January 22, 1995 in City

Justice Was Never Served For Murdered Girls

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:column

Two little girls snatched during a walk to the candy store.

One found dead hours later, her body hidden under a pile of smoldering pine needles. The other still missing.

A prime suspect fingered by police.

What happened to Nikki Wood, 11, and Rebecca West, 12, on Oct. 23, 1991, outraged this city like few crimes do.

It was the catalyst for a new police substation, dedicated to the loving memories of the two young victims.

It sparked renewed interest in Block Watch programs, helping make the girls’ crime-ridden West Central neighborhood a safer place to live.

This ghastly case also brought out the usual bottom feeders: vote-seeking politicians from the City Council to former House Speaker Tom Foley. They rode in parades and speechified, vowing never to forget what happened to Nikki and Rebecca.

Nearly 3 1/2 years later, the hot air has blown away. Spokane’s attention has turned to other atrocities. Other victims.

Few recall that justice has never been served for these girls.

The case against Michael W. Tarbert - a drug addict who is serving a rape conviction in the state pen - has gone nowhere.

The files have grown mold in the county prosecutor’s office since Oct. 28, 1992, when Sheriff’s Detective Jim Hansen sent them there to ask that Tarbert be charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

“It was obvious in my mind that nothing was going to get done,” says a frustrated Hansen.

“I’ve got my own ideas what happened, but I’m not going to bad-mouth anybody.”

He’s too polite to lay blame for the stalled case on Don Brockett’s dismal last hurrah as county prosecutor.

Brockett, who mercifully retired, spent the waning days of his career waging unsuccessful judicial campaigns and sniping at imagined political enemies rather than concentrating on dirtbags like Tarbert.

“The last several years Brockett got more difficult to work with,” agrees Hansen.

Adding to the prosecutorial confusion was the December 1993 retirement of Clark Colwell, Brockett’s chief criminal deputy and right-hand man.

“I think about that case often,” says Colwell, who adds that at the time he left he didn’t consider the investigation ready for filing.

It’s true that evidence against Tarbert is largely circumstantial.

Bloodhounds tracked his scent from a cabin he once lived in to the spot where Nikki’s burned body was found. Tarbert was a friend of Wood’s mother. The more police questioned the man about the girls, the more he changed his tale.

But it’s also true that Hansen’s handiwork won’t age for the better like a fine cabernet.

One witness has died. Other witnesses were in the sixth grade at the time. Hansen worries that their memories will get shakier as the years go by.

“To let this sit is a travesty,” says the detective.

The last hope that Nikki and Rebecca will be avenged rests with Jim Sweetser, Spokane County’s new prosecutor who took office at the first of the year.

Sweetser talks the talk. He vows to examine the file soon. He says he trusts Hansen’s judgment.

The evidence may not be air-tight. But should the murder of two girls be shelved because some overcautious lawyer doesn’t think the case has a high enough win factor in court?

“Sometimes you have to take a risk,” Sweetser says, and “let a jury have the option to decide.”

Preach it, Jim. There are people who still care about what happened to two Spokane kids who thought they could walk safely to the store for a bag of candy.

“I’m beyond mourning for my daughter, she’s in a better place,” says Dan Wood, Nikki’s father. “But I tell you, I’m still mad as hell.”

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