By Diana Hefley Herald Writer
Wendy Walsh thought they had forgotten her brother.
Michael Walsh — his friends called him Santa — was a bear of a man with a flowing beard. He rumbled around on 1959 Harley-Davidson and was a regular at the Spar Tree Tavern in Granite Falls.
He found his way into a few fistfights over the years and was known to brag that his dad, a Korean War veteran, was a Hells Angel.
Walsh, 47, earned his nickname playing Santa Claus for developmentally disabled children. He raised money for a sick boy and protected his younger sisters. He dug a good joke, poked fun at himself and laughed his way through life.
On a summer night in 2001, Walsh was gunned down outside a party in Arlington. His body was dumped alongside a country road. He was found by a man searching the ditches for discarded bottles and cans.
For five years his family was left to wonder who pulled the trigger and why Walsh was ripped from their lives. They didn’t think Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives cared enough to find the answers.
“In my mind, I thought they just figured he was some biker dude,” Wendy Walsh said. “But he was my protector, my friend. He was no angel, but he was a good man.”
His murder went unsolved.
It wasn’t forgotten.
Veteran homicide detectives Jim Scharf and Joe Ward identified suspects not long after Walsh was shot to death. The investigation stalled, however. Someone had gone to great lengths to strip the crime scene of evidence that might identify the shooter. People who knew what happened didn’t want to talk.
In the silence, the detectives went to work.
Scharf and Ward brought the case with them in 2005 when they, along with detective Dave Heitzman, were assigned to work full time in the sheriff’s new cold-case homicide team. The timing couldn’t have been better. A year before, Monroe police detective Barry Hatch had begun uncovering key information about people linked to the killing as part of an unrelated robbery investigation.
The Walsh case spanned years and several states. It ultimately challenged the nation’s most notorious outlaw bikers. It culminated this summer in a three-month trial featuring more than 100 witnesses, some of whom have since assumed new identities out of fear of retribution for testifying against four members of the Washington Nomads Chapter of the Hells Angels.
Last month former Hells Angel Rodney Rollness of Snohomish was sentenced to life in prison for Walsh’s murder. Joshua Binder of North Bend, also a former Hells Angel, pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges for his involvement in the shooting. He is scheduled to be sentenced next month.
Rollness, 46, denied gunning down Walsh. At sentencing, he denounced his trial as a sham choreographed by crooked cops who have been gunning for him for years. He vowed to clear his name on appeal.
A jury found Rollness guilty of a dozen crimes, including a murder in support of racketeering. Evidence showed Rollness made sure Walsh showed up at the party, then took him away and shot him multiple times. The killing apparently was motivated because Walsh had falsely claimed ties to the Hells Angels, prosecutors said.
Rollness’ conviction marked the first courtroom win for the sheriff’s office cold case unit.
“It feels great. It feels like vindication for all of those crime victims’ families who came to me pleading for a cold case squad,” Sheriff Rick Bart said. “We’re telling families we’re not giving up. We care about them, and we care about the victims.”
Unit established in 2005
Over the years, families of homicide victims pushed Bart to find the resources to assign detectives to solely investigate unsolved murders.
The families are left to grieve without answers. They wait for justice. They need someone to remember their daughters, sons, mothers and fathers.
The sheriff’s cold case squad was approved several years ago, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the sheriff’s office assigned three detectives full-time. In a rare move for police, the sheriff’s office also enlisted the help of three civilians to pore over the cases.
Scharf and Heitzman are tasked with investigating homicides or probable homicides that happened at least a year prior and aren’t assigned to a detective. Ward, the county’s longest-serving homicide detective, retired at the end of 2005. Other detectives in the major crimes unit continue to investigate unsolved homicides that are part of their active case load, Scharf said.
He and Heitzman are called out to assist in the first few hours on new homicide investigations. The sheriff’s office learned over the years to invest as much manpower as possible at the start of a murder case to increase the odds of tracking down suspects. Some detectives process the scene and collect evidence while others chase down leads. Major crimes Sgt. Sean Stich still tries to keep Scharf and Heitzman focused on the older, unsolved homicides.
The squad has identified 63 cold cases dating back to 1962. Many of the unsolved cases are from the 1970s to the early 1990s, when the sheriff’s office only had two homicide detectives. The detectives didn’t always have time to investigate a murder as thoroughly as they would have wanted, Bart said.
