SEATTLE — When the King County Ombudsman’s Office released a critical review of Sheriff John Urquhart’s handling of a sexual-assault charge made against him in 2016, it came with a recommendation. The office had concluded that the sheriff mishandled the case and recommended, among other things, that the Sheriff’s Office require “the appointment of an external, independent official to investigate serious complaints against the Sheriff or other senior command staff.”
The review included Urquhart’s extensive rebuttal to the report. In it, Urquhart questions the practicality of an outside entity investigating him. Since he is an elected official, he reasoned, it’s up to voters, not an investigator, to determine whether to “discipline” him. “Specifically, even if there would be ‘finding’ that the Sheriff committed misconduct by an internal or external entity, it would ultimately be the voter’s decision whether to retain that Sheriff,” he wrote.
As it happens, voters will make that very decision this fall, when Urquhart faces off against Mitzi Johanknecht, a major within the Sheriff’s Office, in the general election. Urquhart, a Sheriff’s Office veteran, won his post in a special election in 2012, defeating Steve Strachan, who had been appointed to the position after Sheriff Sue Rahr stepped down. The next year Urquhart faced no challenger and walked into a full four-year term. Thus, this fall will be the first time since 2012 that voters will be allowed to determine whether Urquhart should be retained.
Urquhart insists he did nothing wrong. He correctly notes that the FBI, Seattle Police Department, and King County Prosecutor’s Office have all looked into the rape allegation, and determined it lacks merit. However, given the determinations by the Ombudsman, as well as by a Seattle police oversight body, that the rape allegation against Urquhart was not properly handled by law enforcement, it’s important for voters to understand to the fullest extent possible what has been accused and how it’s been handled—or mishandled—over the past 18 months, and what these facts say about Urquhart and the office he has managed for five years.
The accusation dates back to November 7, 2002. The alleged victim was a 28-year-old Sheriff’s deputy working in SeaTac, where Urquhart was her commanding officer. On the night of the 7th, the alleged victim says, she was drinking with co-workers at McCoy’s Firehouse, a Pioneer Square bar. Amid the festivities, Urquhart arrived and began buying her drinks.
“John was feeding me a bunch of Cosmos,” says the alleged victim, who is not being named by Seattle Weekly.
She says she does not remember how she and Urquhart got back to her Belltown apartment that night, but says she does remember having sex with him. She says she was too intoxicated to give consent, and the next morning went to the hospital because she was vomiting and had diarrhea; she says she told Urquhart she was going to the hospital, and he attempted to dissuade her from doing so. She says she did not report the rape to anyone at the hospital and did not ask for a rape kit.
Prior to that night, she says, she liked working for Urquhart and “trusted his bullshit.” Afterward, she says, she tried to forget what happened. “I just deteriorated from there,” she says.
Prior to the alleged assault, she says, she suffered from bipolar disorder. Shortly after, she transferred up to Shoreline and began suffering from more acute symptoms that she believes stemmed from the trauma of that night. She says she sought the help of a psychiatrist and was managing her mental health, but began receiving “random complaints” and started getting written up by her supervisors. In 2004 she was fired.
After being fired, the woman left Seattle, moving to Southern California, then Houston, then Massachusetts. She says Urquhart stayed in touch with her, asking her for a campaign contribution in 2012 when he first ran for office. She agreed to contribute. Campaign paperwork shows she gave Urquhart $100 in 2012.
The woman first contacted law enforcement about the alleged rape in mid-June 2016. By that time, she was living in Seattle again, and says that she was motivated to contact law enforcement for fear that Urquhart wanted to harm her to keep her from telling anyone about the alleged rape. The details of these perceived threats presented several law-enforcement agents with questions about the woman’s credibility.
The first agency she contacted was the FBI. As detailed in the subsequent King County Ombudsman report about the allegations and the response to them, an FBI agent contacted the Sheriff’s Office in mid-June 2016 about the woman’s claims.
Sgt. Michael Mullinax with the Sheriff’s Office’s Internal Investigations Unit would later tell the Ombudsman that the FBI agent—identified in the report only as Agent “Ryan”—was calling to confirm the woman had indeed been a Sheriff’s deputy; according to Mullinax, Ryan expressed doubt about the veracity of the woman’s claims. “The FBI believed that the complainant’s motivations and credibility were suspect, and something was not right about her accusation,” according to the Ombudsman report, which was released on August 8 of this year. “Ryan indicated that he was completing a report about the complaint, and thought that would be the end of it.”
The FBI did not approach Urquhart directly about the allegation, and indeed did not want him to know about their inquiries. Mullinax told Agent Ryan that he felt compelled to tell Urquhart about the allegation against him. “Ryan asked Sergeant Mullinax not to tell Sheriff Urquhart until Sergeant Mullinax spoke with Ryan’s supervisor, who then called Sergeant Mullinax,” the Ombudsman’s report reads. “The FBI supervisor asked Sergeant Mullinax not to tell Sheriff Urquhart, but Sergeant Mullinax said he felt he had to. Ultimately, the supervisor and Sergeant Mullinax came to an understanding that Sergeant Mullinax could tell Sheriff Urquhart, but the supervisor warned that the FBI might open formal investigation if Sheriff Urquhart were to contact the complainant.”
