Snohomish loses respected police official in cost-cutting move

SNOHOMISH — The recruit, fresh out of college and hoping to make a good impression, couldn’t lift the 150-pound barbell over his head.

It weighed just about as much as he did.

He’d snapped it up twice successfully, but failed on the third heave.

A gruff lieutenant for the Vancouver, Wash., police department pulled the young man aside. He was told to wait in the police chief’s empty office.

He sat there alone for hours on that June day in 1971.

Eventually, the chief wandered in and surveyed the apprehensive young man.

“You are kind of small for your age,” he told him. “Ever been in a bar fight?”

“No,” the increasingly nervous applicant replied.

“That’s not good,” the chief said.

John Turner was in tears by the time he called his dad that night.

He figured four years in college spent pursuing his criminal justice degree had been wasted.

Forty years later, Turner can chuckle at the memory.

That summer he was hired as a Thurston County sheriff’s deputy, where he was promoted to sergeant by the age of 25 and to chief deputy by 30.

Nearly half of his career was spent as a police chief in Snohomish County in Marysville, Mountlake Terrace and Snohomish.

Turner’s last day as Snohomish police chief was Friday. Hired in 2007, he lost his job in a cost-cutting move when the City Council decided to contract with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services. Turner said he was sadder for five Snohomish officers who weren’t hired by the sheriff’s office than he was for himself.

Mayor Karen Guzak said she hates to lose Turner, but the contract was necessary to save money in tight financial times.

“He has such integrity,” she said. “He is so community oriented. He is so sensitive and still strong.”

Many people in town said they appreciated Turner’s willingness to look for answers to difficult problems. He has invested considerable time working with others to find ways to provide services for people living with mental illnesses and to help those with drug and alcohol addictions.

“Looking for long-term solutions is a big part of his approach,” said Rod Ashley, pastor of the Snohomish Faith Assembly.

James White, owner of Java Haus in Snohomish, said that for a long time he had no idea the police officer who would regularly come in to order a Reuben sandwich was the chief.

“It’s a small town and he has a small-town mentality. He is very easy to talk to, very approachable,” White said. “It wasn’t until later, when I saw him on TV, that I realized he was chief.”

Turner, 63, might come across as down-home, but he wasn’t afraid to take an unpopular stand.

He drew the ire of some downtown business owners who petitioned for his ouster after the city added public comment to its process for screening alcohol license applicants. More anger came when he insisted that organizers of a popular motorcycle show pay more to provide security for their event, which drew thousands of people to downtown.

But that controversy was nothing compared to the tumult that came in July 1989 when he was police chief in Mountlake Terrace.

Turner learned that a young man was going to be released from a state-run juvenile lockup. While in prison, the 18-year-old had made detailed, written plans for kidnapping and molesting children in a culvert under I-5.

Turner went public with his concerns. He didn’t release the man’s name, but he did announce the city block where he would be residing.

At the time, police didn’t release information about sex offenders.

His decision made news statewide and beyond. Turner argued that the need to protect the public from potential harm outweighed the offender’s right to privacy.

Turner was certain he and the city would be sued.

It was the state’s first sex offender notification in modern times. What seemed like a dicey decision 29 years ago has become common practice today in Washington and other states.

Phone calls poured in at the Mountlake Terrace Police Station. Many people approved, but others accused Turner of trampling on civil rights.

“I figured if we don’t do anything, this kid is going to reoffend,” Turner said. “I said I might as well get sued for doing the right thing.”

No lawsuit was ever filed.

Pete Caw was a sergeant at the time in Mountlake Terrace.

“John never ran from controversy,” Caw said. “When he had his mind made up, he would argue with anyone. Believe me, there was a lot of pressure not to do it, and the easy solution would have been not to.”

A few days later, Turner spotted the man. He had binoculars and was peering over a fence at a child on a bike. That led to the discovery that the man had pornography in his home, in violation of a court order. The man eventually was involuntarily committed for mental health treatment.

Turner also played a role in the 1983 arrest of a 19-year-old Lacey woman who later was convicted of fatally shooting her parents and burning their home. He was chief deputy in Thurston County at the time and was the department’s polygraph expert.

Turner wasn’t at work the day Jeannette Murphy was given her first polygraph. The tester deemed the results inconclusive. When Turner looked at them, however, he decided she should be retested.

“I tested her,” Turner recalled. “I told her I thought she was responsible for setting the fire.”

Murphy disappeared after that and eventually was arrested in Portland, Ore. She remains in prison today.

Many who have worked with Turner say some of his biggest contributions are finding ways to help children and teens.

When gangs were popping up in Mountlake Terrace, he worked with the community to set up the Neutral Zone, a place where kids could go to hang out and eat free food. It became a national model. In Terrace, juvenile crime dipped.

He tried to make similar inroads in Snohomish.

“I think the impact that John has had in working with the schools will be felt for many years,” said Merle Kirkley, who has served on the city’s civil service commission for more than 30 years.

“He developed a relationship with many of the parents,” council member Lynn Schilaty said. “He was ubiquitous. Any function I went to that had a community base to it, he was there. If I could define him in any way, at the core of who he was, he was about relationships. And I think in a small town you can never underestimate the importance of the relationships you form.”

Caw, the assistant chief in Mountlake Terrace, said Turner was a good boss.

“He had tremendous compassion for the public and the people who worked for him,” he said. “He just had a firm but gentle way about him.”

Turner, who also has worked for state and federal law enforcement agencies, has no plans to retire. He hopes to find work as an interim chief if the opportunity arises.

“I have to keep working,” he said. “It’s how I’m wired. I’m not a golfer. I enjoy what I do.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com

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