Motel meth case returned to court in Walla Walla

An appeals court ruled a plea deal was breached during sentencing.

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WALLA WALLA — A career criminal who police say set up a large methamphetamine lab at the Walla Walla Vineyard Inn in 2011 apparently will get at least another day in court as the result of an opinion issued Tuesday by the state Court of Appeals.

Clifford E. Chew, 58, is serving a nine-year prison term after pleading guilty in the meth case.

But Chew appealed, claiming the prosecution breached its plea agreement with him at sentencing by inappropriately uttering statements that undermined a promised recommendation of a seven-year prison term, which is the low end of the standard range.

A three-judge panel of the Spokane-based appellate court agreed in its 12-page decision and is sending the case back to Walla Walla County Superior Court.

The panel said although the sentencing judge, John Lohrmann, wasn’t bound by any recommendation, he apparently was influenced by the prosecution’s remarks.

Chew now can choose to withdraw his guilty plea and have his case start over or be resentenced by a different judge who can accept or reject the prosecution’s low-end recommendation.

Chew currently is incarcerated at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell. It’s unknown when further court proceedings will occur.

Chew has more than 35 felony arrests and convictions on his record for crimes including attempted murder and assault in other jurisdictions.

He was arrested in Walla Walla in May 2011 in a SWAT-team raid at the Vineyard Inn, 325 E. Main St. Police said they recovered many items used to manufacture meth — in addition to the finished product — when they served a search warrant in a room occupied by Chew.

The lab reportedly was one of the largest ever discovered in Walla Walla County.

Lohrmann sentenced Chew on March 5, 2012, to nine years in prison and then one year on community custody, a form of probation, for possessing meth with intent to manufacture it within 1,000 feet of a school bus route stop. The maximum Chew could have received is 10 years.

In pleading guilty the previous month, Chew didn’t admit guilt, but agreed there was evidence to convict him. He said he wanted to take advantage of a plea agreement in which the prosecution dropped charges and promised to recommend a seven-year prison term — the low end of the standard sentencing range.

But Tuesday’s Court of Appeals ruling says statements made at the sentencing hearing by Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Gabriel Acosta and the case’s lead Walla Walla police detective, Chris Buttice, contradicted the promised recommendation.

Chew’s attorney, Gail Siemers, had asked Lohrmann to consider a drug-offender treatment alternative, which would have significantly reduced Chew’s period of confinement.

Although Acosta did say he was recommending seven years, he and Buttice added they were against the alternative sentence. They then spoke of Chew’s extensive criminal record and the dangers of methamphetamine. At one point, Buttice said, “I don’t feel it’s right that we give any sort of leniency towards people who take advantage of our community in this way and bring their dirt here, if you will.”

Lohrmann then announced he wasn’t sentencing Chew to the low end of seven years, but was handing him nine years plus the community custody. Lohrmann cited the “horrendous” nature of meth, the risk of exposure to innocent people and Chew’s extensive criminal history.

Chew argued in his appeal that the aggravating factors Acosta and Buttice cited undermined the promised low-end recommendation. And the Court of Appeals’ panel agreed, saying Lohrmann already knew of Chew’s criminal record and the other remarks went beyond what was necessary to respond to the defense’s alternative-sentence proposal.

The judges decided that both Acosta and Buttice were bound by the plea agreement, which is a contract, and the statements they made, whether intentional or not, affected Lohrmann’s decision to impose a higher-end sentence.

“(Lohrmann’s) very reasons for an upward departure from the recommendation mirrored the points made by the (prosecution) at sentencing,” the Court of Appeals panel wrote.

Acosta said Tuesday he hadn’t read the opinion completely, so declined to comment.

His boss, Prosecuting Attorney Jim Nagle, said this morning if his office decides not to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, his staff will be ready for a resentencing or to prepare for a trial for Chew.

He added that Acosta’s remarks were only intended to rebut the defense request for an alternative treatment sentence and perhaps plea negotiations with defense attorneys will have to be more specific in the future.

Buttice said today he, too, only wanted to address the defense request, but added he respects the appeals court decision and police officers will be more careful about what they say at sentencing hearings.

Siemers didn’t return a phone call seeking a response.

Terry McConn can be reached at terrymcconn@wwub.com or 526-8319.

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