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    Washington police sergeant fired after intervening in sick man's life

    2024-06-11

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    A longtime Steilacoom police officer arrived at a dilapidated home last August, finding a pool of blood outside and a cracked door that led to an elderly man in the throes of a medical emergency.

    Sgt. Larry Whelan was summoned to the 600 block of 1st Street for a welfare check after it was reported the sick man's dog was running loose and a neighbor spotted the blood. Bill Johnston, the 72-year-old homeowner who Whelan knew, had cancer. He was lying inside near the door in filth with an apparent stomach tumor but reportedly able to talk with Whelan.

    While Johnston was in the hospital, his house, which didn't have a lock, was red-tagged by the town, meaning it was condemned and deemed too unsafe for him to return. He died within a month of the welfare check after leaving the hospital and briefly staying in Tacoma with his wife. The couple had been separated for 20 years but still occasionally talked.

    Johnston's poor health before his death raised immediate questions: Who'd take care of his dog, a Belgian Malinois named Tali? What would happen to his house? Whelan, 58, intervened to help out.

    He took Tali home. He referred Johnston and his wife to a real-estate brokerage. It was a firm where Whelan, as a real estate agent, had planned to hang his license. He also assisted in collecting and moving at least 16 firearms, many in poor condition, to a safe in a neighbor's house.

    Johnston, a Navy veteran, had been a competitive shooter who enjoyed collecting firearms, according to his wife.

    As Johnston laid in a hospital bed, his guns were escorted out of his home by Whelan and the neighbor using a wheelbarrow. The transfers occurred over at least two trips about a week apart. The sergeant was off duty during the second visit.

    Whelan, a 33-year veteran of the town's dozen-member Department of Public Safety, was fired in February for his actions in the aftermath of the Aug. 19 welfare check, according to investigative records obtained by The News Tribune. The records detailed the circumstances that led to the veteran sergeant coming under scrutiny.

    Whelan, who's appealing his termination, said in an interview that Johnston had not only been aware of what he was doing but also asked him to do it.

    "All I did was help somebody," he said. "I gained nothing out of this."

    The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. Searches and seizures inside a home are presumed to be unreasonable without a warrant, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. There are exceptions, including if an officer receives consent to search from a resident.

    A town administrative investigation couldn't confirm or establish whether Johnston gave consent to enter his home or remove his firearms.

    There were other issues.

    The neighbor who took custody of Johnston's weapons had been the one who earlier reported to police that something was amiss at Johnston's residence. Whelan knew the neighbor well. Their sons had played baseball together. Whelan understood he had a concealed weapons permit, but he didn't conduct a background check to ensure he could receive the guns.

    The neighbor did not return an inquiry seeking comment for this story.

    There was also something else Whelan hadn't done: He didn't write a police report to document the welfare-check call or subsequent related activity.

    Ken Thomas is a retired Kent and Des Moines police chief who was hired to conduct the town's administrative investigation. Thomas noted in his report that a reasonable officer would have recognized the need to document entry into the home and the gun transfers to a neighbor.

    The gestures Whelan said were intended as acts of goodwill were red flags to some within his own department, records show. The transfer of firearms particularly raised concerns, three members told Thomas. They found it problematic that Whelan hadn't authored a report, documented any gun serial numbers or taken the firearms into the station.

    Less than two weeks after the welfare check, an anonymous complaint filed with the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission alleged that Whelan's behavior had been criminal. The complainant suspected that Whelan had provided the guns to a federal firearms licensed dealer to be illegally sold and alleged that he stood to profit from the sale of Johnston's home as its listing agent.

    Whelan adamantly denied the claims, which were deemed unfounded by a subsequent criminal investigation separate from the town's probe.

    Whelan told The News Tribune he believed he was being targeted by some of his peers with false and anonymous complaints wrongly casting doubt on his abilities and questioning whether he should remain law enforcement-certified.

    "I'm absolutely overwhelmed with the entirety of this," he said in the brief interview, acknowledging that his attorneys had advised him not to speak to news reporters while his appeal was pending. "I don't understand how the town can come to the conclusion it has."

    Likewise, Johnston's wife expressed frustration to The News Tribune over Whelan's firing. Tia Johnston called it wrong and "stupid," saying that her late husband had been concerned about ensuring his firearms were secured and that Whelan went above and beyond to help.

    "Police officers like Larry are few and far between," she said, "and we actually need more of them like him."

    No criminal wrongdoing

    The CJTC complaint against Whelan spurred a criminal probe conducted by the Tacoma Police Department, which found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, including that Whelan had attempted to steal or illegally sell the weapons removed from Bill Johnston's house, according to the department's report on the case.

    TPD determined that Johnston's home was listed for sale not by Whelan but by the brokerage that Whelan had referred to Johnston. Tia Johnston was interviewed as part of the criminal investigation.

