Pend Oreille County Clerk Winnie Sundseth is being investigated for allegedly helping a criminal suspect avoid arrest.
Washington State Patrol Sgt. Chris Powell confirmed Friday that the WSP is investigating Sundseth on a possible misdemeanor charge of rendering criminal assistance in the third degree.
Sundseth said “there was an apparent misunderstanding between departments,” and she expects to be exonerated “when all the facts are presented.”
Sundseth, 53, has been clerk of the county’s Superior Court since 1989.
She is suspected of hiding Newport-area resident Randy D. Brown, 35, in her office while sheriff’s deputies and a probation officer were searching for him on June 15. Powell said a motive for Sundseth to help Brown “hasn’t been established that I am aware of.”
Officers were trying to serve two warrants charging Brown with violating his probation and a court order to keep away from his estranged wife, Faith.
Undersheriff Dick Arend said Brown was expected to appear in court on other matters, and employees in the Hall of Justice had been asked to call the sheriff’s department when Brown arrived.
Arend said deputies reported Brown emerged from under a counter in the clerk’s office on the third time that Hackwith or deputies went to the office in the course of their search.
“I don’t believe it was three occasions,” Sundseth said, adding, “He was not hiding under my counter.”
She said Brown was in her private office because her main office was crowded with people.
“I don’t think he was hiding,” Sundseth said. “He was told to wait there until the judge (Superior Court Judge Larry Kristianson) gave him an answer (about a pending case).”
She said Brown asked whether he could wait in her office. “I didn’t tell him to wait here.”
Sundseth said the only searcher who approached her was Hackwith, the county probation officer, and she doesn’t recall denying that Brown was in her office.
“I never saw a sheriff’s department person, period,” she said.
Nor did she see a warrant, Sundseth said, adding that she still doesn’t know whether Hackwith has authority to make an arrest.
Sundseth hired Newport attorney Doug Lambarth after Prosecutor Tom Metzger ruled the charge against Sundseth is not one for which his office is required to represent her. Metzger said he appointed Clark Colwell, retired chief criminal deputy prosecutor for Spokane County, to handle any possible prosecution of Sundseth.
“He can do whatever he feels is appropriate,” Metzger said. “He has the years of experience and the judgment to know what is appropriate.”
Colwell retired in 1993 after 21 years in the Spokane County prosecutor’s office.
Brown has a long history of domestic abuse charges, most of which have been dismissed at his wife’s request. She was granted a restraining order against Brown on June 15 and subsequently filed for divorce.
Brown has been convicted of obstructing a police officer, violating a protection order and committing fourth-degree assault.
Deborah McRoberts, director of the Family Crisis Network shelter in Newport, said she was unnerved to learn that Brown may have been hiding in the Hall of Justice at the same time she and his wife were waiting to confront him in court.
“We’re looking at a real safety issue here, and it certainly doesn’t make people feel like they’re protected in the Hall of Justice when an abuser can elude arrest in the Superior Court Clerk’s office,” McRoberts said.