John Burkett was sentenced to electronic home detention for crimes he committed in 2012.
But folks around Chehalis might never have known that: He was seen hanging around bars and taking his family out to the coast for a 4th of July vacation.
“It was absurd. It was ridiculous,” said Lewis County Deputy Prosecutor Joely O’Rourke.
O'Rourke said she took an anonymous phone call alerting her that Burkett, whom she’d charged with assault and witness tampering for trying to buy the victim’s silence, was trotting all over the area.
Burkett’s case is the latest revealed in a series of KING 5 investigations that show weaknesses in the programs authorities use to monitor criminal offenders who are given a break – home detention instead of jail. In Burkett’s case, he was being monitored by a private company that Lewis County Courts allowed to handle his supervision.
After hearing of Burkett’s travels, O’Rourke demanded that the company, Northwest Home Monitoring, hand over all of Burkett’s files. She was shocked by what she saw.
Northwest’s written schedule for Burkett showed that he was free to leave his house Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. Only one reason was listed for all this free time off home detention: shopping.
“It was not detention at all,” said O’Rourke. “This person was allowed to freely roam around. That’s what we’re trying to prevent here.”
Northwest Home Monitoring was supposed to enforce the court’s order that Burkett only leave his home to go to the used car lot he owns in Chehalis. The company used a GPS-enabled ankle bracelet and computer monitoring software to track Burkett’s movements.
The elected prosecutor, Jonathan Meyer, and Lewis County’s judges kicked Northwest Home Monitoring off the county program when company manager Gary Knutter admitted that he’d allowed Burkett to travel to the coast with his family for the 4th of July weekend.
Knutter and Northwest Home Monitoring owner Anita Coolidge did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. Burkett declined to speak with KING at his used car lot.
Home detention – in lieu of jail sentences – has become popular and common in cash-strapped criminal justice systems. Typically, offenders pay the cost of the monitoring instead of taxpayers. Offenders who qualify most often are accused or convicted of non-violent crimes.
Burkett was charged with an unprovoked assault on a man in a bar. He later offered the victim cash for his silence and was charged with witness tampering. The victim in that case did not return calls from KING 5. Burkett pleaded guilty to lesser charges last year and was sentenced to home detention.
Home monitoring companies aren’t licensed in Washington state and there are few, if any, state laws that regulate them.
Although Northwest Home Monitoring told Lewis County authorities that they did not “condone” Knutter’s handling of the Burkett case and had fired him, Washington state licensing records indicate that Knutter works as a bail bond agent for Northwest Surety Bail Bonds – Northwest Home Monitoring’s parent company.
Word of Lewis County’s problems with Northwest Home Monitoring did not reach officials in the county to the north until the KING 5 Investigators contacted them.
“I have not heard of this issue until today,” said Thurston County District Court Presiding Judge Brett Buckley.
After reviewing records obtained by KING 5, Judge Buckley said he was “significantly concerned” and would speak with Thurston County’s other judges about it.
Thurston County gives approved defendants the option of choosing from more than a half-dozen private monitoring companies and says he’s had no complaints or concerns about any of them until now.
“We’re going to evaluate whether we’re going to continue using Northwest Home Monitoring,” said Judge Buckley.
KING 5 has exposed problems in other jurisdictions as well. A man called “Red” demonstrated how he’d snapped off his GPS tracking bracelet and was free to leave his home undetected. The Fife Municipal Court, which handles an electronic home monitoring program for several cities, launched an investigation after that story.
And the KING 5 Investigators found that sex offender Samuel McDonough cut off his GPS tracking bracelet four times before he stole the Victoria Clipper passenger ferry from its moorings in Seattle last year.