    She told TPD that it was her and her husband's idea to sell the property and that Whelan declined her husband's offer to handle the transaction due to "conflict of interest" concerns. He then provided a referral.

    She also said she was grateful that Whelan was able to take care of Tali and appreciative that the neighbor could temporarily store Johnston's firearms because she couldn't immediately secure them. It was her understanding that her husband told Whelan about the guns in his residence and asked the sergeant to keep them safe.

    There was a licensed firearms dealer that she believed could help her sell the weapons, but she hadn't yet reached out to him as of her Nov. 30 interview with TPD, the department's report shows. Whelan told Thomas that he had contacted the dealer, to whom he had referred business in the past, to give him a heads up because Whelan planned to tell Johnston's wife about him as an option for getting rid of the guns.

    TPD's report noted that Whelan documented key aspects of his response to the welfare check in the call's computer-aided dispatch (CAD), which is a law enforcement tool used to manage emergency situations — albeit lacking the thorough narrative form of a police report. Whelan wrote "weapons secured by neighbor" and "dog secured," among a few other notes, and cleared the call with a designation that a Tacoma police investigator understood to indicate that no formal report was required.

    "In speaking with those involved it can be concluded Sgt. Whelan was acting as a guardian of his community and in a community care taking role when he made an effort to secure the property of a citizen within his community and jurisdiction," TPD's report said.

    The investigation did not review Whelan's actions for possible violations of department policy. The town's internal administrative investigation handled that responsibility.

    Subject to discipline

    The internal investigation was less favorable than the criminal probe.

    It determined Whelan failed to follow policy by not filling out an incident report; defied a written order to not discuss the internal review with town employees or others; had been untruthful and inconsistent in his accounts of what occurred; and colluded with other witnesses to the point of likely influencing their accounts.

    Tia Johnston, who was also interviewed for the administrative probe, told The News Tribune that Whelan never tried to influence what she would say to investigators.

    On Jan. 4, Public Safety Chief Tom Yabe sent a memo to Whelan, alerting him of the findings.

    "Review of the investigation determined that you made multiple trips to the residence-in-question, both on-and-off duty, in order to transfer significant quantities of firearms between private parties," the memo said, adding that he had done so long after the need for safekeeping had elapsed. "Additionally, you neglected to advise an assigned supervisor before, or immediately thereafter, performing substantial actions within a high-liability and low-frequency incident."

    The investigation's sustained findings were accompanied by proposed disciplinary measures.

    It was recommended Whelan receive a 30-day suspension of pay for failing to complete an incident report; a reduction in rank for the firearms transfers; and verbal counseling for an unrelated matter that occurred shortly after the welfare check.

    Whelan had used white-out to remove a date on an older insurance document needed for an application to the state Department of Health to continue Steilacoom's emergency medical services. He told Thomas that the older document had been a placeholder and he had planned to send the new document into the state once he had it, but he forgot.

    "I didn't white it out and write in a new date," Whelan said, according to a report on the administrative probe. "I just took the date off. Stupid. I shouldn't have done that."

    The incident, in part, represented one of Whelan's biggest problems.

    Fireable offenses?

    Yabe's memo noted that two sustained findings were cause for termination.

    In one, Whelan was accused of disobedience or insubordination for not following written orders to submit the updated insurance document to the state and to refrain from discussing the internal investigation with others — a subject matter he allegedly broached "on multiple occasions and involving multiple persons."

    In the other finding, Whelan was criticized for testimony during the investigation that "significantly varied across multiple key facts" and was allegedly disputed by witnesses and video evidence.

    "This significant quantity of discrepancies suggests, at worst, a purposeful deviation from the truth, or at best, a consistent inability to recall crucial details within a unique and distinct incident only weeks removed from that incident having occurred," the memo said.

    Thomas' 72-page investigative report featured an addendum at the bottom of pages to denote certain highlighted material where he found inconsistencies in Whelan's interviews.

    For instance, Whelan said Johnston directed him by phone, while in the hospital, where to search for guns hours after the welfare check. There had been no corroborating interaction documented in cellphone records, according to the report. The neighbor recalled taking two or three steps into the home while Whelan searched for guns, yet Whelan said that he and the neighbor both entered the home to recover the weapons.

    As the investigator tried to clarify communication between Whelan and Johnston, Whelan acknowledged that his recollection was "a jumbled-up mess," according to the report.

    He also claimed to have notified Yabe and another sergeant about removing the firearms, but both denied he had done so, the report said.

    Mike Miskell, the Teamsters Union representative for Whelan, defended the embattled sergeant in an interview with The News Tribune. Miskell disputed that department leaders hadn't been made aware of Whelan's actions, and he criticized what he said had been an approach to enact progressive discipline in one fell swoop.

    "The way it was handled from the chief was pretty not great," he said.

    Miskell, who acknowledged that Whelan could have handled things differently, rejected that the sergeant's firing was warranted.

    "I know Larry. I worked with him enough now," he said. "I don't think there was any malice from his actions of that day."

