After 3 years in jail, Camano murder suspect’s trial delayed again

In February 2021, prosecutors allege, Dominic Wagstaff shot and killed his father, shot his brother’s girlfriend and tried to shoot his brother.

By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

CAMANO — A man accused of murdering his father who has been awaiting trial in Island County jail for well over three years was recently appointed his fourth attorney.

A series of defense attorney conflicts, and the death of an attorney, led to the trial date for 23-year-old Dominic Wagstaff being delayed over and over again.

In the most recent twist in the case, Wagstaff changed his mind on a plea bargain, and then his attorney, Lawrence Delay, of Friday Harbor, asked the judge to allow him to withdraw from the case, citing a breakdown in communication. Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Eric Ohme opposed the request, pointing out Delay never actually met face to face with his client.

“It would be difficult for anyone to put the requisite faith and trust in a disembodied voice only ever experienced on the phone,” Ohme wrote, adding it would be reasonable for the court to require the attorney to meet with his client in an attempt to reestablish trust.

Ultimately, however, the judge allowed Delay to terminate his representation. A court rule says representation may be terminated for good cause, including cases of communication breakdown between attorney and client.

This month, Coupeville attorney Craig Platt was appointed to the case, becoming the fourth attorney to defend Wagstaff. At a recent court hearing, Platt said he had spent a weekend reading over the case file and lamented what he characterized as mistakes made by Wagstaff’s former attorneys.

Wagstaff, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenic disorder, is accused of shooting his father, Dean, in the head and killing him, shooting his brother’s girlfriend in the head and injuring her, and trying to shoot his brother in the head, according to a report by a detective with the Island County Sheriff’s Office. The shooting occurred at the family’s Camano Island home on Feb. 28, 2021.

A judge set Wagstaff’s bail at $500,000. As a result, Wagstaff has been held in jail since then.

Prosecutors charged Wagstaff in Island County Superior Court with first-degree murder, attempted second-degree murder and first-degree assault. Each count is charged as a domestic violence crime with a firearm enhancement. If convicted of the charges against him, Wagstaff could face up to 40 years or more in prison.

Wagstaff’s first attorney was Matt Montoya, who holds the county’s contract for public defense. In April 2022, Montoya filed a motion to withdraw, stating communication with Wagstaff had become hostile and unproductive and that they had a fundamental disagreement about the defense. The judge agreed.

In May 2022, Anacortes attorney Dennis Scott was appointed as a “conflict attorney.” He filed notices stating that he intended to pursue a defense of diminished capacity or insanity. Wagstaff underwent multiple psychological exams with both the defense and prosecution.

Scott passed away unexpectedly in October 2023.

Later in October, Delay was appointed Wagstaff’s attorney. He worked out a plea bargain with the prosecution, and a plea and sentencing hearing was set for May 22. But instead, Delay filed a motion to end his representation of Wagstaff. In his motion, he explained that he read the 47 pages of the plea and sentencing documents to his client over the phone. Shortly afterward, Wagstaff told Delay that he no longer wanted him as an attorney. Delay wrote that Wagstaff’s mother said he was paranoid and didn’t trust him anymore.

“By reason of my client’s lack of trust in my representation, his history of paranoia and the possibility that he has greater trust in other sources of legal advice, he is not willing to openly engage with me in a constructive conversation regarding his defense,” Delay wrote.

In court, Judge Carolyn Cliff asked Delay if he had ever met Wagstaff in person, and Delay indicated he had not. The judge then asked Wagstaff if he met Delay in person if it would help restore trust. Wagstaff said he still had hope and that he didn’t want to decline the deal, but that he just wanted another attorney.

Ohme took the unusual step of responding to Delay’s request to withdraw with a motion in response. Ohme wrote that the prosecution was sympathetic to Wagstaff’s concerns.

“Based on Wagstaff’s statements to the court, the state understands that Mr. Wagstaff does not wish to reject the previously agreed disposition but wants an opinion from an attorney that he can sit down with face to face prior to going through with the agreement or not,” Ohme wrote. “Based on the seriousness of the charges and potential penalties, Mr. Wagstaff’s request is logical and understandable. To agree to a multi-decade prison sentence requires faith in one’s attorney’s opinion that such a sentence is in a person’s best interest.”

Ohme also pointed out that the survivors in the attack have also been waiting for a resolution.

At a June 5 hearing, Judge Christon Skinner granted Delay’s request and appointed another attorney from the bench. That attorney, however, never filed a notice of appearance; instead, Platt later agreed to represent Wagstaff.

At a June 10 hearing, Platt was critical of decisions made by Wagstaff’s previous attorneys, saying he found confidential documents in the court file that should never have been made public. He asked for a continuance of the trial date to July 30.

Court documents indicate Wagstaff has a history of mental health problems. A forensic psychologist who works for the state determined that he meets the diagnostic criteria for unspecified schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders.

The detective’s report on the shooting states that Wagstaff was having dinner with his family when he started drinking heavily and became angry. Wagstaff ended up shooting his father, 41, in the head with a handgun, according to the report.

Wagstaff’s brother tackled him and tried to get the gun from him; Wagstaff placed the gun to his brother’s head and fired, but the man pushed the gun away just in time, the detective wrote. After Wagstaff fled to his bedroom, his brother discovered his girlfriend had been hit in the head with a bullet. She later recovered from the injury.

A deputy with the Island County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene, forced his way into the bedroom and arrested Wagstaff.

Under state law, a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity defense requires a jury to find that, as a result of mental disease or defect, the defendant’s mind was affected to such an extent that he or she was unable to perceive the nature and quality of the acts with which he or she is charged or was unable to tell right from wrong.

This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sibling publication to The Herald.

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