Ex-sheriff is cruising into retirement after 32 years

He was a school teacher who didn’t want to be a cop. He was a cop who never wanted to be sheriff.

But Mike Hawley turned out to be the right person for both jobs. Before retiring last week, he spent 32 years in law enforcement on Whidbey Island, including 10 years as the political head of the Island County Sheriff’s Office during a time of personnel crises and transformations in law enforcement.

“Mike Hawley’s list of accomplishments is near legendary. He put up with politics and bureaucratic mindsets, brought community policing into country neighborhoods, and helped establish the local Juvenile Justice Center,” said Jan Smith, who was chief administrative deputy and de facto undersheriff when Hawley was in office.

Then he gave up running for the elected position, went back on the road as a lieutenant and dedicated more of his time to helping his wife M’Liss, who passed away last year, with her international career as a quilt and fabric designer, entrepreneur and author.

WHIDBEY ISLAND law enforcement will undoubtedly miss Hawley’s knowledge of the web of relationships among the people on the island and his ability to find people.

“Mike never lost the curiosity that is essential to top quality investigative work,” Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said. “He never stopped asking, ‘What, exactly, went on here?’ Whether it was a minor criminal trespass case, or a complicated white collar crime, Mike would dig in and get us what we needed as prosecutors.”

Over the years, Hawley has also found the time to write police detective novels that were published by Penguin and is working on another in the series.

Hawley grew up in Seattle and taught high school history here. His father-in-law had encouraged him to consider law enforcement, but he wasn’t all that interested until he was laid off from the school. He chose to work as a deputy on Whidbey Island.

His years as a patrol deputy informed his calm, respectful manner of law enforcement where deescalation comes naturally.

“It was not unusual to work the entire island by yourself,” he said. “You learn to use communication skills effectively.”

HAWLEY WORKED just about every commissioned position in the department, including detective, lieutenant and undersheriff. He was named as jail commander and manager of emergency dispatch, which was an outdated system located in the jail; each agency on the island at the time had its own dispatchers.

Hawley was charged with helping to create a new, coordinated dispatch system for the county and ICOM was the result.

“It’s still considered state of the art,” he said of the facility. “The way we set up the board of directors, every agency has an equal say.”

But at around that time, the sheriff’s office was imploding. A series of sexual harassment lawsuits, counter lawsuits and countless allegations led Sheriff Owen Burt to resign.

Hawley said he and Edd Proft were the only people in administrative positions in the office who were untouched by the scandal. Burt took them into a room and asked if either one of them wanted to be appointed sheriff. They both quickly declined. Burt insisted that one of them had to fill the role, so the two men ended up flipping a quarter.

Hawley lost.

He was appointed Nov. 1, 1996 to complete Burt’s term and subsequently ran two more times.

HAWLEY FOCUSED on upgrading and modernizing the office to keep up with a world in which law enforcement was becoming computerized and digitized, crime scene investigation was being revolutionized by DNA testing and other techniques, and rules were changing about sex offenses and domestic violence. He was part of the process of building a new Law and Justice building and the Juvenile Justice Center. He started the precincts.

“Mike has made tremendous contributions to the modernization and professionalism of the Island County Sheriff’s Office,” current Sheriff Rick Felici said. “He has also supported and encouraged me personally throughout my career. I will miss his counsel.”

Hawley found ways to put more deputies on the roads instead of administrators in offices. As Smith said, he ran a lean department.

Hawley said he also focused on bridging the gap between the community and police.

“We held at least 500 community meetings during my time in office,” he said. “At least one each week.”

AFTER 10 years as sheriff, his wife’s business, M’Liss’s Quilting World, was skyrocketing. She had spent so much time supporting his career, Hawley felt it was only fair for him to reciprocate. Plus, the business proved to be very profitable and involved travel around the world.

“I got to tag along and carry her luggage,” he joked.

But in fact, Hawley learned to design fabric and is continuing the business. M’Liss Design fabric is still selling in Hobby Lobby.

Tragically, M’Liss was diagnosed with a rare heart disease. Hawley was her caregiver for five years.

“It was the most difficult thing I will ever have to do,” he said, “and the most gratifying.”

Hawley said he was thankful for the support he received from his friends in the department and the county.

He said he loved going to work nearly every day, but it is a job that comes with violence and tragedy. Over the years, Hawley was involved with more than 20 murder cases.

“Some stick with you,” he said. “Some I am still processing.”

ONE OF the most difficult and tragic cases was the murder of Marjie Monnett, a well-known housing advocate, and her daughter Holly Swartz in an act of domestic violence in 2002. Swartz’s boyfriend killed them both with a shotgun in a quiet Freeland neighborhood, injured two other people, shot 20 to 30 rounds into neighbor’s houses and then killed himself.

Hawley was sheriff at the time but lived nearby and was the second officer at the scene at around 2 a.m.

“I had no idea what had happened,” he said. “There were three blown-apart bodies right in front of me.” He didn’t leave the scene for the next 42 hours as law enforcement, crime scene investigators and media from across the region came and went.

HAWLEY WAS known for his ability to find people. He said he earned his “20 minutes of world fame” when he rather nonchalantly caught the Cascade Mall shooter in Oak Harbor in 2016.

Hawley explained that his son Alex, a detective in King County, called him after hearing the news about the shooting and asked his father if he thought the shooter could be from Whidbey. He said he doubted it. Not long afterward, Hawley learned the shooter was Arcan Cetin and realized that he knew him from a previous gun-related call. He called his son back to tell him.

Then Hawley got a call that the shooter’s car was found parked in Oak Harbor. Hawley and the other deputies drove to the area. As Hawley was driving down Oak Harbor Road, he saw Cetin and locked eyes with him. He took him into custody without a problem.

“No big deal,” he said.

Hawley called his son back.

“Guess what?” he said. “I got him.”

Cetin committed suicide in Snohomish County jail before trial.

Not so long after that, Hawley was at the Sunnyside Cemetery in Oak Harbor, where his family members own a series of plots. He looked at his own and realized that Cetin is buried next to it.

“That literally freaked me out,” he said. “I have an appointment for a spot right next to him.”

But before that day, Hawley will be enjoying retirement. He said he plans to continue running the fabric business, writing more crime fiction and doing a lot of traveling, especially now that his daughter Adrienne and her wife have moved to Ireland.

“He will be missed,” Animal Control Officer Carol Barnes said. “Whether or not you have a badge, everyone likes Mike Hawley.”

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