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Corrections officer in Clallam County kept job for decades, despite violations

A corrections officer, who sexually assaulted inmates in a small jail on the Olympic peninsula, kept his state prison job for years despite a slew of violations.

Taylor Mirfendereski

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Published: 6:13 AM PDT April 12, 2022
Updated: 6:11 AM PDT April 13, 2022

Editor's Note: This story contains depictions of sexual assault. 

CLALLAM BAY, Wash. — Morgan Lee was sexually assaulted by the man who was paid to protect her.

And even though she said she never wanted to see her abuser – a Forks jail guard – again, she tuned in to his virtual sentencing hearing early last year to watch as a Clallam County judge sentenced him to spend 20 months behind bars.

“He looked defeated and powerless, which is exactly how I felt,” said Lee, 38, of Shelton. “I wanted him to know that it was not right what he did to me and to anybody else.”

John Russell Gray, the corrections officer who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting Lee and three other women while they were inmates at the Forks Correctional Facility in 2019, had a thick disciplinary record and at least two dozen complaints against him over his 24-year career as a corrections officer.

Yet, officials at nearly every level — from the city of Forks to the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and Gray’s local corrections union — repeatedly made decisions that allowed the predator to remain on the job as a guard, with power over a vulnerable population, a three-month KING 5 investigation found.  

Credit: Courtesy of Clallam County
John Russell Gray (far left) stands next to his criminal defense attorney on Feb. 2, 2021 during his Clallam County court sentencing hearing, which was broadcasted over Zoom.

Reporters scoured thousands of pages of disciplinary records, city and state documents, law enforcement records, and internal emails between Gray’s union representative and prison staff. The documents were obtained from public disclosure requests or provided to KING 5 by an attorney representing the family of a fifth alleged victim in a federal lawsuit against the city of Forks. 

Before Gray’s short stint as a Forks jail guard in 2019, he worked for more than two decades as a corrections officer at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center, an adult male prison located about 30 miles north of the city of Forks. As a guard there, he faced repeated discipline – from letters of reprimand to suspensions – for misconduct that included racism toward coworkers, vulgarity toward offenders, security breaches and sexual harassment. Gray, 53, was fired from his prison job at one point only to later be reinstated, according to DOC records. 

Credit:
John Gray worked as a correctional officer at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center in Clallam Bay, Washington for nearly 25 years.

“He acted like he was bulletproof – like nothing he said or did would get him in trouble,” said Kimberly Seward, Gray’s former co-worker. “And he was pretty much right.”

The officer’s misconduct in his prison job shouldn’t have been a secret to the Forks leaders who offered him work at the small city jail. Gray consented to a complete background check after applying for the Forks job. Forks Police Chief Mike Rowley personally reviewed Gray’s DOC file four weeks before he hired him, according to a record of the people who accessed Gray’s prison file. 

Credit:
A Washington state Department of Corrections (DOC) record reveals Forks Police Chief Mike Rowley reviewed John Gray’s prison personnel file before hiring him to work as a jail guard at the Forks Correctional Facility.

And even after the city of Forks fired Gray eight months into his job at the jail, his career as a corrections officer wasn’t over. Within five months, the state brought him back on as a full-time guard at the Clallam Bay prison and – state records note – he got a raise.  

The DOC, the city of Forks and an attorney for John Gray declined KING 5’s requests for interviews. No one from the city of Forks responded to questions. 

A DOC spokesperson said the agency followed its protocol throughout the course of Gray’s prison employment, and prison officials were not immediately clued in to his misconduct in Forks.