Cop Watch

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Conduct Unbecoming: The case is killed

This is the third of three parts. See Part One and Part Two.

"Justice was served," King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng insisted. But few others involved in the investigation of former King County Sheriff's Deputy Dan Ring would agree.

In short order, Ring went from facing a felony trial and a firing recommendation to a prosperous retirement -- disgusting and demoralizing the rank-and-file investigators and prosecutors who pursued him, as well as many of his fellow King County officers.


By mid-2003, the clandestine investigation had been under way for nearly two years, and there was no end in sight. Investigators were still chasing down leads on several fronts -- allegations that the veteran intelligence-unit detective had bought drugs, stolen money from an old man, helped prostitutes evade prosecution and stalked his ex-wife using law-enforcement computers.

So when higher-ups made a decision that the drug case would be dropped, it was a disappointment to the investigators.

Far bigger disappointments would follow.

The decision on the drug case was the first indication that the cops on the street were viewing the Ring case far differently from their superiors in the Sheriff's Office and the county prosecutor's office.

Everybody agreed the case would have been stronger if drugs had been seized, but a sting operation that would lure Ring into a drug deal was rendered impossible when Ring's boss, Sgt. Ray Green, alerted him to his wife's internal-affairs complaint of drug use and assault, several investigators said. Green said he doesn't recollect doing that.

"I can't recall ever prosecuting a case where we didn't have a controlled substance," said King County's Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Mark Larson.

Mark Larsen
ZoomPaul Joseph Brown / P-I
"I think there was this notion, 'What if he were just to resign?' " King County Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Mark Larson says. "What if he just left? ... I think that was a good outcome, on the merits."

Acknowledging it was a tough call, lower-level prosecutors and investigators still argued that if homicides can be prosecuted without a body, then drug charges against someone in a sensitive position such as Ring could be pursued without drugs in evidence.

"We had a lot of circumstantial evidence," said Seattle police Sgt. Mike Hay, who had helped put the drug case together. "That evidence included the person that set up the transaction, and the person that completed the transaction with (Ring) on several occasions. And we did have cell phone evidence, as well. We also had his wife telling us they had consumed the drugs, and that the purchases were made."

The abandonment of drug charges was just the beginning. By early 2004, the FBI would be excluded from the inquiry, the lead King County investigator would be ousted and the case would be hurried and pared down to two charges, theft and stalking. A year later, after promoting prostitution and official misconduct were added, the entire case would be killed.

Former Sheriff Dave Reichert admitted he was feeling impatient with the Ring case as it continued through the fall of 2003. The congressman didn't recall exactly when he pushed to end the investigation, but said, "I do remember being very frustrated with the time frame."

Reichert's political stock was skyrocketing. Many mentioned the possibility of higher political office for him as the world-famous Green River serial murder case came to a successful conclusion under his leadership.

By December 2003, Reichert was making behind-the-scenes arrangements with a publisher to write a book about the Green River case with a ghostwriter, a book that would portray Reichert as a dogged lead investigator while the FBI was described as an impediment in the case.

Soon he would be running for Congress. Reichert had previously been touted as a potential candidate for governor, but when U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn decided not to run for re-election from the district where Reichert lived, his political path was clear.

Pressure to wrap it up

December and January saw major changes in the Ring investigation, instituted by Reichert and his top administrators.

Two new investigators were added to the case, fraud-unit Detectives Robin Ostrum, a specialist in domestic violence, and Ed Ka. Also added to the mix was Capt. Mitzi Johanknecht, then section commander of criminal investigations.

Previously, the investigators had reported up a chain of command to Chief Fae Brooks.

Reichert wanted the case wrapped up quickly -- perhaps too quickly.

Some said Johanknecht had to intervene to buy her investigators more time. The fraud investigators were new to the case, and needed time to reinterview people, and there were still holes.

Johanknecht declined to take credit for that, but said, speaking hypothetically: "I would have communicated with the sheriff and my chief at the time to say, 'This is where we are in the investigation, and here is what we need.' We would have reached a compromise to meet the needs of the investigation and the detectives."

In mid-January, just before Ring was arrested, investigators recall a meeting where Reichert announced that the FBI no longer would be involved in the Ring case. He asked whether federal charges were contemplated and when the obvious answer was no, he said the agency wouldn't be needed anymore.

