When Olivia Gilliam last saw her father in mid-March, she caught a glimpse of his vibrant personality. Despite being unable to speak or move most of his extremities, Joe Gilliam responded to her presence, his 22-year-old daughter told The Daily Beast. “I know he is still in there somewhere,” Olivia said. “He can react even though he is non-verbal. He can smile. Most of his reactions are just looks he gives or a thumbs up.”
An Oregon powerhouse lobbyist who climbed mountain peaks in his late fifties, Gilliam will spend his 60th birthday on Friday confined to a hospital bed in an undisclosed long-term care facility in Vancouver, Washington. More than two years ago, Gilliam was on the precipice of death.
A couple of days after Thanksgiving 2020 in Cave Creek, Arizona, where he has a vacation home, Gilliam fell ill and was rushed to a local hospital where doctors concluded he had been poisoned with a tasteless and odorless rat killer banned in U.S. households since the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential administration. It turned out to be the second attempt on Gilliam’s life using Thallium—a toxic, water-soluble metal that is lethal in small doses and that has been used to knock off enemies of despotic regimes.
Gilliam survived, but he was in a coma and on life support for several months. While Gilliam regained consciousness and can breathe on his own, he remains in a non-verbal state, according to court records in his guardianship case in Clackamas County, Washington. As Gilliam’s life hangs in the balance, police detectives in Arizona and Oregon are zeroed in on a short list of individuals within his immediate orbit, according to court documents reviewed by The Daily Beast and interviews with his daughter, Olivia, and others close to Gilliam.
“That is the scariest part for me,” Olivia said. “Someone extremely close to us planned this out. It is not like they used bleach. They really went for it.”
Before the mysterious poisonings, Gilliam was a force to be reckoned with in Oregon state politics, as well as the Northwest U.S. A devout Christian from Lake Oswego, Oregon, Gilliam started his political career lobbying for the National Federation of Independent Business, according to Williamette Week, which first reported about the poisonings. His older brother Vic Gilliam also caught the political bug, serving five terms in the Oregon House.
Since 1999, Gilliam has been president of the Northwest Grocery Association, a lobbying group fighting for the interests of grocers such as Fred Meyer, Safeway and Costco. He expanded the organization’s reach into Washington and Idaho.
Jason Atkinson, a former Oregon state representative and state senator from 1998 to 2013, is a friend of Gilliam’s for more than 20 years. “He has a good reputation for keeping his word, probably the most rare and precious commodity in politics,” Atkinson told The Daily Beast. “He also has a reputation for playing hard. If the grocers took a hit, he would hit back just as hard or harder.”
In addition to being a political bruiser, Gilliam is a strategic thinker, Atkinson added. For instance, Gilliam succeeded in getting an amendment added to the state’s 2011 Bottle Bill that stopped Oregonians from redeeming deposits for empty beverage containers at grocery stores.
“The dirty empty bottles coming back to the grocery stores was a huge financial burden for them,” Atkinson said. “He came up with taking [the empty bottles] to redemption centers and created a way for people to get a voucher to buy groceries for doing so. The redemption centers are all over the state because Joe Gilliam came up with the idea.”
Outside the political arena, Gilliam was the big brother all his friends could count on, Atkinson said. “We went beyond just being friends,” Atkinson said. “We were at each others’ weddings and raised our kids together. When your best friend gets poisoned, it heightens your senses and makes you try to figure out as much as you can about who did it.”
The first Thallium attack took place sometime in June 2020 shortly before Gilliam returned to Lake Oswego from a trip to his vacation home in Cave Creek, Arizona, according to Olivia and her mother, Gilliam’s second ex-wife Lisa Gilliam. Once back in Oregon, his legs felt numb and he was in tremendous pain.
Lisa, who was married to Gilliam for a decade and has known him for more than two decades, said he was a natural athlete who watched his diet and exercised regularly. “He climbed Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens when he was 57,” Lisa said. “He would set goals for himself and accomplish them.”
So when he called their daughter to tell her something was wrong with him and she needed to fly right away to Oregon from Austin, Texas, where Olivia and her live, she knew Gilliam was in really bad shape, Lisa said. “He never got sick,” she said. “He was the healthiest person I knew.”
At the time however, physicians who treated Gilliam diagnosed him with Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes the body’s immune system to attack the nervous system. Thallium poisoning, which also attacks the nervous system, can mimic other diseases, which can lead to it going unnoticed in ill patients, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Since the second hospital incident in November 2020, when it was determined Gilliam was actually poisoned, Olivia is convinced three people who were with her father in Cave Creek when he was likely dosed both times could have significant information to share about what happened to her dad.
