Now they’re our problem

Last year, 449 felons entered Pierce County work-release centers. Close to half started their criminal careers elsewhere. Already, seven of those imported inmates have committed new crimes here, feeding what one county leader calls ‘the crime warp.&#

October 23, 2006 

They didn’t belong here, but Pierce County got stuck with them: seven men, seven felons, seven outsiders.

They started their criminal careers elsewhere, fraying the fabric of other communities, racking up arrests and convictions in other places.

Then they came here, sent by the state Department of Corrections to Pierce County’s three work-release centers – Progress House, Lincoln Park and RAP House.

The seven spent their last few months of confinement working or going to school – a humdrum state-imposed routine, designed to ease the return to civilian life, to make it easier to go straight.

Like many other work-release inmates, the seven blew their chance. After finishing their stints, they sprouted new roots in Pierce County neighborhoods, and committed new crimes.

Among 449 graduates in the work-release class of 2005, the seven are only the first transplants convicted of new crimes here. Scores of other inmates with no criminal history in Pierce County cycled through local work-release centers last year, getting to know their new community.

Two-thirds will get arrested again in the next four years, and almost half – 47 percent – will earn a new felony conviction, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The class of 2005 represents a single set of work-release inmates, a few hundred among thousands, each year seasoned with transplants. The seven are the latest wave in a perpetual tide – a phenomenon Pierce County Prosecutor Gerry Horne calls “the crime warp.”

CASE 1: THE ASSAULT

Saturday, July 16, 2005, 11:30 p.m. – Pierce County sheriff’s deputy Vicki Kimbriel spots a man sleeping on a bus bench near the Lakewood Mall. She wakes the sleeper and tells him to move along.

He replies with obscenities and Kimbriel asks for his identification. He refuses and threatens her. She tells him he is under arrest for disorderly conduct. The man runs. Kimbriel chases him. Turning to fight, he pulls off his coat and spits venom.

“I will kill you, bitch,” he tells the deputy.

Then he throws a punch and misses. She wrestles him to the ground. As she tries to cuff him, he kicks her in the shins. A bystander and a security guard run to her aid. The man is handcuffed, kicking and thrashing. In court, he pleads guilty to third-degree assault.

He is Grant Allen Lewis, 41. He left Tacoma’s Lincoln Park work-release center in April 2005, after the third of his drug convictions – all in King County, before he became Pierce County’s problem.

AN UNFAIR SHARE

Lewis isn’t the only work-release graduate with no prior convictions here.

A News Tribune analysis of state Department of Corrections data confirms Pierce County takes more than its fair share of the state’s convicted felons in work release, though many started their criminal careers somewhere else.

The analysis examined the criminal histories of the 449 felons who entered county work-release centers in 2005. The findings: n 100 inmates – more than 22 percent – had no criminal convictions in Pierce County before they entered local work-release centers.

•  89 inmates – almost 20 percent – received their first criminal conviction outside Pierce County before committing subsequent crimes here.

•  76 inmates – almost 17 percent – already have been charged with or convicted of new crimes since leaving work release.

The last number, a measure of recidivism, inevitably increases over time. Studies by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics show two-thirds of inmates released from prison will be arrested again. Almost half will be convicted of a new crime within three years.

CASE 2: THE THIEF

Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2005 – A man driving a 2004 Lincoln Continental catches the eye of Pierce County deputies, who run the license plate and get a hit: The high-end car was stolen from an Anacortes, Skagit County, dealership two weeks earlier. The driver tells the deputies he works for the dealership and has permission to drive the car. He says he hasn’t been to work for a few days – too busy partying. He is arrested and charged with possession of stolen property.

His name is John Michael Gifford, 37. His story is partly true. He hadn’t been to work for a few days because he’d been fired. That happened when a co-worker discovered him driving another car from the lot.

Gifford returned it, but took the Lincoln. His ex-bosses had been trying to reach him for days.