Dropping the FBI led to agent Gary Pilawski being ousted from the case after two years of work.

Days later, Johanknecht and others announced at another meeting the plan for Ring's arrest, and Pilawski and his King County counterpart, Sgt. Rob Mathis, were shocked to discover they weren't included in the plans.

"It was my impression that we were essentially cut out of the investigation," said Mark Ferbrache, supervisory special agent in charge of the FBI's Seattle public corruption and white-collar crime squad. "We were through. It was over."

"I don't remember that at all," Reichert said. "I don't know what you are talking about. As far as I knew, when I left the Sheriff's Office, the FBI was involved in the investigation. My only frustration with the FBI was that they were taking too long."

Records indicate the FBI's active role in the investigation came to an abrupt end in January 2004, nearly a year before Reichert left the department, though testimony by the lead agent would still be needed.

'What happened?'

Mathis, of the Sheriff's Office, was also gone. "I gave it everything," said Mathis, who spent two years on the investigation, with the last six months full time. "I've been a cop almost 20 years and I've never been treated the way I was treated.

"Every step of the way I did what I was told and reported everything I did. One day I'm removed and I'm not told anything,"

"I had detectives coming up to me and asking 'What happened?' and I can't give them an answer," added Mathis, who was ultimately transferred from internal affairs to patrol with a cut in pay.

"Rob did a tremendous job," the SPD's Hay said. "He was a pit bull. I felt he knew this case inside and out. I felt personally it was a substantial blow to the case when he was removed."

"It was my impression that Rob was kicked to the curb like the red-headed kid," Ostrum said.

Hay added that the other investigators on the case -- Ostrum and Ka included -- did "an outstanding job. I don't want anybody to say they screwed this case up, because they didn't."

Ferbrache said there wasn't much the FBI could do when it was pushed out, because it had been invited by Reichert in the first place to participate in the investigation. Also, the potential crimes uncovered were state, not federal, law violations. But he wanted to know why the FBI was cut out. Pilawski then asked Johanknecht to explain.

"She just said this is the way we are going to do it," Ferbrache recalled. "There was no attempt to explain to my agent the reason for their decision. I felt entitled to an explanation because we had spent considerable time and resources in the matter, at their request."

When asked by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Johanknecht said she couldn't recall the meeting where Reichert cut out the FBI without going back and "looking at the particulars."

Asked to do so, she said, "I don't keep records or notes when I'm at a meeting. I'm an auditory learner."

Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. John Urquhart confirmed that Reichert kicked the FBI -- and Mathis -- off the case. He said the reason was Reichert's concern over how long the investigation was taking.

Reichert bristled when a reporter asked him whether his political future played any role in his desire to put the Ring investigation on a fast track.

"It makes me absolutely sick to my stomach that people would point at Dave Reichert, after 33 years in the King County Sheriff's Office, almost losing my life," he said. "To have someone even ask that question of me, it's offensive, very offensive."

Arrest at the airport

The FBI still had a cameo role the day of Ring's arrest. An agent was monitoring the undercover camera aimed at Ring's house from a telephone pole early that morning when he noticed Ring was going to his car, with his girlfriend Rebecca Rose, carrying a suitcase. The agent tried to warn King County deputies, but for unknown reasons the person he called wasn't where he expected her to be. Deputies following Ring lost him.

The night before, Ring had been instructed by his boss, Green, to report at 7 a.m. for a meeting at the Sheriff's Office, where sheriff's officers planned to arrest Ring. Ring called back later that evening to tell Green there was a family emergency in California, and that he would be flying south. Airlines were alerted to notify the county if Ring tried to board a flight.

He was arrested in the Southwest Airlines baggage claim area early on the morning of Jan. 28, 2004. He said very little to investigators after the arrest, though he was heard muttering "pernicious" under his breath -- a term he had used for his ex-wife, Janine Taylor.

Ring was charged on Jan. 30, in King County Superior Court, with first-degree theft for allegedly swindling an elderly Seattle man named Orie John "O.J." Morrison, and attempted stalking for searching for his ex-wife Taylor. He was released on $100,000 bail, and continued to receive his $80,000-a-year pay pending trial.

Early on after charges were filed, the prosecutor's office played its case against Ring like it was a sure winner, prevailing on every key motion argued before the judge.

