A man charged in 2013 for sexually assaulting his daughter when she was a girl had his case tossed out of court because his arrest warrant sat unserved for three years in the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office.
Superior Court Judge Bill Houser dismissed the first-degree child molestation charge in December 2016, ruling that authorities had violated the man’s right to a speedy trial by charging him and then failing to arrest him. The disclosure of the sexual assault came years after the alleged victim had left her father's house and became an adult.
No explanation for the failure was given in court records, no official investigation was conducted to determine what went wrong and no county employee has been held accountable.
The dismissal was not appealed to a higher court, and the case received no public notice until a recent review by the Kitsap Sun.
Authorities blamed for failure
Neither the Sheriff’s Office nor the county prosecutor took responsibility for the failure, but Houser placed full responsibility at the feet of authorities.
“The state was negligent in the processing of this arrest warrant,” Houser wrote in his December 2016 order. “The state is entirely responsible for the delay in this case.”
The alleged victim received a form letter in the mail saying the case had been dismissed but received no explanation from prosecutors, detectives or her county-funded advocate. She didn’t learn why the case had been dismissed until the Kitsap Sun contacted her and a reporter explained what happened.
Sheriff Gary Simpson and Prosecutor Tina Robinson told the Kitsap Sun their offices would put into place a process to attempt to keep another serious case from falling through the cracks.
Alleged victim wanted 'justice'
Giving interviews to police and then three years later with her father’s defense attorney was painful, the alleged victim said, but she wanted to see her father prosecuted.
“It wouldn’t make it right, but at least I would know there was justice done and he can’t do it to anyone else,” she said.
The Kitsap Sun does not generally identify alleged victims of sexual assault. She is now married with two children living in another state.
Since her father is no longer charged with a crime – and the charge cannot be refiled – the Kitsap Sun is not publishing his name.
He denied sexually assaulting his daughter, according to court documents.
Detectives interviewed the suspect at his house in East Bremerton, where he remained during the three years while the warrant sat at the Sheriff’s Office. He received government disability benefits at the address during this time and apparently made no effort to avoid arrest.
Detectives also oversaw a “voice stress” test of the suspect, which found he may have lied when denying he assaulted his daughter, according to Sheriff’s Office reports.
'Happenstance' eventually leads to arrest
Detective Lt. Jon Van Gesen, who was not overseeing detectives at the time of the investigation in 2013, said the office is constantly entering warrants into a database, which has thousands of outstanding warrants on file, many of which are for minor crimes.
If police officers believe they have reason to make an arrest they will, but in other cases, they forward their reports to prosecutors to review for charging and obtaining an arrest warrant.
Typically, detectives anticipate prosecutors obtaining arrest warrants through direct communication between a detective and a deputy prosecutor, something that apparently did not happen in this case. Other times those with active warrants are arrested through “happenstance,” Van Gesen said, such as officers pulling them over for a traffic infraction and then running the suspect’s name through the warrant database.
In this case, three years later, the U.S. State Department notified the suspect about the warrant when he applied for a passport renewal, prompting him to contact the Sheriff’s Office.
Several detectives worked on the case, but Van Gesen said he didn't believe the breakdown occurred because of the number of investigators, as each case has a lead officer.
Houser’s dismissal of the case could have been appealed, but instead, prosecutors let the case go.
Chief Deputy Prosecutor Chad Enright said Houser did not abuse his discretion in dismissing the case.
Although prosecutors disagreed with his ruling, Enright said appealing the case could have had unintended consequences that would have made prosecuting similar cases more difficult in the future.
“We generally don’t appeal cases we don’t think we are going to win,” Enright said.
'He's a monster'
The woman said after she reached a certain age her father stopped sexually assaulting her and began physically abusing her. She claimed he threatened her, saying if she reported the abuse she would never see her younger brother again.
“He’s not just a pedophile,” she said. “He’s a monster, a beast.”
She learned her father had been arrested when her uncle contacted her.
