King County sheriff could face felony charge in groping case

A former deputy claims John Urquhart groped him. Renton police forwarded the case to the prosecutor.

King County Sheriff John Urquhart

King County Sheriff John Urquhart

By Lewis Kamb / The Seattle Times

RENTON — Probable cause exists to charge King County Sheriff John Urquhart with a sexual-assault crime for allegedly groping a former deputy more than three years ago, according to a Renton police investigator’s formal recommendation to prosecutors.

“This case is being forwarded for review of charges of the felony crime of Sexual Indecent Liberties … Assault with Sexual Motivation,” Commander Daniel Figaro wrote in his probable-cause affidavit dated Nov. 14.

Figaro’s nine-page sworn statement, obtained Tuesday by The Seattle Times under a public-records request, details the reasons Urquhart should be charged with the offense after a nearly two-month investigation into groping allegations by former deputy Brian Barnes.

Figaro wrote that Barnes gave consistent accounts about the alleged incident during several interviews on the phone and in person. Barnes also told the investigator he described the alleged groping to his priest about a week after it occurred, and told a former sheriff’s detective about 12 to 18 months ago that: “Urquhart had done something to him but did not elaborate on the details,” Figaro’s statement said.

This month, when Figaro interviewed Robin Cleary, the former detective, she told him how Barnes “talked about his embarrassment and Cleary’s impression was Urquhart had made some sort of sexual advance toward (Barnes).”

Urquhart has vehemently denied Barnes’ allegations, calling them politically motivated. He filed a defamation lawsuit against Barnes over the groping allegation this month.

Urquhart, in a statement Tuesday, said he took and passed a private polygraph exam during which he denied the allegations.

He also pointed out that he had fired Cleary for dishonesty three years ago amid an investigation that led to the drug-and-theft conviction of former Deputy Darrion Keith Holiwell. Urquhart added that another deputy cited in the probable-cause statement worked on the successful campaign of Mitzi Johanknecht, who defeated Urquhart in the sheriff’s election this month.

“Not only have I adamantly denied this scurrilous allegation from day one, but I’ve said it was politically motivated. Now there should be no question,” Urquhart said.

Johanknecht, in a statement Tuesday evening, said, “To suggest that me or my campaign coordinated any effort with a reporting person of a crime for personal or political gain is not true.”

Under Washington law, the charge of indecent liberties, a felony, can be prosecuted for up to 10 years if the offender is “a public officer” who committed the crime in connection with official duties. The three-year limit to charge the crime of assault with sexual motivation, a gross misdemeanor, appears to have already lapsed, however.

Figaro last week presented his probable-cause statement and other materials to Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe for review. Roe, who formerly prosecuted sexual-assault cases, said in an email last week he is personally reviewing the matter and expects to decide whether to charge Urquhart within two to three weeks.

King County prosecutors referred the investigation to Roe’s office to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Renton police launched the criminal probe after Barnes formally complained to the Sheriff’s Office in September that Urquhart grabbed his crotch in the parking lot of a Renton restaurant after a March 2014 dinner meeting.

Barnes, 49, now a college-campus police officer in Massachusetts, voluntarily resigned as a deputy in 2015 after King County agreed to pay him more than $160,000 as part of an unusual settlement that failed to receive a required approval from King County Executive Dow Constantine.

Barnes did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. He previously told The Times the settlement amounted to “hush money,” contending it was deliberately structured to avoid scrutiny and as a way to silence his attempts to expose wrongdoing in the Sheriff’s Office.

A risk manager said the county’s failure to obtain executive approval of Barnes’ settlement was a mistake, and Urquhart says the agreement was negotiated to rid the department of Barnes, whom the sheriff calls an “organizational terrorist” with a history of making false allegations.

Figaro’s probable-cause statement details Barnes’ allegations as he described them during interviews in Renton in October. As part of his investigation, Figaro brought Barnes to the restaurant’s parking lot and had him show body positioning against a Ford Crown Victoria used to simulate Urquhart’s unmarked police cruiser.

Barnes said he was surprised when Urquhart allegedly touched his shoulder in a “fatherly manner,” and then used his whole hand to grab his crotch for about 10 seconds as the two stood next to Urquhart’s car that night, the statement says.

Barnes described to Figaro how he initially became “frozen in fear and felt like he could not move physically and psychologically,” the statement said. Barnes eventually pushed Urquhart away, and described later having “extreme feelings of shame and embarrassment to the degree of feeling suicidal” about the incident.

Urquhart acknowledged during his own interview with Figaro that he invited Barnes to the dinner meeting, but denied any inappropriate contact with the deputy.

“Urquhart stated at no time did he have any type of physical contact with (Barnes),” the statement said.

Figaro noted Urquhart said he believed Barnes was in uniform at the time, and Urquhart’s lawyer also has contended in a letter to The Times that both men were “in full police regalia” with handguns and Tasers.

“Is this how most sexual overtures occur,” the lawyer’s letter stated.

But Barnes told Figaro he was off-duty and in plain clothes that night, and the investigator obtained time cards and other records supporting Barnes’ version of the timing, which was “different from what Urquhart later stated when I interviewed him.”

Barnes also noted to Figaro that in February 2016 — about two years after the dinner meeting, and months after Barnes left the department — Urquhart texted Barnes an invitation from Washington, D.C., to join him there.

Urquhart later acknowledged to Figaro having a text conversation with Barnes, but said his invitation to Barnes was made “jokingly” and wasn’t serious, the statement said.

Urquhart, 70, is in his final weeks as sheriff, after losing his re-election bid this month to challenger Johanknecht, 58, a 32-year veteran of the department who will be sworn into office in January.

The past year of Urquhart’s tenure has been marked by controversy. Several current or former deputies have sued the department, and the commanders’ union has accused Urquhart and his top aides of widespread misconduct. A former female deputy whom Urquhart once supervised also came forward to allege Urquhart raped her years earlier after a night of drinking.

Urquhart has roundly disputed the allegations, dismissing many as the work of political opponents upset by his efforts to hold misbehaving deputies accountable. He also has adamantly denied that he assaulted or had consensual sex with his female accuser, and has pointed to her documented mental-health issues to discredit her allegations.

A Seattle police investigation this year “administratively cleared” Urquhart of the rape accusation, finding the statute of limitations for any crime had expired, and the alleged sex appeared consensual. King County prosecutors announced in April they wouldn’t charge Urquhart; the woman stood behind her claims.

Last month, the woman — who has asked not to be named — obtained a temporary protection order against Urquhart after learning the sheriff’s campaign allegedly tried to distribute her medical information to a liberal advocacy group when seeking a re-election endorsement. Urquhart and his chief of staff have denied they inappropriately disclosed or offered information about the woman.

A court hearing on the woman’s petition seeking to make the protection order permanent is set for next month.

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