Bart estimates a great number of the cold cases date from the years he was one of two homicide detectives in the department. His partner for many of those years was Ward. There wasn’t always enough time to chase down every lead, he said, particularly when called out to investigate back-to-back deaths.
Those unsolved killings haunt him, Bart said.
“We’ve come a long way to dedicate a team of detectives and volunteers to work all the way through those cases,” he said. “They’re working for families — so those families can go on.”
Technology often helps
The sheriff’s office spends about $158,000 a year for the two cold-case detectives.
Scharf and Heitzman search for what may have been overlooked by the overextended detectives of the past. They screen evidence for evaluation using more advanced forensic technology, such as comparing DNA samples collected at crime scenes years ago against national databases.
Police departments around the nation are adding cold-case homicide squads hoping advances in technology and investigation techniques will help detectives solve murders.
Reconstructing the past is hard work. In Snohomish County, volunteers read over the grim details of unsolved fatal shootings, stabbings and beatings to determine if the investigative files are complete. Did everyone named in investigators’ reports provide a police statement? Is there evidence that should be sent off to the state crime lab for examination? Was anything missed?
“We’re hopeful there will be leads in these cases, something that was missed because of a lack of resources,” Scharf said.
So far, about 13 homicide files have been completely reviewed, about 20 percent of the cold cases.
“It’s a slow process,” Stich said.
Civilian volunteers Chuck Wright, Mikelle Gaines and Teresa Cox help.
The cold case detectives work one case at a time. They must prioritize the investigations based on the chances of finding the killer. They are reluctant to talk about the 63 cold cases, concerned that even a mention could raise false hope among the families of those victims whose cases the unit isn’t ready to begin to investigate. Detectives believe a systematic approach, on their terms, improves chances for solving the cold cases.
“Having an unsolved case, it’s burdensome,” Heitzman said. “It’s something that needs to be finished. It’s good to get to the truth.”
Heitzman is investigating the 2001 death of Kyle Von Rotz, 22. The Maltby man was found shot to death near his family home.
Now that the outlaw biker who shot Walsh is behind bars, Scharf will focus on another unsolved homicide.
Scharf’s work on the case won him an award from the International Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association. He says he’s just grateful Walsh’s family finally has some answers.
Case stuck with them
Scharf and Ward were the first detectives to work Walsh’s killing in 2001. They pegged Rollness as a suspect, particularly after learning he was wearing a Hells Angels “Filthy Few” patch in 2002. The patch identified Rollness as someone who had killed for the club, according to federal prosecutors.
The detectives encountered a wall of silence.
Rollness became a Hells Angel in 1997. He built a reputation for violence, thievery and exploitation. Scharf believes people were just plain scared to talk.
Monroe’s detective Hatch delivered a break in the case while he investigated a robbery involving a Monroe man, who knew Rollness and also Binder, the man who later became his co-defendant in the federal prosecution. The informant said he had been partner to some of their crimes. But the ties were broken, he told investigators, after the pair had come to his door, put a gun to his head and demanded two of his motorcycles.
The man escaped. He did what no other person had when it came to Rollness and Binder. He called police. He shared information that connected Rollness to Walsh’s death.
“It was going against everything this guy knew” to call police, Hatch said. “He was scared for his life.”
Hatch conferred with Scharf and Heitzman. They confirmed Rollness was a suspect in Walsh’s killing. Hatch began to probe deeper into the lives of Rollness and Binder. He enlisted the help of an inmate, a former Hells Angel locked up at the reformatory in Monroe. Now in a witness relocation program, the inmate directed detectives to others who allegedly heard Rollness confess to killing Walsh and had knowledge of the inner workings of the Nomads.
“All the while I was working the robbery, I was hopeful to uncover evidence (the cold case detectives) could use,” Hatch said.
FBI agents and the Washington State Patrol joined in the investigation. Detectives drove across the state to Spokane, home of the Nomads’ headquarters, more than two dozen times. They traveled to Idaho, Oregon and Montana to interview witnesses, collect evidence and build an ever-growing case against Rollness and three others.
Investigators recovered a stolen motorcycle in November 2004. It was the first physical evidence linking the men to racketeering. Detectives met with federal prosecutors a month later. They agreed to take the case.
“It opened the flood gates,” Hatch said.
