Wapato bidder withdraws offer, leaves questions in wake

Gary “Garison” Russo withdrew his $9 million bid for never-opened Wapato jail

The empty Wapato Jail in a May 2013 photo. (Christopher Onstott/Portland Tribune)
The empty Wapato Jail in a May 2013 photo. (Christopher Onstott/Portland Tribune)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The man who bid $9 million for never-opened Wapato jail, Gary “Garison” Russo, has withdrawn his offer on the day Multnomah County had required him to submit a signed sale agreement and proof that he had enough money.

“Our major big box customers have walked away from us and will not come back because of the negative publicity,” Russo wrote in an Oct. 31 letter to the county informing them of his withdrawal.

A sale would have represented good news for the county, which pays $300,000 a year to maintain the jail, but lacks the funds to operate it as a detention facility. Wapato was built in 2004 for $58 million.

County Chair Deborah Kafoury on Sept. 15 signed a non-binding counteroffer and letter of intent to sell the jail to Russo, a self-described developer. But the process of vetting the transaction was delayed, in part because county officials needed to repair the jail’s roof. Finally, the county gave him a Halloween deadline to prove he had the money and submit a signed agreement.

Unused beds in one of six 50-bed dormitories in the Wapato Corrections Facility. The North Portland building was built for 525 beds. (Jonathan House, Portland Tribune)
Unused beds in one of six 50-bed dormitories in the Wapato Corrections Facility. The North Portland building was built for 525 beds. (Jonathan House, Portland Tribune)

Russo indicated in his letter that his investors had $25 million to invest, but would take his investment elsewhere, in part due to coverage by the Portland Tribune. He said his reputation has been damaged “by the Portland Tribune and others to such a degree that we WILL NOT be able to conduct ANY business in the greater Portland area.”

Russo did not specify what in the Tribune’s past coverage he considered unfair or inaccurate. In the past, he’s complained that previous coverage failed to explain that it was not his fault that his past real estate deals fell through. And he said questions about his past were irrelevant to the Wapato offer.

County officials say they were obligated to fully explore whether the deal was a serious one.

Early questions

Questions arose early due to Russo’s lack of an online presence under the full name he’d given the county or under the company names he had provided, “Garison Organics” and “Russo Capital Assets.”

“When I went to look him up, I thought he must be a baby because I couldn’t find anything about him, not even a traffic ticket or a photo online,” Commissioner Loretta Smith told the Portland Tribune in early October.

To track down background information on Russo, the Portland Tribune asked him the year of his birth, which he said was 1963. Records of a Garison Russo born in 1963 could not be located, but the Tribune did confirm his true identity as Gary Anthony Russo, born in 1960. He declined to explain why he gave the wrong birth year to the Portland Tribune.

Former business associates and others he’s dealt with questioned his credibility.

“If he made an offer, I don’t think it’s a legitimate offer,” said former associate Dominick Wernicke when told of the Wapato situation. “He says that he has these investors who will back him, but I don’t believe that that’s the case,”

The Tribune learned Russo was accused of theft and forgery in 2011, though charges were not filed. He declined to comment on the police report located by the Tribune.

The owner of a property he tried to buy earlier this year, Bella Organic Farm on Sauvie Island, called him a “con man” after the deal fell through. Russo had offered $4 million and talked of investing another $6 million in the farm if he bought it.

“He said the Pope and Oprah Winfrey and NASA were going to endorse his products, and Brad Pitt had agreed to allow his image to be put on the packaging,” said Mike Hashem.

Recently, a home inspection company sued him for $2,800 he owed for two appraisals done locally.

Russo defended

Russo has maintained his offer is legitimate and defends his handling of past negotiations, including with Bella Organic.

Rick Butler, the chief revenue officer of Tenet Financial, told the Tribune it was willing to provide Russo with 50 percent of the capital for the project. He said Russo is typical of many small-time business people who approach his investment company looking for capital.

Russo had planned on using Wapato to grow organic fruits and vegetables indoors, supplemented by greenhouses constructed adjacent to the North Portland facility.

“Garison’s concept is great, but he has to focus and get one of his projects to work,” said Butler.

A recent appraisal said Wapato’s value as an industrial building is $8.5 million.

“The current board inherited this albatross,” Kafoury said Friday, adding that she’d keep trying to sell Wapato if the deal fell through. “I believe it would be irresponsible for me as county chair not to consider any and all offers that are above the appraised value.”