Gifford is a thief and forger who earned 11 convictions in King and Snohomish counties during the 1980s and ’90s before he became Pierce’s problem. When the deputies spotted him in the Lincoln, he was less than four months removed from a stint in Progress House.

This is the second time Gifford has committed a local crime after a stint in a Pierce County work-release center. The first came in 2001, after an earlier visit to Progress House. His record shows three recent convictions in Pierce, compared to the 11 elsewhere in the state.

The trial on the theft of the Lincoln should have started July 13, 2006. It didn’t, because Gifford didn’t show up. His whereabouts are unknown.

NONVIOLENT VS. VIOLENT

Like Gifford, many inmates in Pierce County’s work-release class of 2005 are nonviolent offenders, specializing in drug or property crimes. Records of their criminal histories reveal a typical profile: a handful of drug offenses, often accompanied by theft convictions.

Four members of the class of 2005 are registered sex offenders. Two of those were convicted of second-degree rape. The third was convicted of second-degree child molestation, the fourth of incest. All committed their sex crimes outside Pierce County.

The News Tribune analysis found no felons convicted of first-degree rape or first-degree murder in the class of 2005. A Department of Corrections policy forbids their entry into work-release programs.

But many other violent offenders appear on the 2005 work-release roster. Seven inmates linked to killings were convicted of second-degree murder or manslaughter. Scores of inmates have robbery and assault convictions. CASE 3: PUNCH FROM A STRANGER

Saturday, Oct. 1, 2005, 11:51 p.m. – Tacoma police find Joseph Fefjar in the 1300 block of Fawcett Avenue. His mouth is bleeding, and one of his teeth has been knocked out.

Fefjar tells them a stranger punched him in the face, then stole his wallet. Witnesses say “Frank Nitti” did it. The name is an alias, borrowed from a long-dead Chicago gangster who worked for Al Capone.

The police trace “Nitti” to a downtown address, and find Frank Rucker Jr., 40.

He has five prior convictions in King County: three drug offenses, theft and assault of a child. Three months before the assault on Fefjar, he ended a stay at the Lincoln Park work-release center.

In court, he pleads guilty to second-degree theft – his first conviction in Pierce County.

THE ONLY PLACE

If any work-release center deserves to be called the source of Pierce County’s crime warp, it’s Lincoln Park, with RAP House running a close second.

The News Tribune identified 100 work-release inmates in the class of 2005 who had no prior convictions here – 13 graduated from Progress House, 32 from RAP and 55 from Lincoln Park, including four of the seven transplanted felons who committed new crimes after their work-release stints.

RAP House caters to offenders diagnosed with developmental disabilities and medical problems. Lincoln Park serves offenders classified as mentally ill. No other facilities in the state provide the same services.

“I think that is ludicrous,” Prosecutor Horne said. “Most of the people in prison have mental problems that don’t rise to the level of insanity. Most of them have drug and alcohol problems. Most of them have little or no work history. What I believe is that all the prisoners would fall into this category.

“That permits the Department of Corrections to pick and choose who they will burden our community with. There is absolutely no reason for them to have the only facilities for developmentally disabled in Tacoma. … This should not be the only place.”

In one sense, Horne has a point. Records of five work-release inmates in the class of 2005 show that sometimes they’re diagnosed mentally ill or developmentally disabled, and sometimes they’re not.

The five inmates have spent time in Lincoln Park and RAP, but they’ve also been sent to Progress House and other work-release centers around the state.

Diagnosis of mental illness or developmental disability occurs in the state’s prisons, said Anne Fiala, administrator for the Department of Corrections region that includes Pierce County.

While Lincoln Park and RAP receive the majority of work-release inmates without Pierce County ties, the crime warp extends beyond those diagnosed with mental illness or developmental disabilities.

Some offenders are just plain stubborn.

CASE 4: THE CAR CHASE

Saturday, March 4, 2006 – Lakewood police chase a car thief. They spot him headed south on Interstate 5, near the exit to Bridgeport Way Southwest. He drives a 1997 Honda Accord, reported stolen.