On June 21, 2016, Mullinax and his supervisor Captain Jesse Anderson met with Urquhart to tell him about the allegation. Anderson would later say they were uncomfortable bringing the information to Urquhart, but “felt they had no choice,” according to the report. During the meeting, Anderson told Urquhart “he thought maybe someone put the complainant up to making the accusation.”
In an interview with the Weekly, Urquhart says he was baffled by the accusation. He says he and the woman were friends when she was a deputy, and had stayed on friendly terms after she left the department. He says he was at McCoy’s on the night in question, and had given the woman a ride to her apartment. But they did not have sex, he says. “No sex, no rape, no affair, no nothing,” he says.
Urquhart campaigned on a platform of police accountability, and has made high-profile disciplining of Sheriff’s Office staff a hallmark of his management. However, in this case, he and Anderson agreed that no investigation was necessary, according to the Ombudsman report, and he told Anderson to not document the accusation in an internal database used for tracking complaints. He says the charge struck him as too “off-the-wall” to merit documentation.
Five months later, in November, the woman again called law enforcement to report the rape—this time reaching out to the Seattle Police Department. Two officers were sent to her Capitol Hill apartment to take a statement.
According to police records, she told the officers that she and Urquhart had sex and that she was “too intoxicated and never gave consent.” However, like the FBI agents, the police officers were skeptical of the woman’s claims, pointing to further accusations she made concerning a series of incidents that allegedly occurred after the alleged rape.
The woman “explained she was almost ran [sic] over by Urquart [sic] while running in the middle of the street while living in Massachusetts and had surveillance place on her by Urquart [sic] as she moved to various locations across Seattle and the United States. [The woman] also described various emails and texts exchanges she had with Urquart [sic] over the years that were deleted from her accounts. [The woman] believes Urquart [sic] ‘hacked’ into her computer and deleted the message[s],” the report reads.
At one point, she told the officers, “she returned home to her gas stove running. [She] believed Urquart sent ‘a lackey’ to turn on her stove possibly to create an explosion. When Officers attempted to speak about crisis resources [she] would get upset and state to Officers ‘I’m not crazy.’”
In an interview with Seattle Weekly, the woman stands by these assertions.
Following the interview with officers, the woman’s complaint was filed as a “disturbance,” not a “sexual assault,” which meant she would not be contacted by a member of the sexual-assault investigation unit.
The accusations first came into the public eye in a lawsuit filed by several former Sheriff’s Office employees accusing Urquhart of wrongful termination, which was working its way through the courts in 2016. Lawyers for the employees deposed Mullinax and Anderson for the suit, at which time the rape allegation was mentioned. (As it happened, lawyers representing the former employees, Lincoln Beauregard and Julie Kays, are the same lawyers representing Delvonn Heckard, the man whose rape allegation against former Mayor Ed Murray ultimately led to Murray’s resignation.)
In December, The Seattle Times reported on the rape allegation, based in part on paperwork filed in the unrelated lawsuit; shortly afterward, Seattle Police Department Detective Susanna Monroe, with the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Unit, contacted the woman to conduct a follow-up interview. According to e-mails obtained through a public disclosure request, the woman was circumspect. “I just read the case report and I am sick,” she wrote Monroe in an e-mail, referring to the report prepared by the two officers who met with her at her apartment. “I remember this from when I was a Deputy, the facts being misconstrued and misrepresented to make victims look ‘crazy’ and not credible. This is the exact reason I initially went to the FBI.”
The woman ultimately did sit down with Monroe and King County Prosecuting Attorney Corinn Bohn in January. According to a memo later prepared by Monroe, the woman reiterated claims that Urquhart had hired people to follow her, hired someone to turn on her apartment stove to cause an explosion, and that someone tried to run her down in Massachusetts. Monroe wrote that the woman “could not produce any evidence of her allegations.”
Regarding the rape, Bohn told the woman at the end of the interview that the statute of limitations on a rape allegation had expired. Bohn added that even if she “had reported this incident in 2002, it would not have resulted in charges being filed for rape, because [she] recalled all aspects of the sex, which indicates she was not incapacitated at the time of the event,” according to Monroe’s memo. As we’ve previously reported, this is a common response given to women who say they were too intoxicated to give consent (“The Double Bind,” Dec. 7, 2016).
The memo does lend credence to the contention that something happened that night, though. The woman gave Monroe the name of two Sheriff’s Office employees who had been out drinking with her at the Firehouse. One of the employees said the woman “informed him the day after the incident that she had sex with Urquhart. This deputy was of the opinion the sex was consensual because [she] described the sex in great detail to him and she never stated it was rape.” (Again, Urquhart denies the two had sex.) The witness went on to tell Monroe that the woman’s “mental state has deteriorated in the last year. He stated [she] has been increasingly paranoid and only mentioned the incident as rape approximately a year ago.”
