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Officials stay mum on third suspect in Douglas murder: Documents show county has had more than two suspects since 2005

Though only two people have been arrested in the 2003 murder of Russel Douglas, Island County law enforcement officials have long suspected that three people were involved in the Christmastime killing of the former Langley resident.

According to documents obtained by the South Whidbey Record, some authorities have believed since 2005 that there was sufficient evidence to charge three people with felony murder in the death of Douglas.

So far, only two people have been arrested for Douglas’ murder, and local law enforcement officials have been careful to avoid publicly acknowledging whether others may have been involved.

James “Jim” Huden, the accused triggerman, has been sitting in an Island County jail cell since late June, after he was plucked from his hideaway life on the lam in Veracruz, Mexico, and federal marshals returned him to Washington state on an arrest warrant that was issued in May 2005.

Peggy Sue Thomas was booked into Island County jail last month. She also faces a premeditated, first-degree murder charge after allegedly luring Douglas to the remote Freeland property where he was shot in the head.

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks has been repeatedly asked by reporters since Huden’s arrest in Mexico, and again after Thomas was arrested, if there are other suspects or “persons of interest” in the case. Banks has consistently declined to name or even comment on the possible involvement of others in the murder.

That continued this week, when Banks was asked about records that say three people were involved. (The documents obtained by the Record only mention Huden’s name, and do not state the names of the other two that investigators believed were involved.)

“Everybody keeps asking me about the third suspect. I have to be pretty careful,” Banks said Thursday. “She’s not charged and she has those rights as an individual.

“If we don’t have enough to charge her, I don’t see any point in dragging her name through the mud,” he said.

Sound of silence

The silent treatment isn’t exactly new in the case, however, as authorities have been taking that approach for years.

Officials did not say Huden or Thomas were suspects in August 2004 when police asked for the public’s help in finding the pair.

Instead, police said at the time they were only wanted because they might know something about the case. That announcement came after detectives had searched Thomas’ home in Henderson, Nev. and seized evidence, and interviewed Huden in Punta Gorda, Fla., where Huden told detectives he had visited Whidbey during Christmastime 2003 and had met with Douglas to give him a Christmas gift. Detectives had been told the month before, by a friend of Huden’s, that Huden had admitted killing a man on Whidbey with a .380-caliber handgun during his visit to the island.

A story on the Record’s website that said the police wanted to find the pair led to a call the next day from the sheriff’s office in Doña Ana County, N.M., where deputies said a retired police officer had turned in a Bersa .380-caliber pistol that he thought had been used to kill Douglas.

Detectives quickly learned that Huden had given the gun to the tipster for safekeeping, and before the end of August, the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab had matched Huden’s gun to the murder.

Police officially named Huden as a suspect in the murder in September. He had last been seen at a motel in Naples, Fla. on Aug. 31.

By March 2005, detectives had linked Thomas to the gun, finding her fingerprint on a page of the pistol’s operating manual.

Little loose talk

Still, officials stayed mum about potential suspects beyond Huden.

And when the arrest warrant was finally issued for Huden in May 2005, local authorities kept quiet for nearly three months that the $1 million warrant had been issued, saying at the time that federal marshals had advised against a “big media splash,” Banks said then, in hopes they would find Huden.

Banks has said little about the case outside of what’s been detailed in court papers.

At a press conference held after Huden was arraigned, Banks declined to give a motive for the murder.

“There’s still an open question there,” Banks said at the time. “I hope when we present the facts at trial, the motive will become clearer.”

Huden never met Douglas before the Christmas holiday when he was murdered. Authorities have said the connection between the two comes from Thomas, Huden’s mistress, who worked with the victim’s wife, Brenna Douglas. They were hairdressers in Langley, and business partners.

Banks has said authorities have talked to Brenna Douglas, but he’s repeatedly declined to say if she was a suspect.

He’s also stayed silent on whether others may be charged in the future.

Brenna Douglas had been living in Freeland, but online records with real estate companies indicate the home she bought in November 2004 on Everette Lane has been through foreclosure proceedings. It was sold at auction on Aug. 9 and purchased by Wells Fargo Bank.

Banks said this week he has remained in contact with Douglas, but would not disclose her location.

Internal trouble

Documents recently obtained by the Record also show local authorities were sharply at odds in the months before the arrest warrant was issued for Huden.

Emails between Banks and then-sheriff Mike Hawley show a sheriff impatient for the prosecutor to get moving on his review of the case, and follow that up with a warrant so Huden could be arrested.

