rapid deterioration of Garner’s marriage became apparent in August 2022, his ex-wife reported in court documents.
OPB has opted not to name her in this story due to alleged domestic abuse. She has not returned multiple requests for comment.
That August, she planned to take the couple’s 2-year-old girls back to Michigan, where she had grown up, to celebrate her father’s 90th birthday. Garner became “increasingly hostile” as the trip approached, according to the woman’s attorneys.
Two days before her flight, Garner stole his then-wife’s identification and drove off with the couple’s only vehicle, she said in court documents.
“The alarming behavior raised red flags for [the wife], but she proceeded with her trip to Michigan as planned,” her lawyers wrote in a divorce filing. “What ensued thereafter has turned [her] and the minor children’s lives upside down.”
When the woman and her children returned from their trip to their home near Portland’s Mt. Tabor Park on Aug. 21, 2022, the locks had been changed and the doors were barricaded in a way that a locksmith could not force open.
Without a place to stay or family in Oregon, the woman said she was forced to book a return flight to Michigan with her children, where she has remained since 2022.
By that September, Garner’s then-wife asked him to send her some of her belongings and the children’s clothing since she was locked out of her Portland home, according to court records. Garner replied by demanding to see his children.
“If you aren’t interested in coming to an arrangement, then I’m going to show up unannounced and exercise my legal right to see my kids,” Garner texted her on Sept. 23, 2022.
“I am not keeping you from seeing them,” she replied.
By that October, as winter weather approached in Michigan, she texted again asking for Garner to mail their children’s warm clothes. Garner replied a month later, with lewd sexual messages.
He would go on throughout the winter to send more harassing messages to the woman, describing alleged sexual encounters he was having with other women and saying he was having “the time of my life.”
Throughout the acrimonious separation, Garner would accuse his wife of cheating and having abortions — an allegation her attorneys said has no factual basis. He threatened to take the family dog to the Humane Society and withdrew $24,000 from the children’s college funds, according to the court documents.
In one of the last exchanges documented in the divorce records, Garner told his ex that “time is a grim reaper, coming for women’s bodies.”
“How are you holding up?” he wrote to her Jan. 12.
A few messages later, Garner outlined what he expected to be a big year for himself in the outdoors.
“I’m going to climb 20 mountains this season, ski down 8 of them, and think of you exactly once,” he wrote. “Only to thank god that I’ve found a better belayer than you ever were.”
By Oct. 3, courts in Michigan had finalized Garner’s divorce. In her final adjudication, the Michigan judge gave Garner’s ex-wife sole custody of their children, banned him from communicating with his ex except through a court-monitored web portal, ordered him to pay $2,615 a month in child support, and required him to sell the family’s Portland home.
Garner set out weeks later to Central Oregon with what prosecutors say was a goal of shooting belayers and others at the Smith Rock Craggin’ Classic, a three-day climbing festival put on by the American Alpine Club.
Sheriff’s deputies in Deschutes County arrested Garner in a parking lot on public lands near Tumalo, Oregon, without resistance, according to Deschutes County District Attorney Steve Gunnels. The deputies recovered weapons from his vehicle after Portland police received a tip he “hoped to shoot rock climbers and people around rock climbers in Deschutes County,” Gunnels told OPB on Tuesday. A public defense attorney representing Garner did not immediately return a request for comment.
Garner is scheduled to appear in court on attempted murder charges Friday.
Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting.