Fatal freefall: Jobless contractor took desperate turn into bank robbery

“I knew he wanted to die:” Deann DeFord, widow of Weimar’s Gregory DeFord; Unemployed homebuilder shot, killed by deputy in Colfax after I-80 chase seen by family as victim of economic downturn; Linked to two Auburn robberies
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Hours before suspected bank robber Gregory Ray DeFord was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy, he had told his wife that he would not go to prison. Deann DeFord said she had seen a bank security photo of her husband in a Sept. 10 robbery and confronted him. He had left the house and she became fearful he would hurt himself. When detectives contacted the family at their rented Weimar home Thursday afternoon, deputies were directed to an overlook at the North Fork American River canyon. But when deputies arrived, the 46-year-old unemployed home builder led them on a 10-mile chase that would end with the Ford Escort he had bought last weekend overturned on a Colfax freeway frontage road. A sheriff’s report stated that when deputies and detectives attempted to take him into custody, his actions caused an officer to fire his weapon. “I knew he wanted to die,” Deann DeFord said Friday. “We wanted to bring him in because we knew it wasn’t going to end well.” For the DeFord family, the security camera photo they saw Wednesday in the Auburn Journal of Gregory DeFord inside an Auburn bank in the middle of a robbery didn’t immediately make sense. It was grainy image out of kilter with the father, grandfather, rock climber and hard-working home contractor they had known. “We were blown away,” said his daughter, Jacque DeFord. “We would never have thought he would do anything like this.” By Friday, Deann DeFord was coming to terms with her husband's descent into crime. She said the turn to bank robbery followed her husband’s freefall into joblessness and poverty. DeFord said it was a fall nudged ahead by alcohol abuse and burdened by deep depression. Her husband had no criminal record, she said. DeFord said that, when things were good three short years ago, her husband of 26 years had his own construction business, they owned a home and had two cars. That was before the recession hit and the construction jobs dried up in the Sun Valley area of Idaho where they were living. Gregory DeFord had seen one of his custom homes featured in Architectural Digest. In his most recent job, he spent two years remodeling a Sun Valley house once owned by Brooke Shields, Deann DeFord said. But when that job ended, there were no others to go to. DeFord said her husband drew unemployment but when that ran out, things like paying bills, buying groceries and getting vehicles repaired proved difficult. “Just last week, he told me, ‘I can’t believe I’ve gone from being a published builder to where I can’t find a job,’” DeFord said. “He hasn’t been himself for a long time.” The breakdown By the time the DeFords moved from Idaho to a small, sparsely furnished rental cabin in Weimar near Interstate 80, they had lost their home to foreclosure, declared bankruptcy, and had their two cars repossessed. “When the economy went under, we went under,” DeFord said. “And he eventually gave up.” By the time Gregory DeFord was caught on a security camera inside the Highway 49 Wells Fargo Bank in North Auburn on Aug. 28, the bottom had fallen out. The clutch on his Ford F-150 – his only means of transportation other than his mountain bike – was breaking down. And he was drinking heavily. Without the truck, attempts to find a job in Auburn were going nowhere, Deann DeFord said. Gregory DeFord was also drinking noticeably. Clerk Beth Jenkins at a nearby Weimar Crossroads convenience store, said he was a nice guy – a customer who dropped in with a beautiful Siberian husky by his side. But he bounced checks and drank a lot, she added. “He was a King Cobra (malt liquor) guy,” Jenkins said. At the Weimar postal station, Postmaster Cindi Rasmussen said she remembers an unassuming man who would sometimes engage her in conversation about Idaho. She also recalled that his breath usually smelled of alcohol. “You would have never thought …” Rasmussen said. “I can’t believe he died.” Neither Jenkins and Rasmussen said they noticed the sadness or the desperation that led DeFord to rob two Auburn banks. The first robbery took place three days after Gregory DeFord turned 46. There were no presents, his wife said, just as there had been none for Christmas or other recent family birthdays. Sheriff’s investigators said DeFord told the teller in the first robbery that he had a bomb. After the first bank robbery, Gregory DeFord suddenly had money and told his family he had found a job, working for a marijuana grower. He’d leave in the morning for work at what turned out to be a phantom job and return in the evening. Sometimes, Deann DeFord would come home during the day to find him sitting on the couch. He would tell her that he was sent home early. DeFord said she didn’t suspect that her husband was robbing banks. The second robbery was at the Bank of the West in the Raley’s Plaza in Bowman on Sept. 10. Deann DeFord said that this past weekend, her husband had more money and bought a used car – the silver Escort involved in the crash. That was going to allow him to travel farther to look for steady work, she said. But by Thursday afternoon, the charade had ended and Gregory DeFord found himself on Interstate 80 racing against an arrrest he was attempting to avoid confronting. His husky, Hades, with him in the car, he ran over a spike strip and then – with all four tires flattened – exited at Canyon Way in Colfax and crossed over the freeway onto South Auburn Street. With one tire scraping the pavement he reached a turn in the road and crashed into a guardrail. The car ended up on its side and deputies were soon moving in to remove him from the vehicle. ‘He had a good heart’ Deann DeFord said her husband wasn’t a violent man. “He would hurt himself before he would hurt anyone else,” his widow said. “He had a good heart. He was really well-intentioned. He just didn’t go about it the right way.” The sheriff’s office issued a brief statement Friday on DeFord’s death, noting only that he died at Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital on Thursday and that the shooting continues to be investigated. Typically, law enforcement doesn’t release the name of the deputy who fired a fatal shot and offers little about an internal investigation that takes place in all similar situations. Jacque DeFord said that her father’s sudden death will be hard to draw closure on. “There are so many questions that will never be answered,” DeFord said.