By Scott North and Rikki King Herald Writers
EVERETT — A troubled Lake Stevens police officer who is working under a “last-chance” employment agreement has credibility issues serious enough that Snohomish County prosecutors were compelled to disclose details to the lawyer defending a man accused in the fatal shooting of a Seattle teen.
Meanwhile, Lake Stevens police are conducting a fresh internal investigation involving two members of the force.
No names or details about the new investigation have been released, but the patrol officers are listed as witnesses in the first-degree murder prosecution of Erick N. Walker, city administrator Jan Berg said. She declined to provide other details.
“I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation,” she said.
It’s been a rough year for the Lake Stevens Police Department. The police chief left under a cloud in November, followed by a string of high-profile complaints about officer misconduct. The June 1 shooting of Molly Conley, 15, was a shock only lessened by a quick arrest.
Now there are indications that the department’s problems are complicating the case.
On Thursday, deputy prosecutor Ed Stemler joined Walker’s attorney, Mark Mestel, in asking a Snohomish County judge to lift a court order that limited what the defense could do with information regarding the credibility of Lake Stevens police officer James Wellington.
Stemler told Superior Court Judge Millie Judge that he no longer thought it feasible to try to keep the information about the officer protected.
After the hearing, Stemler continued to decline to discuss the allegations or to even publicly identify the officer.
Mestel said prosecutors had given him formal notice regarding concerns about Wellington.
The officer’s problems on the force were uncovered and reported by The Herald after his behavior during a June 2011 arrest led to a $100,000 settlement in a civil rights lawsuit.
Among other things, public records show Wellington was the focus of at least six internal investigations between 2009 and 2012 and is working for the force under a “last-chance” employment agreement.
A former Lake Stevens police chief also wrote that he found Wellington “unreliable and untrustworthy” and prone to half-truths.
The case against Walker relies heavily on forensic evidence, and that always brings into question the actions of police and the chain of custody, Mestel said.
“If you’re dealing with the integrity of people who are part of the chain, obviously that’s an important issue,” he said.
Walker, 27, of Marysville, is accused of spending much of a night in June shooting at cars, houses, and a group of teenage girls that included Molly, who was a freshman attending Bishop Blanchet High School in Seattle.
The girl was celebrating her 15th birthday with friends when she was fatally shot while walking back from a Lake Stevens park.
Prosecutors allege that Conley’s killing was part of a violent spree that “exhibited extreme indifference to human life.” They’ve charged Walker with first-degree murder and four counts of drive-by shooting.
Walker allegedly is linked to the violence by bullet fragments recovered at some of the shooting scenes and paint chips left after the shooter’s vehicle clipped a parked car.
Walker’s trial is scheduled for January. If convicted, the aerospace worker could face decades in prison.
Conley’s killing and the other shootings were investigated by a team of detectives and crime scene experts from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, Marysville, Lake Stevens and the Washington State Patrol.
The prosecution’s witness list includes Wellington and at least nine other Lake Stevens officers.
Under case law, prosecutors are required to provide the defense with information regarding any problems with the credibility of police officer witnesses.
Wellington’s work problems were severe enough that the city considered firing him, but he instead was allowed to remain on the force under a last-change agreement with the city. It remains in effect, Berg said Thursday.
Records obtained by The Herald earlier this year showed the police officers guild dropped a labor grievance as part of that agreement.
The department remains without a police chief. City staff have conducted several rounds of seeking applications and recruiting but none of the candidates panned out, some failing to meet basic requirements.
The most recent search ended without success within the past few weeks, Berg said.
“The mayor is going to take the next couple of months to look at options before he decides the next steps,” she said.
After the previous chief left, the department was hit with a series of high-profile officer discipline issues. In August, Berg and police Cmdr. Dan Lorentzen, who has served as interim chief, announced they were adopting new policies and creating a new Division of Professional Standards.
The changes made over the past couple of months are working, Berg said. The current internal investigation is part of that, she said.
“When this potential violation of policy occurred, it was immediately brought to the attention of the commander and the chief, and (new policies) to make sure anything going wrong is caught immediately, worked. Now, the potential concern can go through the process,” she said.
In 2012, Wellington was the focus of simultaneous internal investigations for allegedly sending a threatening e-mail about the city’s top administrator, and being prosecuted for a drunken disturbance inside a hotel at Yellowstone National Park. Other investigations have focused on showing up at work smelling of booze, abusing sick leave and misusing his city uniform allowance to purchase a backup handgun.
The mayor’s proposed budget for 2014 converts a current sergeant position into a lieutenant position that would run the division of professional standards, Berg said Thursday. The lieutenant would not be a member of the police union and the position’s duties would include investigating complaints about officers.
If the new position is approved in the final budget due out later this year, the job will be advertised inside and outside the department, Berg said. The city in 2012 considered contracting with the sheriff’s office for police services but ultimately decided against it.
Scott North: 425-339-3431; firstname.lastname@example.org.