Project 99: Problems along road are more than police alone can handle

LYNNWOOD — The two-story home that bumps up against an elementary school playground appears innocuous enough as the police cars roll up. No need for lights or sirens. Just a long, loud, unrelenting knock on the front door of the house that, at first glance, blends into the suburban landscape.

The visit, like others before it, comes unannounced. It’s a spot inspection from an unusual and little-known team of cops, code enforcers and social workers trying a different approach to reining in crime.

It takes a few minutes before a gaunt, middle-aged man in a baseball cap opens the door.

He knows the drill and rounds up the five people inside.

The home, years into foreclosure, has been a haven for drug users and the bane of the neighborhood.

Over the summer, several tons of garbage were removed from the back yard. A shed was infested with rats that roamed onto the fringes of the Olivia Park Elementary School grounds. Used syringes littered the yard. Five-gallon containers were filled with urine.

Inside, the home was equally squalid.

“A wood tent” is how one veteran Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy describes it.

The walk up the stained carpet on the staircase reveals the shell of what once was a stable home.

The floors are stripped down to the plywood. Copper pipes have been cut from the walls and sold. Gone, too, are the toilets and cabinets. Rooms are separated by thin curtains.

The doors fetched $5 each; the pipe, $3 a pound. Drug money has to come from somewhere.

One bedroom is intact. The house has no water or plumbing. It does have internet access. On a wall in front of a computer is a large American flag.

On the opposite wall at the head of the bed is a color photo of four young men in football uniforms — all linebackers from a junior college team in North Dakota more than a quarter century ago. A strapping blond figure wears the number 93 across his chest.

“That’s me,” the haggard man in the baseball cap confirms.

Life wasn’t always as it is now.

He’d once been married. That lasted 14 years. He’d made a good living flipping houses in King County until the market crashed and he filed for bankruptcy. He wasn’t working, which left plenty of time for a methamphetamine habit to consume him.

How can he live like this?

“I think I’m almost used to it,” he said. “It seems pretty sad. I don’t think I see it in the true light of day.”

Strategic approach

The visit is short, one of many stops Project 99 will make this sunny fall day. The unlikely team of cops and civilians is trying a new approach to an age-old problem.

The original intent was to try to clean up neighborhoods and businesses along a crime-riddled stretch of Highway 99. Strategies honed along the urban thoroughfare are now used throughout Snohomish County.

What is remarkable about the loosely-connected group is its make-up.

Alongside the deputies, detectives and drug cops are county code enforcement officers and social workers from Catholic Community Services. Also available are fire marshals and mental health workers as well the Snohomish Health District, Child Protective Services, the Attorney General’s Office and anyone else whose expertise and regulatory authority can be tapped.

The philosophy is simple: they can be much more effective working together than by themselves.

“We can’t simply arrest our way out of this problem,” said sheriff’s Lt. Rob Palmer, the south precinct commander.

Before Palmer became a cop, he was a Marine. Before he was a Marine, he was a kid growing up in Lynnwood. His first job was cleaning cages and fish tanks at Dave’s Lynnwood Petland on Highway 99 in the 1970s.

The work of Project 99 is important to him.

Sometimes that means taking the scenic tour of drug houses or wandering into the woods and talking to the tent people. There are meetings with business owners weary of drug deals near their store fronts or car break-ins in their lots. There are neighbors looking for relief from property thefts and the stench of mounting mounds of trash next door. There are cars and RVs that haven’t moved in days on public streets. They must be tagged with “move or lose” stickers.

“This is not a law enforcement issue,” said Cmdr. Pat Slack, who heads up the Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force, an integral part of Project 99. “This is a society issue.”

Slack is one of the longest-tenured law enforcement officers in the county. In 45 years on the beat, he has come to realize that crime can have deep and complex roots, which explains why he now serves on two homeless committees.

With Project 99, he is tinkering with a formula he hopes will provide more meaningful results than the catch-and-release status quo. He desperately wants to break the cycle.

Beyond arrests

It is early morning in south Everett when drug and gang task force Sgt. David Chitwood leads a Project 99 briefing before their patrol begins.

“The point is not just to arrest people,” he said. “It’s to give them options, to show them that treatment and housing is available.”

The first stop is a home southeast of Everett that has been a problem for years. There, they find Aaron Frye. Five years ago, he was an all-conference running back at Cascade High School. These days, he’s banned from the house.

The officers talk to him in the driveway. He is cordial, even when they tell him it is time to move on and cite him for trespassing. He walks down the street carrying a basketball in one hand and rolling his luggage by his side. An acoustic guitar is strapped to the black baggage.

The second stop is a double-wide mobile home at the bottom of a hill. The front yard — once buried in trash — is now clean, with the exception of two presumably stolen shopping carts.

A woman with black hair bolts out a back window.

In the driveway is a Chrysler. A puddle of brown vomit is inches away from the passenger-side door. The creator of the rank deposit lies motionless in the backseat. It takes Chitwood a minute or two of tapping then banging on the window for the man to stir. He hands over his driver’s license and falls back to sleep.

They may be checking on garbage, but they also are sending a message: They are watching and they will be back.