The uncle urged her in Facebook messages to “call authorities” and have them release her father from jail. She provided screenshots of the messages from her uncle to the Kitsap Sun.
She said she called the Sheriff’s Office and told somebody about the messages – she does not recall who she spoke to – but was told the Sheriff's Office could not do anything as her father didn’t contact her directly.
“They dismissed it,” the alleged victim said.
Through the state’s Public Records Act, the Kitsap Sun requested Sheriff’s Office documents on the case. The documents provided did not include a report that the victim had called and told a deputy about the contact from her uncle.
Warrant was signed, then sat
The case started when the woman told an employee about the abuse while she received pregnancy care at a Planned Parenthood clinic in California before the birth of her second child. A law enforcement officer in California contacted her next and alerted the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office in June 2013, which then opened its investigation.
Once the reports were sent to prosecutors, the charge was filed and a District Court judge signed the arrest warrant on Sept. 13, 2013. Prosecutors then delivered the warrant to the Sheriff’s Office, where it sat.
“In my eyes, the state of Washington had failed me so hard, because as soon as I mentioned this is California, they acted,” she said during the telephone interview.
The deputy prosecutor who charged the suspect in 2013 and argued against dismissal in 2016, Kellie Pendras, wrote in court documents that two hard copies of the warrant were placed in a pick-up basket for the Sheriff’s Office and that verbal notification was also given to the Warrants Division in the Sheriff's Office.
Once the warrant arrived there, Sheriff's Office employees entered it into the database. They did not notify the investigators who worked on the case.
Pendras now supervises District Court prosecutors but at the time reviewed police reports and filed charges. She said an assistant in the office gave the verbal notification. She said there was nothing unusual about how she charged the case, obtained the arrest warrant or turned it over to the Sheriff’s Office.
“That’s just how we would process the chargings,” Pendras said.
The time delay of three years alone could have prevented the suspect from receiving a fair trial. However, a relative who lived in the suspect's East Bremerton house during the time of the alleged assaults died while the warrant sat.
“Her testimony might have been useful to the defendant in his ability to support his defense … ” Houser wrote about how the delay prejudiced the defendant. “Unfortunately, because of the delay in this case, we will never know how her information would have helped or hindered the defense …”
Suspect turned himself in
The suspect was arrested because in 2016 he applied for a passport renewal. The U.S. State Department notified him that he was ineligible because of an outstanding felony warrant from 2013. He then contacted the Sheriff’s Office to ask about the warrant and was told to come into the office. When he reported to the office days later, Sept. 6, 2016, he was arrested.
“There is no indication in the court record that anything would have changed had he not contacted the Sheriff’s Office,” wrote Tim Kelly, the suspect's attorney.
First-degree child molestation is a class A felony, the most serious type of crime in state law. Kelly wrote in court documents that during the years the warrant sat in the Sheriff’s Office, other children were in the man’s house. Kelly declined to comment.
Both Simpson and Robinson noted that the investigation and charging occurred before they were in office. Both were elected at the end of 2014 and took office in the beginning of 2015. However, the warrant sat for about a year-and-a-half while both were the elected leaders of their departments.
Robinson said her office was looking into ways to ensure serious cases would not fall through the cracks when warrants were turned over to the Sheriff’s Office. She said that effort was not prompted by this case but was started shortly after she took office.
Enright said deputy prosecutors now email officers directly to alert them when they obtain arrest warrants.
“This victim was let down,” Robinson said. “I wish we could fix that for her, but unfortunately we can’t.”
Simpson said the failure came when prosecutors didn’t tell detectives a warrant had been signed by a judge.
“What failed at the time was it was just sent to the Warrants Division, rather than communicating personally that this is something that we should follow up on,” Simpson said.
Simpson said he spoke to Robinson about solutions, including direct communication between prosecutors and detectives when a warrant for a serious crime is issued and said it was "highly doubtful" it would happen again.