Sheriff Rick Bart: ‘I lived and breathed this job’

Nosing his car into traffic, Rick Bart is grousing before he makes the first stoplight.

His eyes are hidden behind dark sunglasses, his ever-present Diet Pepsi in the center console. A utility jacket covers both the gun on his hip and the gold star on his shirt.

He’s in uniform today because he had his photo taken with “the rest of the has-beens.”

There’s a joke there, but also some truth about what’s going on in his head.

It’s signature Rick Bart.

Something’s on his mind. He’s going to tell you what it is.

In two weeks Bart, forced out of his post by term limits, will hand over the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office to John Lovick, who won election in November.

Bart started as a deputy in 1972 and moved through the ranks. He patrolled streets and busted drug dealers and child molesters. He’s been shot at and screamed at. He hunted rapists and cold-blooded killers. He held the hands of the mothers and fathers whose children’s lives were brutally ended. He has seen the sins of men and witnessed the compassion of angels on earth.

It’s tough to let go.

What does it mean to him, this lifetime of police work?

No shooting from the hip this time. He recounts a recent conversation with his oldest daughter. She called to thank him for helping her move.

“Just so you know, your job isn’t you or what you’re all about,” she said.

“She was trying to tell me it’s not who I am. But to me, it is,” Bart said.

“This job has been about who I am. It didn’t start out that way, but it ended up that way. It has meant the world to me. I lived and breathed this job.”

Bart, 59, drives east over the Snohomish River. The sun reflects off the snow dusting the burly shoulders of the Cascade Range. He traveled the county from one end to the other with a badge on his chest. In his mind is a map marked by the places that changed him.

It’s been a long journey.

Unforgettable scene

Bart chooses this place first. It makes sense.

The dainty, dove-gray house sits under the shadow of tall firs. Sunlight stretches across the back yard. There’s nothing out of the ordinary.

“That’s the house where Charles Campbell killed everybody,” Bart said.

He stops the car, leaves the engine running and pulls off his sunglasses. He looks at the house just long enough to take a quick inventory.

Bart and his longtime partner Joe Ward were called out to the Clearview house in 1982.

The detectives walked into a nightmare. In the first moments, Bart recalls, they sat with their backs against a fireplace, trying to catch their breath and control their fury.

Campbell ripped through the house hell-bent on revenge. He slashed the throats of Renae Wicklund, 31, her 8-year-old daughter, Shannah, and neighbor Barbara Hendrickson, 51.

Campbell raped Wicklund in 1974. She and Hendrickson testified against him and he was sent to prison. He came back.

Bart doesn’t offer many details about what he and Ward encountered. He shares one: how small Shannah looked. His daughter was about the same age.

As they began their work, family and friends gathered at Hendrickson’s house across the street. That day, Bart learned his job was as much about grief as the hunt.

“To us it was a job, but then it was right there. I could see how it affected the family,” Bart said. “It’s devastating. This is more than what I’m looking at. I saw for the first time the effect it had, a murder.”

Campbell was to be hanged. Bart asked to watch the execution, but was told no. He had unfinished business. Campbell used to stare him down in court.

“He’d look right through me and doodle on a piece of paper. I wanted to glare at him and stare at him and I didn’t get to do that,” he said.

Instead, the night Campbell died, Bart sat in a hotel room with the families of Hendrickson and the Wicklunds. They listened over an open phone line as prison officials described Campbell being strapped to a board, carried to the gallows and hanged.

Bart circles his car around and takes another quick glance.

The execution was an end, Bart says, but it never changed what happened in this ordinary house.

His years in homicide made him live part of his life surrounded by death. He has seen hatred, cruelty and the worst of what people can do to one another.

“You never forget that. You can’t,” he said. “You put it away somewhere.”

Lure of detective work

Somewhere isn’t far.

Just a few miles away, he pulls into the driveway of the house where he investigated his very first murder, in 1978. An elderly woman was stabbed to death by a 13-year-old neighbor boy.

Detective Bruce Whitman called Bart out to help.

“I had great respect for Ricky as a patrolman,” Whitman said. “I was looking for a partner, and I asked him to come and work with me.”

Bart didn’t plan to become a sheriff’s deputy. He tested to be an officer in Lynnwood, his hometown. At the time, he was studying at Shoreline Community College and working nights at the county jail.