Hawley, in an email from Jan. 13, 2005, warned Banks “these delays are sucking the momentum out of the investigation ... it’s critical that we get a warrant now, so we can move forward. Quite frankly, I am confounded by your reluctance to do so,” Hawley continued. “If Jim Huden was walking down the street past my office today, he’d be in jail a few moments later on PC [probable cause].”

Banks shot back with a pointed email that noted he’d received 11 three-ring binders from the lead detective on the case, just the week before Christmas, and his office had other pressing matters.

“Although I’m not sure what the emergency is, I still am giving Huden the top priority of my criminal cases. In fact, I have reassigned all of my other criminal cases to other deputies ... so I can work on Huden. Don’t blame the delays on me,” Banks wrote.

Most of the rest of Banks’ response was a dressing down of the work done by the sheriff’s office on the Huden case.

“The issues with the investigation are that (1) the investigation has so many flaws, it seriously undermines our ability to prosecute; and (2) the last information I had reviewed was tailor-made for a defense of ‘someone else did it,’ and (3) we suspect that there were two other participants in the crime, and moving prematurely on Huden would likely foreclose their prosecution. I would like to make sure that we have a solid case before we bring him into court.

“So far, your concerns and the concerns of your department have led to hasty actions, and later proven to be unfounded,” Banks continued.

“For example, the belief that Huden was going to flee to Las Vegas, led to a rushed, ill-conceived, ill-prepared attempt to search his home and interview him, which seriously compromised the investigation. Anxious detectives trying to rush a confession out of Huden resulted in them giving him all the information they had obtained in the case. The belief that if we did not obtain a warrant after he did flee would result in him either committing suicide or harming a police officer has so far proven unfounded.”

“You really shouldn’t make these bogus threats about getting someone else to get your warrant,” Banks told Hawley.

Two weeks later, Hawley formally asked the Homicide Investigation and Tracking System Unit of the Criminal Justice Division of the state Attorney General’s Office to review the county’s investigation.

According to a March 10, 2005 memo from the Attorney General’s Office, the sheriff’s office had concluded that probable cause existed to arrest one, two or three suspects in the murder of Douglas.

State investigators reviewed the details of the case, including witness statements, crime scene photographs, the autopsy and other evidence.

“After a careful review of the statements and evidence presented in this case,” the memo reads, “it is our opinion that the conclusions reached by your office are consistent with the facts in this case, namely, that the evidence gathered in this investigation is sufficient to recommend that felony murder charges be filed against one individual, and possibly three, for the murder of Russel A. Douglas.

“It is also our opinion that additional investigative steps, while helpful, are not necessarily a prerequisite to the filing of felony murder charges in this case,” said the memo, signed by Darryl Roosendaal, chief of the Criminal Investigation Section of the Attorney General’s Criminal Justice Division.

All is now well

Hawley, who rejoined the rank-and-file in the Island County Sheriff’s Office as a lieutenant after not running for another term as sheriff, declined to comment on the history of the Douglas case.

Banks said this week the earlier internal conflict was, in some ways, ancient history.

“We’re more focused on the conduct of the case at this point. Really, I’m happy with the sheriff’s detectives and how we’re working the case up. I think it’s going as well as it could go,” Banks said.

The timing of the arrest warrant wasn’t crucial, because Huden had already fled to Mexico in 2004.

“Huden was already in the wind,” Banks said. “At that point, it really wasn’t going to make a lot of sense to rush it.”

Though other suspects were mentioned earlier, Banks said he wanted more than just enough to get someone arrested.

“As a prosecutor you need to know you have evidence of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and evidence to meet any defenses that could be raised by the other side, if you’re going to charge someone with murder,” he said.

“We really didn’t, in my view, have enough to file charges against anybody else at the time.”

When asked about his email that pointed out flaws in the case, Banks said his response was probably worded too strongly.

“I wish I would have said gaps rather than flaws.”

Sheriff Mark Brown and Banks released a joint statement Thursday to the Record, and they said the investigation had been “long and complicated.”

“It has been conducted in a professional, thorough and competent manner by all officers involved,” the statement said. “The prosecution of those responsible has proceeded according to the standards required by law. The cooperative working relationship between the prosecutor and sheriff’s office has been, and continues to be, based on mutual trust, respect, and hard work. We are united in our desire to see justice served. The best way to achieve that includes the freedom of police and prosecutors to speak frankly with each other.

“There is no value in re-hashing an old controversy that we resolved collaboratively a long time ago.”

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