The driver barrels into Thurston County and briefly loses the cops. They catch up and find the car, parked and empty. A tracking dog leads the officers to a nearby Jeep.

Inside it, they find James Swanson Rocha, 23, soaked with sweat. This isn’t his car, either – he’s quick on the break-in. The officers find generic Honda keys in his pocket, a favored tool among car thieves.

Rocha grew up in Thurston County. He has family there, along with a slew of traffic offenses, three convictions as a juvenile, and four more as an adult starting in 2001: car theft, drug dealing, malicious mischief and possession of stolen property.

Along the way he earned two more convictions in Pierce County: One in 2003 for stolen property recovered from thefts in Thurston, the other for a burglary in Eatonville in 2004.

Rocha landed in Progress House in November 2005, after the burglary conviction. He got out in mid-January 2006, and was caught with the stolen car five weeks later.

Thurston County has its own work-release center in Olympia. In his brief criminal career as an adult, Rocha’s never been assigned to it, despite family ties. Records show he returned to Progress House in July 2006, after the latest car theft incident.

SCREENING AND CHOICE

Work-release isn’t automatic. Prison inmates have to ask for it. They fill out forms and meet with counselors. They’re supposed to have a plan for life outside. They’re asked where they would like to go.

“Some will say they would go to any work release in the state,” Fiala said. “Some will say, ‘If I come out to Pierce County or King County, I have a job or family there.’ ”

Screening committees at each work-release center, including Department of Corrections employees, examine the inmate applications. Work release is the favored option. If inmates meet the criteria – good behavior, interest and a signature under their stated willingness to obey the rules – they’re in.

The history and the location of past convictions plays a role in the decision, Fiala said, but such information can be murkier than it seems.

Some offenders committed their first crimes in other states. Others have juvenile records and family in one county, and adult convictions in another – and sometimes, between crimes, they’ve moved from one part of the state to another.

CASE 5: THE PURSE-SNATCHER

Monday, April 3, 2006 – As Kelly Kiser strolls along a Sumner sidewalk, a middle-aged man rushes up from behind and tries to pull her purse from her shoulder.

She pulls back and screams for help. The man runs to a nearby car, where a younger man sits in the driver’s seat. The car pulls away.

Sumner police track the purse-snatcher to an apartment. His name is Edward Dean Cain, 43. The driver of the car was his son, also named Edward, 21. Both are arrested. The case against the son is dismissed; the elder Cain pleads guilty to first-degree theft.

He’s a three-time Progress House graduate. The latest stint ended nine months before the purse-snatching. Cain’s lengthy rap sheet starts with nine convictions in Grays Harbor County between 1981 and 1994, five for possession of stolen property. Cain lived in Aberdeen then.

He entered Olympia’s work-release center in 1993, after his sixth conviction. Three more followed, all in Grays Harbor County.

Cain finished his sentences for those crimes, and entered Progress House for the first time in 1997.

Records show he lived in Idaho for a few years, then returned to Pierce County, where he’d found work before. He landed in Progress House again in 2005, after a 2004 theft conviction stemming from a car prowl in Puyallup.

RECYCLING INMATES

The work-release class of 2005 includes 140 “recyclers” – offenders taking multiple trips through the system.

On its Web site, the Department of Corrections calls work release a privilege – but inmates don’t lose the option, even if they recycle two or three times or more, even if their convictions include escape from a work-release facility.

“If you do it a third time, one ought to probably check your pulse and intelligence level,” said Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, who shares Horne’s concerns about work-release programs. “People learn, and systems learn. One would think that a system that is offended against would learn.”

According to Fiala, recyclers don’t change the state’s underlying mission of rehabilitation. A second, third or fourth trip through work release is still better than dropping a convict on the corner, she said.

“We continue to feel that work release is the right way for people to come out of the institution and get their lives going,” Fiala said. “We all know that not everyone is successful the first time around. It’s very difficult.”

