Arbitrator weighs evidence in grievance against sheriff

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Editor's note: This story is revised from a previous version that contained an erroneous length of suspension for sheriff's Sgt. Bill White.

WALLA WALLA — A grievance filed against Walla Walla County Sheriff John Turner by the Walla Walla Commissioned Deputies Association entered its final phase, recently, more than a year after Turner called for an investigation into alleged misconduct by Sgt. Bill White.

Attorneys for White and Turner presented arguments and questioned witnesses during a hearing on June 10. The hearing was presided over by Arbitrator Kathryn Whalen.

White said this morning, in a brief phone interview, he felt encouraged by the way the hearing went. White didn’t provide additional information regarding specifics of the investigation.

At issue is whether Turner was justified in disciplining White last year by placing him on probation, and suspending him from duty for 60 hours without pay.

White, who ran for sheriff against Turner in the 2010 election, was placed on administrative leave on May 21, 2012, while Benton County Sheriff’s Office detectives were called on to investigate claims against White that included insubordination and dereliction of duty.

According to documents obtained by the Union-Bulletin, the allegations against White stemmed from three separate incidents in 2012, starting with the investigation of a homicide at the New York Store on May 4, 2012.

Jamie Goldberg, attorney for the Walla Walla Commissioned Deputies Association, said following the June hearing this is the most serious of the three allegations and featured heavily in the grievance proceeding due to inconsistencies in statements given by Sheriff’s Office staff to Benton County detectives during the internal investigation.

Documents — including written reports and audio recordings — from the Benton County detectives that were obtained via a records request show that Turner and his undersheriff, Edward Freyer, claimed they told Benton County detectives that Turner gave White a directive to seize and count a bag of money found at the New York Store following the shooting death of Cesar Chavira.

The bag, described as an off-white canvas bag with a zipper, was not seized, but was eventually turned over to John Saul’s attorney. It apparently never left the New York Store, and was not featured in the homicide investigation. Turner’s allegation against White was solely focused on Turner’s claim that White ignored a directive from a superior officer.

Benton County Detective Lee Cantu wrote in a final report, “Sheriff Turner indicated that he directed Sgt. White to count the money in the presence of another law enforcement officer member of the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office, fill out a receipt for the money, and seize it for safekeeping.”

But Goldberg said following the hearing he doesn’t believe White would ever have ignored a direct order.

“It’s a dispute whether Sgt. White was ordered to do something or not, We’re taking the position he was not,” Goldberg said, alluding to timeline discrepancies that surfaced in the Benton County investigation.

Turner said this week, in an emailed response, that questions from the Union-Bulletin referring to the apparent discrepancies mischaracterize the evidence from the investigation.

“I believe it is fair for you to let your readers know that your opinions are based upon less information than I had when adjudicating this matter, and less information than the arbitrator now has in making their up-coming decision,” Turner wrote.

Turner also said, both in writing and a brief phone interview Wednesday morning, that he would not comment on the details of the investigation because it is a personnel matter.

This morning Tom Cooper, president of the Walla Walla Deputies Association, rebutted Turner’s claim that additional information beyond what was included in the Benton County Sheriff’s Office investigation was presented during the hearing. White also said today that investigators did not add any new information.

The timeline problem alleged by Goldberg revolves around when Turner and White spoke about the money bag the morning of May 4, 2012.

Benton County detectives Cantu and Scott Runge concluded, based on statements from Turner and Freyer, that Turner gave White the order to seize the bag of money at roughly 3:46 a.m.

White, however, told Cantu and Runge he didn’t learn about the bag of money until after roughly 6 a.m., and only spoke with Turner about the bag of money at the Sheriff’s Office later that morning.

In their investigative reports, Cantu and Runge wrote that Walla Walla Deputy Steve Duehn and the office’s Crime Analyst Matt Stroe were the first two people to report discovering the bag in question. According to Duehn and Stroe, they found the bag between 3:30 and 4 a.m. near an office in the back of the store, and it didn’t appear to be part of the crime scene. Duehn and Stroe stated they did not open the bag, but continued doing a sweep of the store.

After Duehn and Stroe spotted the bag, according to the investigation documents and audio recordings, no one apparently noticed the satchel until Deputy Dale Preas and Sgt. Jim Romine found it at about 6 a.m.

“I noticed what appeared to be a money bag on the floor,” Preas told detectives. “It was zipped up and it appeared it had something in it. I didn’t want to touch it without someone else there.”

Preas said he called Romine over and they opened the bag together, saw a large amount of cash, and then notified White, who was the incident commander at the time.

