Lake Stevens officer given one last chance

LAKE STEVENS — The city considered firing a Lake Stevens police officer whose behavior led to a $100,000 civil rights lawsuit settlement in December and at least six internal investigations since 2009.

Officer James Wellington, however, remains on the job, Lake Stevens officials confirmed Friday.

“His performance is being strictly monitored and is operating under a last chance agreement with the City of Lake Stevens,” Mayor Vern Little said in a prepared statement.

Wellington in 2012 was the focus of simultaneous internal investigations for allegations of misconduct, including 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. He also was investigated for showing up at work smelling of booze, abusing sick leave, not telling the truth and misusing his city uniform allowance to purchase a backup handgun.

The city on Friday morning released almost 900 pages of documents related to seven internal investigations in recent years regarding Wellington and officer Steve Warbis. The Herald sought the documents under state public records laws on Dec. 20, after city officials settled a federal civil rights lawsuit involving the pair.

The mayor sent Wellington, 39, a letter in late October, notifying him that the city had determined his criminal conduct at Yellowstone warranted his termination. The city agreed to meet with Wellington in November to discuss the finding.

Little’s statement said the recommendation to fire Wellington, which came from former police chief Randy Celori, was only part of what city officials had to consider in determining the officer’s future with the department.

The city, in conferring with attorneys, also must consider the “legal rights of the employee including civil service and collective bargaining rights among others,” Little wrote.

The result was “consequential discipline” for Wellington, he said. The city described its decision as a final chance for Wellington to keep his job.

His most serious problems came in August after he was detained by U.S. Park Service Rangers at Yellowstone National Park and issued a citation for disorderly conduct. At the time, Wellington already was on paid administrative leave while Celori investigated a July email Wellington sent to police colleagues. Some at the city believed the email contained disrespectful and threatening language that was aimed at City Administrator Jan Berg.

The U.S. Park Rangers reported Wellington was visibly drunk Aug. 13 when they showed up at his hotel room about 12:45 a.m. after guests complained about a disturbance. Wellington and his traveling companion, a woman he once dated, were arguing. The woman told the rangers Wellington was being loud and that he’d called her a derogatory name. The woman said she wanted him to leave.

Wellington agreed to take a portable Breathalyzer test, which turned up a .237 blood alcohol level, records show.

The rangers also said that Wellington handed over his Lake Stevens Police Department identification card, instead of his driver’s license.

Wellington made numerous comments about how he was “in the business” and knew what was going on, the report said. One ranger wrote that Wellington also used derogatory names to describe himself and his friend.

The rangers determined that no assaults or property damage had occurred. They cited Wellington for disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor. A few days later, Wellington paid the $375 fine.

Celori concluded that Wellington violated department policies, including being untruthful about the Yellowstone incident and failing to report it right away. Celori also noted that Wellington denied having a drinking problem when he was interviewed in July as part of the e-mail investigation. Less than a month later, he told the chief that he did have a problem, dating back to 2009.

The documents show that many of the internal investigations centered around Wellington’s behavior when he was intoxicated.

In April 2010, Wellington was investigated after a sergeant said the officer showed up for work smelling of alcohol and appeared hung over. Wellington had approached the sergeant to report feeling ill after taking prescription medication.

Wellington said he had a few glasses of wine before he went to sleep about 10 p.m. He refused to take an at-work breath test.

The sergeant who gave him a ride home said he could smell a “very strong odor” of alcohol during the drive, but there were no other signs of intoxication.

Wellington was put on leave during that investigation. He ultimately lost three days of holiday pay.

On July 6, 2012, supervisors planned to meet with Wellington about what they considered his repeated abuse of sick leave.

He called in sick at 3:11 p.m. Then, at 4:18 p.m., he sent a derogatory email about the city administrator to members of Lake Stevens’ police guild. Wellington later admitted he was drinking as he wrote the email.

In the message, he suggested it would be fun to scare Berg by handing her a firearm and telling her “it might go bang.” Wellington denied intending the comment to be seen as a threat. He said he was trying to boost officers’ morale.

He wrote the email after getting in trouble for improperly using his uniform allowance to buy a firearm — a problem the city was addressing after an audit.

Wellington was put on leave July 11 regarding the sick days and the email. That was about a month before the Yellowstone incident.

During the Yellowstone investigation, Wellington reportedly told investigators he had an alcohol assessment scheduled at a treatment facility in Yakima.

“I’m committed to taking care of this problem and getting healthy and saving my career,” he reportedly said.

The documents also say that sometime in early 2012, Wellington made comments about another officer who got in trouble for drunken driving. Wellington said the officer should have admitted to a drinking problem to keep his job.

Berg on Friday said privacy laws prevented her from discussing whether Wellington attended rehab.

In the documents, former police chief Celori wrote that Wellington is intelligent but seemed to make excuses for wrongdoing.

His use of “half-truths makes him unreliable and untrustworthy,” Celori wrote, and that could hurt his credibility.

“You either tell the truth or you do not,” Celori wrote.

In November, Celori left the department in lieu of termination himself. City officials have refused to disclose why Celori was going to be fired. Both sides signed an agreement prohibiting them from talking about the reasons for Celori’s departure and severance pay.

City officials expect to find a new police chief in the next few months. They’ve also asked the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to take a comprehensive look at the police department and to make suggestions for improvement.

The group was in town Wednesday and Thursday, Berg said. A report should be completed in about two months. Berg said it will be posted to the city’s website.

Wellington and Warbis were named defendants in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the city in December.

About two weeks later, Lake Stevens officials agreed to pay Brandon Fenter and his family $100,000 to drop the suit.

Fenter alleged that in June 2011, Warbis and Wellington illegally arrested him at his home. He said he had been driving in Marysville the night before when he was waved down by an off-duty Warbis. The two got into a heated argument.

Warbis and Wellington went to Fenter’s home the next day.

Warbis reportedly asked Fenter, “Remember me, (expletive)?”

Fenter was jailed. Reckless driving charges later were dropped.

Neither officer was put on leave. The department determined that Warbis and Wellington did not violate any criminal or civil laws.

Less than a year later, Warbis was shot in the forehead with a stun gun fired by a man during a May 26 fight at the Fireplace Bar in Everett, records show. Warbis was on sick leave at the time. Lake Stevens determined that Warbis violated the police department’s code of ethics and failed to promote a positive image as a police officer in that instance.

Within the past two months, Warbis was sent to additional training called “Arresting Communication — Advanced Interaction Skills From Practical To Tactical,” city officials said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

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