Some of the other jailers talked him into taking the civil service exam for the sheriff’s office, and he got the county job with a bunch of other “snot-nosed kids,” including Jim Scharf, who now is Everett’s police chief.

Bart worked the jail and then patrolled the streets in south Snohomish County. He gained a reputation as a good cop.

In a few years, Bart was assigned the felony car, where deputies would grab a fresh stack of burglary reports and see what they could turn up. He liked the pace. When Whitman asked Bart to join him, the deputy didn’t know anything about investigating murders and “didn’t like being around dead bodies.”

He never got used to it.

“He taught me a lot of stuff,” Bart said. “I’m not the easiest guy to work with. I’m a moody S.O.B.”

Bart was intuitive, by-the-book and methodical. He took detailed notes and gathered evidence with a careful eye. He understood what was at stake.

Bart and Ward became partners in 1980, working with Whitman.

“We treated it like religion,” Whitman said. “And Ricky and Joe were the best of the best.”

After Whitman retired in 1982, Bart and Ward were the only two homicide detectives at the sheriff’s office. They investigated at least 100 homicides together. In addition, they investigated every death, serious assault and rape.

“Often when I should have been at home, I was at work,” Bart said. “I made lots and lots of mistakes. I went through two marriages.”

He found meaning in the work he did. He was good at it.

“He was a well-respected investigator. He had a stubbornness and doggedness to properly analyze a situation and develop a good case,” said Scharf, who, as sheriff, supervised Bart. “If you committed a crime, you didn’t want Rick working the case because he’d eventually make an arrest.”

Bart’s sincerity and compassion for victims and their families showed he was there for the right reasons, Scharf said.

“I loved it there, and as far as I was concerned I was going to die in my chair there,” Bart said. “I couldn’t envision myself doing anything else.”

Then he lost a case, a young boy shot to death. “I didn’t understand how that could happen.” He felt like he had failed the boy’s mother.

A woman sees the car in her driveway and comes outside. She hesitates, then walks down the driveway where the unmarked car is parked. Bart rolls down the window. She sees his uniform.

“Is there something wrong? What are you doing here?” she asks.

“We’re just turning around,” Bart says.

Growing up in Lynnwood

He walks through the door of the Lynnwood house where he grew up. His parents built the house more than 50 years ago. His mother, Beth Bart, is home. His dad died in July. Bart carries his photo with him.

High-school pictures of Bart, his two brothers and his sister hang in his mother’s sewing room. The tall, thin boy is unmistakable. A picture of Bart in his sheriff’s uniform is tacked to a bulletin board of family photos.

His mom says she’s proud of him. Bart makes a joke, asking her if she knows he used to sneak out through his bedroom window.

He runs his hand over the desk his dad built for him. His dad, an engineer, used to stand over him and try to help him with math homework. Bart wasn’t good at math.

His father taught him to hunt and fish when he was 10. He learned how to hold a rifle, wait and cuss.

“It made me feel like a man,” Bart said.

Being at home in the mountains was a gift his father gave him. He goes there still when his life is too loud. He shared that with his younger brother, Ron Bart. The two boys were inseparable as kids, Bart said. His brother became his hunting and fishing buddy.

He was the sheriff when a letter arrived in 1999. The writer accused Bart of ignoring his duties, claiming that his brother Ron was committing crimes. The sheriff’s brother was later arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for selling cocaine to an undercover narcotics detective.

Looking back, it was painfully obvious that Ron had a problem, Bart said.

“That caused a lot of heartburn in my family. It was tough on everybody,” he said.

Ron Bart was at his brother’s retirement celebration last week. This summer the two brothers went fishing alone together for the first time in years. Bart hopes someday they’ll be able to hunt again.

Outside, in the front yard, he shows off the patch of land on which his dad used to make him pick up rocks. He took his 50-cent allowance up the street to the corner store to buy grape soda and BBs.

“I had a great childhood,” Bart said. “My parents insisted the world was good. It may seem really bad, but things work out, and if you work hard, you’ll go places.”

Losing a friend

Sun and rain have faded the mobile home in Cathcart to dingy yellow. Bart scans the yard. Investigators in 1994 spent a week here after an angry man gunned down a blind man and sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Kinard. Bart points to the ditch where Kinard was standing when the gunman, Charles Finch, opened fire after he killed Richard Modlin, a friend of Finch’s estranged wife.