“What was Bill White’s response at that point?” Cantu asked Preas in the audio recording.

Preas paused for seven seconds before answering.

“He seemed very, not caring about the bag,” Preas stated eventually. “I don’t know his exact wording, but he seemed very indifferent.”

Cantu asked, “His response, to you meant, or at least in your opinion, like he already knew about it?”

(Preas paused for another seven seconds.)

“My...” Preas paused. “My thoughts on his, uh...”

(Five seconds.)

“Trying to word this...”

(Five seconds.)

“I didn’t get an impression as to whether he knew about it or not,” Preas said finally. “I got the impression that he didn’t care about it.”

Preas added he then zipped the bag and put it back where he found it, though he stated he and Romine had discussed whether the money should be placed into safekeeping.

“I thought when I had discovered (the bag) that I had been the first person to discover it,” Preas told the Benton County detectives.

“I later found out via rumor the money had already been discovered,” Preas added. “I also heard Turner had given Sgt. White a directive to seize the money.”

Despite the rumored directive, however, none of the other deputies at the New York Store that morning told detectives they had opened the bag before Preas and Romine. Stroe, who said he first spotted the bag with Duehn, recalled he hadn’t heard about money in the bag until about 7 a.m.

White told detectives he spent most of his time with New York Store owner John Saul.

Statements by other deputies at the scene indicated White also helped his colleague, Detective Gary Bolster, interview Saul at the Sheriff’s Office.

Romine corroborated Preas’ account, but added that White told them he already knew about the bag. Romine also told Benton County detectives that later that morning at the Sheriff’s Office, he overheard Turner asking White why he hadn’t seized the money.

Cantu wrote in his report, “Sheriff Turner was asked whether he had any subsequent conversations with Sgt. White about the money after he spoke with Sgt. Romine and (Undersheriff) Freyer. Sheriff Turner initially said no, however when told what Sgt. Romine reported, he recalled having a brief conversation with Sgt. White...”

White claims he did speak to Turner at the office sometime after 7 a.m. when he updated the sheriff of the investigation, and told Turner that Preas and Romine had found the bag of money. White told the Benton County investigators, “Turner said something to the effect ‘that the money should be receipted and brought back,’ but he assumed Sheriff Turner meant for Sgt. Romine to take care of the money issue.”

The Benton County detectives did not ask Romine when he relieved White at the scene, or why Romine hadn’t seized the money during his shift. White claims Romine took over for him between 6:30 a.m. and 6:45 a.m. when White went back to the office to start paperwork and end his shift.

Cantu would not answer Union-Bulletin questions on the investigation or provide a statement, and said Turner would have to address any questions about the investigation.

Cantu noted in his report, however, that deputy Duehn was concerned there was “malice” behind the allegations against White.

“(Duehn) told us that ‘he feels there is malice behind the whole situation’ but denied providing the names of individuals he feels are responsible for the malice.”

The second allegation against White involves former Deputy Chad Pederson, who lost a personal camera he had been using to take crime scene photos, including photos of the New York Store investigation.

Pederson told White, his supervisor, about the lost camera. Turner alleges that White then did not take appropriate action. The Sheriff’s Office eventually recovered the lost camera.

Pederson left the Sheriff’s Office shortly after the White investigation started and was hired by the College Place Police Department.

The other allegation against White is whether he should have allowed a reserve deputy to report for duty while sporting a goatee at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds during the Balloon Stampede.

Uniformed officers by policy are not allowed to grow goatees. White told the Benton County investigators that, at the time, he wasn’t sure if there had been a policy change for reserve deputies. So White said he asked his then-captain, Barry Blackman, if the reserve deputy was allowed to wear a goatee. Blackman referred the question to Turner, who sent the reserve deputy home, and leveled a charge against White of failure to supervise.

Goldberg told the Union-Bulletin that both allegations were brought up during the hearing this month, but were of less concern.

“They were secondary focuses, but they were discussed,” Goldberg said.

Turner’s attorney, Michael Bolasina, would not discuss the hearing, claiming he was “not authorized to comment.”

Turner, in this week’s email to the Union-Bulletin, wrote he believed “all parties and witnesses had an equal and fair opportunity to be heard,” during the hearing, and that a decision is not expected for three months.

Goldberg said following the hearing both attorneys would submit closing arguments in writing by July 10, and then arbitrator Whalen would have up to 60 days to issue her final decision. Goldberg added that Whalen will have the authority to uphold or overturn Turner’s decision to discipline White.

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