Six months after charges were filed, the prosecutor's office sent Ring's attorney, Richard Hansen, a letter threatening to add new charges against Ring of conspiracy to promote prostitution and official misconduct if Ring didn't plead guilty to theft and attempted stalking, for each of which he would receive 90 days in jail, to be served consecutively.

Ring didn't bite.

"Attempted stalking is like walking into a grocery store and being arrested for thinking about shoplifting," he said.

When the criminal charges were filed, the King County Sheriff's Office also launched a new internal investigation into Ring's behavior. The new inquiry looked at a slew of his alleged transgressions against the badge, including dishonesty, criminal conduct, conduct unbecoming, failure to obey laws and orders, inappropriate use of authority, ethics violations, misuse of his department vehicle and misuse of Internet and e-mail.

On Oct. 28, 2004, internal investigations Capt. Cameron K. Webster recommended that Ring be placed on unpaid leave, which was initially approved and then rescinded a short time later because of objections from the King County Police Officers Guild.

'Clear and convincing'

Webster wrote in his report that there was "clear and convincing evidence" of 15 misconduct allegations against Ring.

Sue Rahr
ZoomPaul Joseph Brown / P-I
"I decided to enter into the settlement agreement because it was the only way to guarantee (Dan Ring) would not be a police officer again," Sheriff Sue Rahr says. "... I wasn't willing to take the risk of having this guy back."

The case was still pending when Reichert was elected to Congress in November 2004, handpicking Sue Rahr as his interim replacement. She was then the field operations chief.

Reichert didn't do anything to discipline Ring before he left office, but he claimed he would have canned him had he not run out of time.

"When I left, my intent was to fire him," Reichert said. "I hate to be in disagreement with the sheriff (Rahr). She may have more information than I did when I left. When I left it was my feeling they should go forward with the charges that they had. I believe he should have been charged."

A few weeks after Rahr was appointed sheriff on Jan. 18, 2005, King County prosecutors filed amended criminal charges against Ring. They added conspiracy to promote prostitution in the second degree for the frequent assistance he gave to two Seattle-area escort services, and official misconduct for using restricted databases to hunt for Taylor and gather information on others. Detectives Ostrum and Ka, as well as others, had continued to work on the escort-service angle during 2004.

Key to understanding what happened next is recognizing that the Ring investigation was being pursued on two fronts: The criminal investigation and the internal Sheriff's Office inquiry.

Law enforcement departments usually let the criminal investigation run its course before taking an internal investigation to a hearing, but in this case it was done in reverse.

Seattle Police Officers Guild Vice President Rich O'Neill said such hearings on internal investigations cases in his department almost always are held only after any parallel criminal case against an officer has gone to trial.

Told generally about how, in the Ring case, that sequence occurred in reverse, O'Neill, a 25-year police officer, said: "Wow. That's different. I've never heard of that before."

Call for firing fails

The internal investigation was brought to a hearing before Rahr on March 28, a month before Ring's trial was to begin. That became a turning point for Ring.

Webster's investigation had been reviewed by Criminal Investigations Division Chief Pat Lee, and just three weeks before the hearing, Lee had recommended forcefully that Rahr fire Ring. He sustained all but one of Webster's allegations.

Lee, a 30-year veteran, wrote that Ring's "pattern of behavior ... was not commensurate with the core values of the sheriff's department."

But at the hearing, Rahr contravened Lee's recommendation. She sustained 10 of the 15 allegations against Ring. They included conduct unbecoming for his actions the night he showed up at escort-service operator Lisa Gorrin's doorstep drunk, distraught and demanding a bath; inappropriate use of authority for his efforts to track down Taylor and for allowing his girlfriend Rose access to a confidential undercover sheriff's mailbox; ethics violations for his relationship with Gorrin; misuse of a department vehicle in trips to Canada and misuse of department Internet and e-mail for ordering an adult video using his official computer and storing personal photos.

But allegations key to the criminal case were not sustained.

Rahr and King County Police Officer's Guild President Steve Eggert got together after the hearing to work out a settlement agreement with Ring, independent of the prosecutor's office. Rahr and Eggert had worked closely together in the past, and the sheriff said they had good rapport.

The deal would allow Ring to retire Nov. 26, after he turns 50, a delay that made him eligible for more retirement pay. Ring said it will give him $3,500 a month for life, starting as soon as he retires.

"Thirty-five hundred dollars a month the rest of my life. I can scrape by on that," he said.