Kinard was the first deputy to be murdered in the line of duty in half a century.

Like himself, “Jim was a guy who loved his job,” Bart said.

He remembers this as the place he lost a friend. Here is where he learned about being a boss.

He had earned his lieutenant stripes a year before the murders. He oversaw the detectives who investigated the case.

In short order, Bart found out that being in charge often meant throwing elbows so people had room to do the job Bart knew needed to be done.

The crime scene stretched 125 feet across the road and ran up a gully. It was the largest outdoor scene the sheriff’s office had ever faced. Investigators combed every inch. They recovered bullets buried more than a foot in tree trunks. They analyzed bullet holes in individual rhododendron leaves to show a pattern that eventually proved Finch aimed at deputies.

People outside the office were watching their every move, seeing if they could do the job, Bart said. He knew they could.

A victim’s bravery

Along this stretch of Larch Way, the details are fresh in Bart’s mind.

He pulls the car over.

It’s the same place where in 1981 Maggie Wooding-Scott, one of the bravest and smartest people he’s ever known, stopped for a serial rapist.

Michael Ray Hightower III drove behind the emergency room nurse and flashed his headlights. When she stopped, he told her to get out of the car because it was leaking gasoline.

Realizing she had made a dangerous mistake, she reached for her mace. Hightower shot her three times in the chest. She drove off and survived by sticking her fingers in the bullet holes.

Bart believes Hightower was the most dangerous and intelligent killer he encountered.

“I was brand-new to that type of stuff and he just played a mind game with me,” Bart said. “I’ll never forget what he said when I asked if he shot Maggie. He looked at me and said ‘You got a cigarette?’ “

In the end, Hightower was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a Kirkland girl.

“He used to send me Christmas cards from prison,” Bart says. “They had a Cheshire cat on them and said ‘Thinking of you.’ “

Some regrets

Bart heads back to his office. He’s forgotten to stop by the house where he rang the first doorbell in his run for sheriff in 1995.

“I never imagined leaving homicide again. Then I really screwed up and ran for a political office,” Bart said. “I ran because I thought I understood the office. I didn’t understand politics. I was a cop.”

The sheriff’s office was in disarray, reeling from Kinard’s death, Scharf’s sudden departure to take the Everett job and the appointment of Patrick Murphy, Snohomish police chief, to fill out the term.

Wooding-Scott wrote a letter in support of Bart’s 1995 campaign.

“I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that he’s out there somewhere, and I think the world is somehow safer because of people like him,” she wrote.

Some people Bart met on the campaign trail were critical of the office. He didn’t like it.

“It was difficult for me to listen to criticism and translate it into a response that made them feel like I listened,” he said.

Under his watch, the county added 110 more deputies. He launched a motorcycle traffic unit, a program to help quickly find lost elderly people and a regional response to investigate officer-involved shootings.

Among his mistakes: bad hires, pushing too hard, not getting along with County Executive Aaron Reardon.

“It’s my biggest regret. I haven’t figured out how to work with him. We just don’t click. I started the fight when I called him an arrogant son of a bitch,” Bart said.

Reardon believes he and Bart would have worked better together if the sheriff hadn’t made a bid for county executive, later abandoned, early in Reardon’s first term.

“He felt like he had to oppose me even when we agreed. If he hadn’t decided to run, I don’t think he would have played politics the way he did,” Reardon said.

Bart doesn’t regret being sheriff.

He’s worked with great people and helped good causes.

He’s marched with crime victims in Olympia and stood with mourning families at candlelight vigils. He’ll keep serving on the board of Families and Friends of Violent Crime Victims.

Bart doesn’t do it for appearances, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Mark Roe said.

“He’s done it because he was there when families got the worst news of their lives,” Roe said.

Bart doesn’t plan to retire. He’ll look for a job and take care of some projects around the house with his wife, Wendy. He’ll head to Alaska and Texas to hunt.

The road is wide open.

“You work and work and you don’t mind it,” Bart said. “It was my job. You feel a sense of obligation. I felt like I was helping people.”

Reporter Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463 or hefley@heraldnet.com

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