A grand jury convened in the summer of 2005. Scores of witnesses who once refused to cooperate out of loyalty or intimidation were compelled under subpoena to divulge what they knew about Walsh’s death and a other crimes allegedly perpetrated by Washington state-based Hells Angels.
“Testifying against the Hells Angels — that was the last thing they wanted to do,” Hatch said.
Investigators fought against a culture where intimidation is king. Some of the witnesses knew from personal experience how the bikers bullied and threatened those who dared cross them. The murder bolstered Rollness’ reputation for violence, Hatch said. Those who testified were escorted to court by armed SWAT teams.
“It was about trust. It’s tough for these people. They know the average cop is not going to be there when someone comes knocking on their door in the middle of the night,” Hatch said. “They have to trust you enough to know if they call, you’ll be there. It took a lot of courage to tell the truth.”
Some witnesses agreed to cooperate only after the men were jailed.
By then, Rollness and Binder were no longer Hells Angels. They left the organization in 2003. In keeping with the club’s rules, the pair got rid of evidence of former ties, even having their “death head” tattoos modified. In Binder’s case, that meant getting Nordic horns inked over the skull tattoos he’d previously displayed on the sides of his head.
It wasn’t until well into the investigation that cold case detectives found what they believe was the motive for the murder.
“They wanted to earn a ‘Filthy Few’ patch,” Scharf said.
Investigators learned Rollness had spent years trying to become a Hells Angel. To him, the Hells Angels were sacred and anyone who claimed false ties deserved punishment, prosecutors wrote in court documents. When Rollness heard Walsh was claiming links to the bikers, he set out to teach him a lesson.
Prosecutors told a jury Rollness and Binder lured Walsh to a party on July 2001, confronted him and then killed him. Walsh was shot three times in the chest with two different guns. Each bullet caused fatal damage, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Miyake said on the day Rollness was sentenced to life in prison.
“Every shot, a clear message: ‘Do not say you are what you are not,’” Miyake said.
Wendy Walsh remembers she was at work when her younger sister, Shaun, called. The words “Michael got shot” rung in her ears and doubled her over as if someone punched her in the stomach.
“It’s intense pain when someone is taken from you. You aren’t prepared for it and for such a stupid reason,” the Everett woman said. “Call him a liar. Big deal. He might be mouthing off.”
Killing Walsh, she said, was “a cowardly act. This was my brother’s life.”
Michael Walsh grew up being told he needed to be tough. His father used to brag about becoming a Hells Angel decades earlier in Chicago. Even as a child, Wendy Walsh thought it was hot air. Her older brother believed it.
“It became his thing, something he’d tell people,” Wendy Walsh said.
Her brother became the man of the house when his dad was given the boot. He watched after his sisters and brothers. They leaned on him and laughed with him. Even now, Wendy Walsh smiles when she recounts some of her brother’s favorite jokes.
He did a great impression of Yosemite Sam, the cartoon character with a long, drooping mustache and a fiery temper. Michael Walsh started to lose his hair when he was in high school in Shoreline. He grew a long beard to compensate, his sister said. Sometimes he’d pull the beard up around his ears and tie it atop his head.
Wendy Walsh, 50, wishes her brother was by her side now. She’s fighting cancer. He’d make her laugh when she’s in pain.
The three-month trial has forced grief upon her. She didn’t think much about what she had lost at the time of his death. Her sister Shaun was battling cancer at the time. Wendy Walsh needed to be strong to help her sister fight for her life.
She believes the murder took more from her than just her brother, hastening her sister’s death.
“Now I’m alone. They’re both gone,” Wendy Walsh said.
Nothing will change that.
There is some peace knowing the men responsible are behind bars. Over the years, Wendy Walsh heard rumors about the events leading to her brother’s murder. She even considered doing her own investigation.
“I knew Michael would have done it for me. I felt like I owed him,” she said. “I just had no idea how I was going to do it.”
Wendy Walsh didn’t have much contact with the detectives as the months became years. She remembers talking to two at her brother’s memorial service. She had no idea they quietly continued to pursue suspects.
“So much time had passed. We thought we were never going to get justice,” she said.
Not every family may get answers or justice, Wendy Walsh said.
“I would just tell them to hold on to hope,” she said.
Reporter Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463 or firstname.lastname@example.org.