Robin Ostrum
ZoomMike Urban / P-I
"I'm very dismayed. I know we had a case. I know we had probable cause," King County Sheriff's Detective Robin Ostrum says. "Nothing that we filed charges on doesn't have a mountain of documentation to back it up."

Ring would be placed on unpaid leave, but granted vacation and sick pay equivalent to his salary until Nov. 26, and he'd also receive anything left over. Ring has been receiving a full salary or its equivalent since his arrest, without working, and will continue receiving it until Thanksgiving.

King County also would pay his legal fees, which Ring's $325-an-hour attorney Richard Hansen estimated at $160,000 to $200,000. Ring had that benefit nailed down in a hearing before King County Superior Court Judge Dean Lum on Feb. 16, 2005. By King County code, any government employee charged with a crime on the job must have attorney's fees covered by the government agency they work for.

The deal also would require the county to pay Ring an additional $10,000, which roughly equaled what he had paid for bond. Ring said he had insisted during negotiations that he get some extra money.

"Nothing says I'm sorry like money, I told them," Ring said.

In return, the county would get rid of Ring, and a $2.5 million claim he'd filed against the Sheriff's Office.

He also would agree never to work as a cop in Washington again.

Rahr and others said they were concerned about recent cases where deputies had won back their jobs through arbitration after being accused of misconduct. Their alleged offenses were less serious than Ring's.

"I decided to enter into the settlement agreement because it was the only way to guarantee he would not be a police officer again," Rahr said.

Ring had a different impression of Rahr's findings. "In the very end, Sue Rahr looked at the case and said this is bullshit," Ring said. "That's what she said to the Guild president (Eggert)."

Ring said he was told that Rahr said to Eggert: "I don't know how to make Dan Ring whole again."

Rahr recalled Eggert saying that to her, not the other way around. Eggert did not return calls.

Rahr also said she is examining the intelligence unit, and changes are possible, although "I think Dan is an anomaly in that department."

A weakened case?

Down the street, deputy prosecutors were vigorously preparing their case, and Janine Taylor had been flown to Seattle once for a deposition. She was on call and ready to testify, as were others. One flaw in the case was the fact that the alleged fraud victim, O.J. Morrison, had died, but voluminous records and recorded testimony had been collected to argue that aspect of the prosecution.

After the settlement agreement was fully prepared, but still unsigned, Rahr said she told deputy prosecutor Larson about it. She also expressed her opinion regarding the weakness of the criminal case and the risk that Ring might beat it.

"I told Mark I wasn't willing to take the risk of having this guy back," she said. "I told him I had entered into a settlement agreement. We certainly had a verbal agreement."

Larson said such a discussion with the sheriff over a case like this was unusual, but it happened.

"She gave me a heads up to take a look at it. She was concerned with what she was seeing," he said.

Suddenly, the prosecutor's office wanted to talk settlement.

Larson said that with Rahr's doubts in mind -- plus his own -- he was anxious to re-examine the criminal case.

He felt a good way to do that would be to see what kind of a defense Hansen was going to present in court. Hansen is a noted defense attorney who had recently beaten the Sheriff's Office on less-serious allegations against other officers.

Hansen said Larson "called me up and said we ought to talk settlement a week or 10 days before we were set to go to trial."

Larson said it's also uncommon for him to meet with defense attorneys this way over cases. He said he does so in maybe 1 percent of the 10,000 cases handled by the prosecutor's office annually.

The pending settlement with Ring was on his mind.

"I think there was this notion, 'What if he were just to resign?' " Larson said. "What if he just left? Where does that leave us in terms of our desire to continue a prosecution?

"I think that was a good outcome, on the merits."

Hansen sent the prosecutor's office a letter on April 14 detailing how he might debunk their case.

The letter said: "We also believe, based on discussions with Guild representative Steve Eggert, that Sheriff Rahr does not want this prosecution to proceed, but would prefer that Dan Ring's situation be resolved through the internal investigation process."

"It appears that none of the ... criminal allegations will be sustained even though the burden of proof is much lower in that context than in a criminal case," the letter said.

It went further to flatly mischaracterize the FBI investigation in the case, saying: "The FBI conducted a thorough investigation of Ring before closing their file on the case after finding no criminal conduct."

"On the contrary," supervisory special agent Ferbrache said. "We developed what we all thought -- we, being the FBI -- was a strong criminal case based on the violations that he was ultimately charged with."