The other Sheriff’s Office employee declined to be interviewed for Monroe’s investigation.
On May 1 of this year, Monroe closed the case.
In the past few weeks, two oversight reports have been issued that are highly critical of the way both the Sheriff’s Office and Seattle PD handled the case.
The King County Ombudsman’s Office review, released on August 8, found that the Sheriff’s Office did not follow written policy regarding complaints against Sheriff’s Office staff when the FBI informed them of the rape allegation. According to Anderson, the captain in charge of internal investigations, “the nature of the allegation would normally be … investigated, because if true, it would be conduct that is criminal in nature.” However, according to Anderson, he asked Urquhart whether the accusation should be documented in the database used for complaints against Sheriff’s Office personal; Urquhart said it wouldn’t be necessary.
In his response to the findings, Urquhart argues that because of the FBI’s own doubts about the allegation, and the fact that the complaint was not made directly to the Sheriff’s Office, it did not qualify as a complaint that should be catalogued. For instance, were the office to open files on every complaint they caught wind of, they would have to include comments made on social media, no matter how outrageous, he argues. He also argues that, once in the internal computer system, the complaint could have been accessed by people who would use the accusation against him unfairly.
The Ombudsman disagreed and stated that Urquhart’s handling of the complaint was marred by conflict of interest. “Because Sheriff Urquhart was the accused, he could not impartially decide whether the need to follow Sheriff’s Office rules was outweighed by his accuser’s possible credibility problems, and by any hypothetical harm that disclosure might to do to the Sheriff’s Office,” the report says.
In an interview, Urquhart emphasizes that he and Anderson agreed that the incident would not need to be investigated; they disagreed on whether it should be entered into the computer. Urquhart says due to the salacious nature of the claim, he didn’t want it put into a database where others could see it and exploit it.
“Of course I don’t want that on my reputation … because I don’t want, with an election coming up the following year, I don’t want people getting access—and they can get access—and seeing what was in there. So, sure, there’s a selfish interest to it. But it’s not going to protect me from anything other than that,” he says.
He says now that he understands why that decision gave the wrong impression, and is working on policies to address it in the office.
“I see that now,” he says.
On August 24, the Office of Professional Accountability at the Seattle Police Department, which investigates police conduct, also determined that officers had mishandled the case. Specifically, by labeling the report a “crisis” and not a “sexual assault,” “the [sexual-assault unit] investigation of this report was delayed. In addition, the complainant/victim experienced distress at not having her report taken seriously and lost trust in the Seattle Police Department,” the OPA report says. Later it adds: “It is critically important that officers not dismiss reported crimes merely because the person reporting the crime happens to be in crisis or has a mental-health challenge. In fact, with certain crimes, including sexual assault, the vulnerability sometimes attendant to being in crisis can increase the probability a perpetrator will target a person as his or her victim.”
A written reprimand was issued to the officers.
To Urquhart’s critics, the allegation and its fallout are indicative of his leadership style: dismissive and self-serving.
His office’s handling of the complaint, and his response to the Ombudsman’s report, played a central role in the Times’ endorsement of his opponent Johanknecht earlier this month. “Urquhart’s handling of the case smacks of entitlement, especially because Urquhart champions himself as a tough internal policer of misconduct,” the paper wrote.
In an interview, Johanknecht agrees that the sheriff’s decision not to document the complaint shows that he thinks he plays by a different set of rules than everyone else. That, she says, undercuts Urquhart’s self-styled reputation as a leader who’s tough on bad cops. “He talks under the guise of holding people accountable but then doesn’t follow the rules himself,” she says.
Johanknecht is running on a platform of improving morale within the Sheriff’s Office—morale she says has been strained by Urquhart’s management, as evidenced by a series of wrongful-termination and discrimination lawsuits that have led to million-dollar settlements in recent years, including the suit that led to the rape allegation coming to light.
Johanknecht also argues that Urquhart has been too aggressive in highlighting his accusers’ mental-health issues when defending himself against the charges. Urquhart, conversely, has argued that Johanknecht and others are taking advantage of the woman’s situation for their own gains. “I feel very sorry for this woman, because she’s been exploited by The Seattle Times, by Lincoln Beauregard, and by my opponent, and I’m very disappointed that this route my opponent has taken because it’s not true and it shouldn’t be here at all,” he told the 45th Legislative District Democrats during their endorsement meeting earlier this year, after reciting the litany of accusations she’s made, including his trying to run her over and blow up her apartment. The group ultimately gave Urquhart their endorsement.
Indeed, beyond the Times endorsement, there are few signs that the saga has damaged Urquhart’s re-election efforts. He enjoys a sizable fundraising lead over Johanknecht and an impressive slate of endorsements, including all nine King County Councilmembers and most major Democratic organizations in the county.
His accuser today still lives in Seattle, working well outside of law enforcement. She says that, despite her frustrations with the investigation, she’s glad she’s speaking out about what she says happened.
“It’s astounding to me how just telling the truth is freeing,” she says.
Daniel Person writes for Seattle Weekly.