    Whelan's appeal is expected to head to arbitration in the fall.

    Missing the mark

    Yabe told The News Tribune that the department acted appropriately, reviewing each policy allegation on its own merit versus imposing singular discipline over a broad set of claims. The investigation was made difficult by having little information to start with, he said, as it tried to get to the root of what actually occurred.

    Whelan's failure to perform a background check prior to handing over Johnston's guns was a key issue, Yabe said, adding that it's expected that law enforcement perform a check whenever transferring firearms to civilians.

    State law provides certain background-check exemptions for gun transfers, including when it's necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm, or when it's to a law enforcement officer acting in the scope of their employment.

    It's not uncommon for police to take temporary custody of guns for safekeeping, such as in domestic violence or mental health calls, according to Yabe. But weapons must be voluntarily given up and, even then, law enforcement is expected to conduct a background check on individuals returning to recover their surrendered guns, Yabe said.

    "Our greatest responsibility here is earning and maintaining the trust of our community," Yabe said, "and when we miss the mark, that doesn't reflect solely on the individual, that reflects on the entire organization and that's challenging."

    Yabe was recently the subject of three CJTC complaints, filed October through March, accusing him of mishandling the investigation because he was friends with Whelan. The complaints alleged, among other things, that Yabe only began looking into the altered insurance document after he was notified the CJTC had also received complaints about it and that he had waited too long to place Whelan on administrative leave.

    Whelan was placed on leave Nov. 18, nearly two months after the welfare check. Yabe told The News Tribune that the action had become necessary only once it was known that allegations against Whelan could be criminal in nature.

    The CJTC determined in March that Yabe appeared to have handled the probe appropriately and closed the case, according to a copy of the agency's decision shared by Yabe.

    'Proud of what I did'

    Whelan, who made $145,292 in gross wages last year, joined the Steilacoom Department of Public Safety in 1990. His entire law enforcement career was spent in Steilacoom, a town he discovered after arriving at Joint Base Lewis-McChord as a firefighter in the Air Force, he told The News Tribune. He was the town's citizen of the year in 2016.

    His personnel file, obtained by The News Tribune, contains a few dozen letters from residents and local officials praising his conduct over the years. A man pulled over for a traffic violation expressed appreciation for Whelan's kindness and patience. A Cubs Scouts leader thanked Whelan for spending part of his weekend providing a tour of department facilities to the children.

    Whelan's file also included a reprimand from his then-chief in October 2019 in response to a use-of-force incident. He was cleared of wrongdoing by a five-member review board composed of area law enforcement officials. Still, then-Chief T.J. Rodriguez found fault in Whelan's reporting.

    "Your general report narrative lacked the detail, clarity, and thoroughness regarding your force response expected by your rank and experience," Rodriguez wrote in a memo, adding that Whelan would undergo more training.

    Nearly four years later, Whelan would again find himself facing scrutiny over documentation.

    Records show that Whelan had expressed regret for not writing a police report to note his actions related to the welfare check last August, although he told Thomas on Oct. 4 that he didn't think he needed to document a medical aid call in which he had secured the scene for paramedics.

    "It may be in the policy," Whelan had said, according to the administrative investigation report, "but that's not our practice."

    Whelan reiterated to The News Tribune that he would have written a police report in hindsight, noting that he had offered to do so as soon as he realized there was a problem.

    He also suggested that the investigation had drawn conclusions by what hadn't been recorded via his in-car camera and body microphone. The audio goes on and off, depending on where he's standing, he said.

    In relation to that, Thomas noted in his report that he hadn't heard any discussion about relocating guns to the neighbor's house on Whelan's body-microphone audio during the welfare check.

    Whelan insists his thorny situation arose from his efforts to aid someone in need. Not only did he not seek out or make any money, he told Thomas he had spent his own funds on Tali's veterinarian bills and clothes for Johnston.

    He said he only offered to take Tali, who still lives with him today, until Johnston recovered because Johnston didn't want his dog to go to the pound and had no one else to watch over her. He also was clear: Johnston asked for his guns to be stored with his neighbor.

    Whelan said five to 10 guns were recovered from the home when they went back hours after the welfare check, and the remaining weapons were collected when they returned roughly a week later.

    The neighbor also told Thomas he secured Johnston's house on the day of the call, using a piece of wood and screws, because there was no lock on Johnston's front door.

    "I'm proud of what I did, that much I can say," Whelan told The News Tribune. "I did the right thing for the right reasons."

    Now, Whelan is fighting to get his job back, acknowledging that his reputation in the roughly 7,000-person bedroom community had taken a hit. It was particularly tough for him to break the news to his children that he was being fired for what he said was simply safeguarding weapons, taking care of a dog and following up with a family.

    "I've lost everything," he said. "I'm just heartbroken over all of this."

    ___

    (c)2024 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

    Visit The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) at www.TheNewsTribune.com

    Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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