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County prevails in lawsuit from former sheriff candidate

Jay Wallace won’t be getting his badge back.

A federal court judge has ruled against the former deputy sheriff and said Island County was justified in firing Wallace after he shirked his duty in responding to 911 calls in Freeland where a woman was being held hostage and assaulted in early 2006.

Wallace, a one-time candidate for Island County sheriff, filed a lawsuit against Island County in May 2009 and claimed he had been targeted by former Sheriff Mike Hawley, who opposed his candidacy.

The lawsuit, which also named Hawley personally, accused county officials of fraud, misconduct and corruption and claimed that county officials had withheld information that would have helped Wallace in his fight to keep his deputy’s job. It also claimed that the county had violated Wallace’s civil rights and had wrongfully terminated his employment after he announced his campaign bid for sheriff.

U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik, in a decision announced last week, rejected all of Wallace’s claims and praised county officials for investigating Wallace’s response to the 911 calls that lay at the center of the case and his eventual termination.

“Such internal accountability, far from being outrageous, should be lauded,” Lasnik wrote in his decision.

Hawley, who did not run for re-election as sheriff and now works as a lieutenant in the sheriff’s department, said he was grateful for the decision, calling it “a clear, concise and complete ruling in my and the county’s favor.”

“I believe I’d done everything the proper way,” Hawley said of the Wallace investigation and subsequent dismissal of the longtime police veteran. “I bent over backwards to make sure everything was right.”

Hawley said he was glad that the legal ordeal — which included a union challenge to Wallace’s termination, formal criminal charges against the deputy that were ultimately dismissed, an administrative hearing where Wallace’s peace officer certification was revoked for dishonesty, and a $1.5 million claim filed by Wallace against the county in February 2008 that alleged his firing was politically motivated — was over.

“I’m glad,” he said. “It’s been like a low-grade toothache for the last seven years,” Hawley said.

Wallace’s attorney said it was too soon to say if the decision would be appealed.

“Our clients are disappointed with the decision, and respectfully disagree with Mr. Lasnik’s decision,” said attorney Gregory McBroom.

McBroom said he had not yet spoken with Wallace and his wife Lana, who were both parties to the lawsuit.

“We’ll be getting together this week to discuss it and look at the options available,” he said.

The Wallace case became one of the biggest scandals in memory for the Island County Sheriff’s Office after news became public of a botched police response to 911 calls made by a woman who was being held captive in a Freeland cabin in February 2006.

The victim, Victoria Walker, told police she had been held against her will and assaulted by Matthew Friar, a childhood friend, during their stay at his family’s summer home on Shoreview Drive. She called 911 twice, but Wallace, the deputy on duty who was sent to the scene, left without talking to anyone in the cabin and never came back when Walker called 911 for help a second time.

Walker escaped from the home the next morning and called police from a stranger’s cell phone at nearby Freeland Park.

Attempts to prosecute Friar for unlawful imprisonment and assault were unsuccessful, however, after Walker left the island and refused to contact detectives. She later collected a $150,000 settlement from Island County, alleging that the county had not properly trained and supervised its officers and that Wallace had been negligent in responding to the 911 calls.

For his part, Wallace repeatedly disputed investigators’ version of his response to the 911 calls, and said he was fired because of his political aspirations.

In his lawsuit, Wallace said Hawley’s public statements after the Freeland cabin incident caused “irreparable damage to … Wallace’s standing in the community and ruined his sheriff candidacy by poisoning public opinion.”

Wallace “was considered the favored candidate in community circles,” according to his lawsuit, but county officials worked to discredit Wallace and “paint him in a bad light with political parties, community groups, the press and voters.”

After the 911 controversy became public, the lawsuit noted that the Republican Party revoked its support of Wallace’s candidacy and he was no longer invited to speak at meetings or events.

Wallace said Hawley prohibited the deputy from talking to the press, while Hawley himself told a KIRO-TV reporter that Wallace had been fired for dishonesty and added, “He shouldn’t be elected dog catcher.”

In his Dec. 13 decision, the judge said Wallace had failed to prove his case, and said the county’s launching of an investigation into the deputy’s handling of the 911 calls was “eminently reasonable.”

Lasnik defended the termination proceeding and said the extensive materials submitted in the court case “fails to reveal anything that could be ‘exonerating’ evidence” and that evidence supported the allegation that Wallace had lied about his response to the 911 calls.

The judge also rejected Wallace’s argument that the victim’s version of events was unreliable.

“Having waded through the voluminous record in this matter, heard the arguments of counsel, and attempted to follow the logic of plaintiffs’ arguments, the court feels compelled to note that, in plaintiffs’ strenuous efforts to discredit Ms. Walker and her accusations by any means, they make unsupported arguments and draw irrational inferences that would, if not carefully analyzed, mislead the court,” Lasnik wrote.

The judge also said just because Friar was not found guilty didn’t mean there wasn’t a crime committed.

“It simply means, unremarkably, that Mr. Friar could not be prosecuted after the complaining witness disappeared. Ms. Walker’s relationship with Mr. Friar and her criminal and drug history may bear on her credibility, but these factors fall well short of proving that her allegations were false.

“Plaintiffs’ misstatements and overstatements in this proceeding are far more troubling and material than those of which defendants are accused,” Lasnik added.

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