SEATTLE (AP) — A longtime police officer arrested in a cocaine sting shot himself to death in the Cascade Mountain foothills hours after he was released from jail, the department said Thursday.
Richard F. Nelson, a patrolman in South Seattle for the past 21 years, became the focus of an internal investigation last summer after his colleagues and a member of the public complained about his handling of evidence in drug cases, Chief John Diaz told a news conference.
The investigation culminated Wednesday in a rare sting operation known as an "integrity test." An undercover officer from another jurisdiction, posing as someone who had just found a purse that contained cocaine, turned it in to Nelson as other investigators monitored him.
The investigators followed him as he neglected to turn the cocaine in, instead taking it with him in his personal car as he drove just past the city limits.
"This is a tremendous tragedy for this department," said Deputy Chief Nick Metz, who added that he knew Nelson and liked him. "We have a lot of officers grieving. Despite the actions this officer took, he was a friend to many. ... His family is grieving very much."
Nelson, a 50-year-old father of two teenagers, was observed by the department's command staff after his arrest. He was given an opportunity to speak, as well as to call his family or a lawyer. He declined, Diaz said.
He was released without bail from the King County Jail shortly before 5 a.m. Thursday. Members of the command staff drove him home.
About five hours later, he was found on John Wayne Trail, a popular hiking and biking route near North Bend, east of Seattle. He was taken to Harborview Medical Center, where he died.
The incident was the latest setback for the department, which is in the midst of implementing reforms outlined in a Department of Justice report last month that was highly critical of the use of force by Seattle police.
Inadequate supervision and training had led officers to grab weapons such as batons and flashlights too quickly and to escalate confrontations even when arresting people for minor offenses, federal officials said.
The Department of Justice launched an investigation last spring following the fatal shooting of a homeless Native American woodcarver and other reported uses of force against minority suspects. The probe was aimed at determining whether Seattle police have a pattern or practice of violating civil rights or discriminatory policing.