CASE 6: A BAG OF METH

April 28, 2006 – Fircrest police notice a man driving a battered car in the 300 block of Regents Drive. The windshield is falling apart, the back bumper is missing, and the rear windshield is an empty hole.

After pulling the car over, the officers find the man has an active warrant. They search him, and find a plastic bag in his wallet. It contains methamphetamine.

The driver is Richard Merle Lee, 40. He’s a two-time Lincoln Park graduate – first in 2000, after a drug conviction in Clark County, then in 2005, after another Clark County conviction. He’s been out for five months.

Until now, he’d never been charged with a crime in Pierce County. His rap sheet includes 10 priors, chiefly drug offenses in Clark County, and in Oregon and Arizona. After his arrest in Fircrest, he pleads guilty to drug possession in Pierce County Superior Court. He is sentenced to a year in prison.

THE LEADING OFFENSE

Drug offenders dominate the class of 2005. Out of the 449 inmates, 334 – 74 percent – have been convicted of at least one drug-related crime.

Treatment for drug and alcohol addiction is a universal feature of work-release programs. Inmates receive regular drug tests and therapy for their addictions, including participation in substance abuse groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Refusal to participate, or a failed drug test, can send them back to prison.

The treatment doesn’t always take. The class of 2005 includes Eric Dunbar, a Pierce County regular with 11 convictions on his record, six for drug offenses.

The 2005 stint in RAP House was his fifth go-round, and he has earned two new drug convictions since then.

CASE 7: ASSAULT WITH A POKER

July 11, 2006 – Two Tacoma police officers talk to Suzanne Younker, who says her ex-roommate attacked her at her home. He had moved out a day earlier, then returned and shoved his way in.

A friend named Howard Ohelo was visiting, she tells police. The ex-roommate started yelling at both of them. He punched Younker in the face, then picked up a fire poker and told Ohelo to get out of the house. When Younker tried to call 911, the ex-roommate ripped the phone cord out of the wall.

Ohelo ran outside, twisting his ankle on the way. The ex-roommate followed, pushed Ohelo against a tree and hit him in the head with the poker, she tells the officers.

Police begin to build a case file for possible criminal charges. They track down the ex-roommate. He is Arden Curtis Gibson, 43, who graduated from Lincoln Park four months earlier. He has 12 priors, all in King County: drugs, car theft, robbery and possession of stolen property among them.

His visit to Lincoln Park was his third work-release stint. The first two were in King County facilities.

Prosecutors file charges of second-degree and fourth-degree assault against Gibson. His trial is pending.

A NEW AWARENESS?

Fiala cites recent talks with Pierce County leaders as evidence of the state’s sensitivity to the crime warp issue, particularly at Progress House.

“For the last year and a half, we’ve had an agreement: criteria agreed upon with the county about who would be put in that facility,” she said. “We have continued to keep it filled with individuals that meet that criteria and want to return to Pierce County.”

The criteria give priority to Pierce County inmates with prior ties to the community, but they don’t prohibit admission of inmates from other counties. They appear in a document signed by DOC administrator Jim Blodgett on Feb. 25, 2005.

The conditions apply only to Progress House inmates, and do not mention Lincoln Park or RAP. Horne acknowledged the promise in the document, but he notes that it isn’t binding.

He remains skeptical of the state’s efforts. But he sees reason for optimism in statements by Corrections Secretary Harold Clarke, who has acknowledged Pierce County’s plight, and openly discussed placement of new work-release facilities elsewhere. “It’s a step forward,” Horne said.

THE NEXT CLASS

The work-release class of 2006 is still growing. By the end of this year, its numbers should match those from 2005. Already, some inmates have been released and charged with new crimes – they include a work-release escapee, a pair of drug offenders, and a man charged with second-degree assault. Court papers say he put the barrel of a gun in his girlfriend’s mouth and threatened to burn her house down while she and her child slept. His trial is pending.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

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