They are Gilliam’s girlfriend Christina Marini, who has been banned from visiting him at the long-term care facility; Ronald Smith, a lobbyist buddy of Gilliam’s, who is suing him over a $71,000 loan that helped pay for his Cave Creek house; and Tim Mooney, an Arizona political consultant who is friends with Gilliam and Smith.
The Williamette Week reported Marini as saying they believe all three were there both times Gilliam was poisoned.
“I cannot definitively say who did it,” Olivia said.
A Maricopa Sheriff’s spokesperson declined comment for this story. Marini, who began dating Gilliam in 2019, initially agreed to a phone interview last week, but did not pick up her cellphone at the scheduled time. She did not respond to subsequent phone messages and emails requesting comment. Smith did not respond to multiple voicemail requests for comment.
Reached on his cellphone, Mooney said he would only respond via email. However, he did not do so when The Daily Beast sent him a list of questions last week. He also did not return subsequent phone messages and emails.
Lisa, who’s known Mooney and Smith as long as she’s known Gilliam, said she’s spoken to Mooney on a regular basis since the second poisoning but that he is unwilling to cooperate with investigators. “He claims he is willing to talk to them, but only through his attorney or in writing,” Lisa explained. “Tim having so many restrictions about his willingness to cooperate is a real source of frustration for me and [Olivia].”
Smith, who has a felony conviction in Denver, Colorado and worked on ballot measures with Gilliam in Oregon, was allegedly bitter over the terms of the $71,000 loan for the Cave Creek house and that the pair clashed over the repayment, including a big blow up during dinner at a local restaurant in January 2020, according to Williamette Week.
The news outlet also reported that Maricopa detectives served a search warrant at the Cave Creek home looking for “any container that may contain trace evidence such as a solid, liquid, powder, which may contain a poison, particularly thallium” and “any items of personal property belonging to the suspect, Ronald Smith.”
Marini, who was Gilliam’s primary caretaker during the months between the first and second poisonings, recently told Williamette Week that Gilliam’s sister and guardian, Felicia Capps, won’t let her visit him because she’s been identified as a person of interest.
Olivia says one night, in between the first and second times her dad was poisoned with Thallium, she stayed with him at his Lake Oswego home where her dad asked her to take a sip of iced tea that he thought “tasted weird.”
“I remember telling him it did taste a little metallic,” Olivia said. “He and I got very sick that night. I had nausea, dizziness and exhaustion. I just felt off.”
Then she started losing clumps of hair and going through bouts of paranoia, which are side-effects of Thallium poisoning. Olivia said her dad had similar symptoms, but experienced them “on a larger scale.” At the time, she believed she was having stress and anxiety over what her father was going through, as well as dealing with a cascade of other tragedies in the family, Olivia said. During the sixth-month period between the poisonings, Gilliam’s father and two brothers died.
She said after telling the FBI this story, they took strands of her hair in January to test and see if they could help narrow down a prime suspect.
“When we found out my dad was poisoned after the second time he went to the hospital, I started thinking maybe it wasn’t just stress,” she said. “And the FBI had enough reason and probable cause to send agents to come test my hair.”
As the FBI crime lab sorts out what, if anything, is in Olivia’s hair, there is a fourth person of interest who was even closer to Gilliam than Marini, Mooney and Smith that has further muddied the suspect pool. In October, a Clackamas County Judge ordered that Earl “Joey” Gilliam III, Gilliam’s only son from his first marriage, be removed as his legal representative at the behest of the long-term care facility where his father is.
A court investigation into Joey’s fitness to take care of his father alleged that he was failing to look out for Gilliam’s interest and withdrew a total of about $350,000 from his dad’s bank account. The guardianship file also includes a July 19, 2021 letter from a Lake Oswego Police detective assisting the Maricopa Sheriff’s investigation that states, “I have confirmed that Earl “Joey” Gilliam III is a suspect/person of interest” in the poisoning of his father.” Joey was also the subject of an active investigation into criminal mistreatment of Gilliam’s assets, the letter states.
Joey declined comment for this story. In a Sept. 15, 2021 court affidavit, Joey asserted he had done “absolutely NOTHING illegal.” Joey also noted that he got detectives to start the investigation into his father’s poisonings. “I was the one who flew to Arizona and sat in the parking lot for three hours trying to get the Maricopa County police to believe my story that this wasn’t an accident,” Joey wrote.
The entire ordeal has ripped her family apart, Olivia said. “All I want is to have my dad back one day and for him to have justice,” she said. “I would like to see the person who did this go away to prison for doing this to our family.”