Judith Billings still draws the curtains to keep out the night - and the bullet she feared would come through her window.
Billings is superintendent of public instruction, a job she never dreamed would require her to wear a bulletproof vest to work.
Tormented by an enraged public employee she laid off because of budget cuts, Billings became a prisoner of fear.
“I didn’t answer the door at night. I watched every overpass on my way to and from work,” Billings said last week. “I awoke many times in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep with the threats running over and over again through my mind:
“You don’t deserve to live. God has said you must die. Make your peace with God and with your friends if you have any. The other bullets will come. They can’t protect you forever. You can’t hide forever.”
Even after changing the locks to her office twice, Billings came to work one morning in Olympia to find every chair in her office moved, every drawer opened.
“I felt like a prisoner in my own office but even that sanctuary was threatened by entry in the night, sending this unsettling message: ‘I can get to you. You are not safe anywhere.”’
Phillip Harrison, 62, of Lacey, Wash., was jailed last week, after his guilty plea to two counts of felony harassment in Thurston County Superior Court.
He was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 30 days of home detention, and 240 hours of community service.
He also must undergo psychological evaluation and counseling and stay away from Billings’ home and office for five years.
To the end, Harrison would not admit he stalked Billings. He instead implied he was pleading guilty only to avoid an expensive trial.
A former campaign worker for Billings, Harrison lost his job during a round of layoffs two years ago.
A supervisor of building maintenance operations, he was one of 12 employees eliminated by budget cuts in June 1993.
Billings gave the final OK for Harrison’s dismissal, but at the advice of the attorney general’s office, did not deliver the news personally.
That’s when Billings’ troubles began. Harrison immediately demanded a meeting with Billings at an Olympia restaurant, where he told her, “I’ve had it and I want my pound of flesh,” a court affidavit says.
Later the same day, he called Billings at the office and said, “If I’m going down, I will take you with me. I do consider this revenge and a payback,” the court records say.
Then, a card came in the mail, with a homemade button that said “Eliminate Judith Billings.”
Billings, 55, first contacted the Washington State Patrol about the threats in July 1993. Harrison admitted mailing the threat, but said he meant no harm.
Then the bullets started arriving.
In November and December of 1994, Harrison sent envelopes to Billings’ home and office with threatening and obscene notes, court records say. Each note came with a live .38-caliber round.
One said, “You turned your back on all your friends. You killed many without using a bullet. … You don’t deserve to live.”
At her home, two weeks before Christmas, Billings received another threat: “Make peace with your friends if you have any … they can’t watch you forever.”
Two weeks later, troopers searched Harrison’s home and found a hand-written note: “God has chosen me to destroy the cancer that is destroying our agency. One at a time or as a group the following people must go. The first person on the list is you, Judith Billings. … To ignore this note would be a big mistake.”
Officers also found a book, “The Art of Getting Even,” and a sheet of paper with adhesive letters spelling BANG BANG in Harrison’s briefcase.
And they found a Rolodex card with Billings’ home address, phone, fax, mobile phone number, and make, model, vehicle and license plate number of her car.
Police tested DNA in material found on the envelopes mailed to Billings, and discovered it matched DNA in a blood sample from Harrison.
He was charged with felony harassment, but staunchly maintained his innocence until his guilty plea Oct. 20.
Harrison solicited testimonials that jam his court file from past and current Rotary presidents, local businessmen and women, fellow Korean War veterans, family, friends, and even former state Sen. Leo Thorsness.
They all vouched for Harrison, said they could never believe he would do such a thing.
Billings, a former junior high school teacher, said she ran for public office because she wanted to help children as head of the state’s school system.
She had tried for years to have children but couldn’t. That pushed Billings to dedicate her life not to a few children of her own, but to helping as many as she could through the public schools.
She ran for the state’s top schools post in 1988, the first campaign of her life, and won. She was re-elected in 1992.
Billings figured public life wouldn’t be easy, that she would be criticized for decisions and policies. But she never pictured living in fear for her life.
“She would go out the door to work in the morning and there would be days I wondered if I would ever see her again,” said Don Billings, her husband of 23 years. “I felt so helpless.
“At home we were always afraid of a shot coming through the window. It was a totally foreign kind of thing. It changes everything.”
They had security lights installed around their Puyallup home, curtained every window, put a peephole in the door. Don Billings started driving his wife to work, checking for snipers along the way.
State employees evacuated the SPI office building in downtown Olympia every time an unusual package came in the mail, fearing a bomb.
Billings wore a bulletproof vest, and worked behind locked doors.
Troopers guarded her at home and at work, and warned Billings to change her routes to and from the office.
“It has an incredible chilling effect if I, or any other public official, must worry about our personal safety as a result of making tough decisions,” Billings said.
“The tension of wondering when the next threat would come, or if the bullet would be delivered as a gunshot, is impossible to describe.”
Billings doesn’t want to see herself or anyone else scared away from public office. Or making tough decisions once they get there.
“The worst thing we could do is let people out there that are a little bit off keep good people from giving their talent to the public.”
An apology from Harrison would help, Billings said.
“To know he’s worked through it. What he did is something you can’t really apologize for. But if he does, it would help me know it’s really, really out of my life.”
Still, the fear lingers.
“I always close my drapes at night now, even though my home is in the woods and there’s really no reason to. … Your whole sense of security is violated. There is that recognition, and it’s awful to think that.”
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