Hansen said if he was wrong, it was unintentional.

Larson had a 1 1/2-hour meeting with Hansen, which included the deputy prosecutors and King County Prosecutor Maleng's chief of staff Dan Satterberg. He later consulted with Maleng, and after further deliberations and examining Hansen's evidence, he decided to drop all charges against Ring with prejudice, which means they cannot be refiled. He said Hansen's letter was "useful," but it didn't sway him.

"I think (Maleng) very much appreciated the greater good and that it was a good outcome," Larson said.

"I think they (the defense) had a story to tell and multiple options to take before a jury," Larson said. "I think those things were illuminating."

"You can win every motion," Larson said. "And still lose a trial."

"I'm very disappointed and surprised that the King County prosecutor did not take a swing at this guy," Ferbrache said. "Either negotiate a guilty plea for a felony criminal conviction or take him to trial.

"I had every reason to think (deputy prosecutor) Barbara Mack felt good about this case. I wasn't given any kind of satisfactory explanation as to why they dismissed all counts."

In response, Larson said Ferbrache was taking a shot "from the cheap seats."

Larson said Mack and the other deputy prosecutor in Ring's case didn't agree with his decision.

"I don't know if they would have made the same decision," he said. "I had a sense they were ready to try the case and they may have been disappointed."

Mack said, "I thought that the case was a tryable case, absolutely. I don't prepare cases for trial and expect to lose them."

Regarding the issue of making sure Ring was no longer with the Sheriff's Office, the 19-year veteran deputy prosecutor said, "I assume had we won the trial, he would no longer be a police officer."

Maleng said that as trial approached, he, Larson and Satterberg analyzed the case and felt it was "weak." He also said he arranged the meeting between Larson and Rahr to discuss the case.

Rahr said she "would assume" that she influenced Larson's decision, but said it was his call in the end. "He's an experienced prosecutor," she said.

Norm Maleng
ZoomPaul Joseph Brown / P-I
"Justice was served. We did the best we could on this case," King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng says. "It doesn't mean that I think (Dan Ring) should be receiving benefits, a pension, et cetera. I wanted to have the badge removed."

"Justice was served," Maleng said. "We did the best we could on this case."

Asked to comment on the settlement with Ring, Maleng said, "It doesn't mean that I think he should be receiving benefits, a pension, et cetera. I wanted to have the badge removed."

On the day the trial was supposed to begin, April 25, a representative of the prosecutor's office signed Ring's settlement. Rahr, Eggert, Ring and another attorney representing Ring had signed the agreement three days earlier.

The news hit like a bomb in the Sheriff's Office, and in the remote location where Taylor was preparing to testify in the trial.

Rahr met with the entire Sheriff's Office fraud division. She said the investigators -- all of whom had some role in the case -- were universally angry at the decision.

"They felt strongly that Dan should have been criminally charged and should have been fired," the sheriff said. "They put a lot of time and hard work into that investigation."

Publicly, the prosecutor's office announced that the case was dropped in part because Morrison, the alleged theft victim, had died. He had died more than seven months earlier, on Sept. 14, 2004.

Larson also said one of the goals of the prosecutor's office was that Ring no longer be involved in law enforcement.

"That's insane on its face," Ring said. "Why would you file a criminal charge against someone to get them to retire? I would have retired on my own."

Larson said Ring's comment is nothing more than "Monday morning quarterbacking."

"I'm very dismayed. I know we had a case. I know we had probable cause. I know there were other charges that could have been looked at that weren't," fraud investigator Ostrum said. "Nothing that we filed charges on doesn't have a mountain of documentation to back it up.

"It is just kind of disheartening for me to know there was a case that could have been made and a case that could have gone to trial and could have been given a chance to go through the criminal justice system the right way -- and it didn't."

Janine Taylor said she was in bed watching a movie when Barbara Mack called with the news that all charges were dropped.

"I just got sick to my stomach," she said. "What was I thinking? He's Dan Ring. He gets away with everything. What the f--k was I thinking? Crime does pay. Nasty people. Friends in power."

"They are cowards," Taylor said of the high-level officials at the Sheriff's Office and prosecutor's office who made the decision. "It got messier and bigger and more scandalous than they counted on.

"And they chickened out."


Read the rest of this special report.