Later they stop by a gray house off Lincoln Way. There is reason to believe progress has been made. Piles of trash have been removed.

Then, an officer knocks on the door and the goodwill is gone in a haze of heroin smoke.

Six people are removed from the house while several kittens frolic in a front garden.

The homeowner is handcuffed. Slack has built a fatherly rapport with the young man, as he has with many others. He doesn’t hide his disappointment and has no patience for his many apologies.

“We are busting our asses to help you,” Slack said. “You need to go to jail.”

Which he did — for investigation of keeping a drug house.

The state Department of Transportation later stopped by to cut back brush that hid the house.

Valerie Hickok, a Catholic Community Services social worker, uses the opportunity to talk with the others, all suspected drug users. She encourages them to call her.

She is a recovering addict who understands first-hand the self-loathing and hopelessness of the people she meets.

The day is a success. Three people call her back. She knows the road to sobriety begins with baby steps.

A shift to drug

From his restaurant and pub off 128th Street SE just east of I-5, Shawn O’Donnell has had plenty of time to observe the ebb and flow of street life.

He’s convinced things are getting worse.

“It’s four or five times the problem that it once was,” O’Donnell said on a drizzly Friday afternoon in October. “It used to be drunks, but now we have drug addicts.”

The proof is plentiful in the woods nearby. Plastic syringe caps and used needles are scattered on the forest floor. Garbage piles up in spots.

Palmer tells a 35-year-old woman in a tent she needs to move on. He is kind, but firm, asking her questions in the hope that he can steer her to permanent housing.

Another trail leads to a tent beneath a large cedar. Duquayne “Duke” Pfeiffer is also told to leave. He’s been living there for two years. At 53, he’s a grandfather and seldom-employed house painter. He gets by “flyin’ sign,” street slang for holding a cardboard placard asking for money.

His campsite is tidy. He recycles his beer cans.

Like O’Donnell, Pfeiffer sees a changing demographic with an influx of heroin addicts in the woods.

“There isn’t much I can do about it,” he said.

Lt. Palmer has company beneath the spindly firs, alders and maples. Jonelle Fenton-Wallace, an environmental inspector with the health district, wears a fluorescent orange safety vest and documents the illegal dumping with a point-and-shoot camera.

A bigger encampment just north of Lynnwood next to Beverly Elementary School earlier was targeted for cleanup.

Neighbor Cindy Lee estimates that 30 people lived there at one time or another. What troubled her most were the used syringes.

“It was scary, she said. “I feel sorry for the homeless but not when they are leaving behind hypodermic needles.”

The owner wound up clearing the land.

CindyKay Webster is the property manager for Miller Property Investments, which owns an interior supply business and several other parcels along Highway 99. They and their tenants, including three used auto dealerships, have been hit hard by thieves and vandals.

“I have been here… for 20 plus years and have dealt with drugs, tagging, prostitution and other crimes but I’ve never seen it this bad,” she said.

Webster believes cheap and abundant heroin is to blame for the upsurge.

She worked with Project 99 and tried to start a business block watch program, but couldn’t generate enough interest. She wants to see Project 99 succeed.

“I am still willing to help,” she said.

Making a difference

Project 99 has no full-time staff. Instead, people are called on an as-needed basis.

Yet its influence can’t be overstated.

It began in July 2013. Some of the first drug houses were found by following the trails of discarded needles like bread crumbs.

The project has brought relief to areas overrun by squatters. Perhaps no neighborhood is more grateful than the 3300 block of 156th Street SW. That’s where dozens of people took over property belonging to an absentee landowner in her 80s.

They occupied the house and three outbuildings. At one point, there were several RVs parked on the half acre, where clothes were dried on cars and visitors watched their step for human waste. Health and safety regulators obtained a permit to demolish the house. Several dump truck loads of garbage were removed.

Information gleaned on the street through Project 99 also led to the arrest of James Painter, a Shoreline man now charged in a major heroin-dealing operation that spilled into Snohomish County. Police hauled in about 26 pounds of high-quality heroin with a street value of more than $1 million.

Investigators also confiscated more than a half-million dollars in suspected drug money. Prosecutors allege Painter’s supply came directly from Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel.

Palmer and Slack both point with hope to the North Sound RV Park between Highway 99 and 35th Avenue.

Historically, it has been a nexus of crime and drug activity. It, and similar parks, became an early priority for Project 99.

Mike Ewing is a soft-spoken man with a love of ballroom dancing. A big factor in the decision to buy the property in 2011 was that it included the Hayloft, a popular local dance hall.

What he underestimated was the crime in the area and the transient population passing through the park.

Slack didn’t hesitate raising his concerns and Ewing wasn’t shy about accepting help. At times it seemed a bit overwhelming.

“Can you imagine owning a property and having eight different departments come out?” he said.

There were community meetings and a park-wide cleanup. Landscaping was done to improve visibility. Tenants were told to be aware of who they let in. There were some evictions. Security cameras were installed; monitoring was beefed up.

These days, police calls in and around the park have subsided significantly.

Slack argues that Project 99 shows that law enforcement can’t do it alone.

“If we would put as much energy in dealing with the challenges before us as we do with being the 12th man for the Seahawks, we would be far, far ahead,” he said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446,

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