The case against a Spokane man suspected of killing two West Central girls is exactly the same as it was four years ago: weak.
But Spokane County Prosecutor Jim Sweetser filed an aggravated first-degree murder charge against Michael Tarbert on Tuesday anyway, saying he no longer could “sit by and do nothing” on a case that ignited community-oriented policing in Spokane.
Rebecca West, 12, and her friend Nicki Wood, 11, disappeared in the fall of 1991.
Wood’s body was found hours later under a pile of burning pine needles in northwest Spokane. She had been strangled.
West still is missing.
Their fate inspired neighbors to embrace a new crime-fighting concept, and a half-dozen neighborhood police substations have sprouted around the city.
“Many positive things have happened as a part of this terrible, terrible crime,” Sweetser said. “I have an obligation to at least try to make sure the person responsible is held accountable.”
Tarbert, 32, is serving a 10-year sentence for rape and robbery at the medium-security prison in Airway Heights. He may be returned to the Spokane County Jail today.
In a 1991 jail interview, Tarbert said he had seen the girls before their disappearance but denied being responsible for it. “I’ve never hurt nobody in my whole life,” Tarbert told The Spokesman-Review. “I’ve been an alcoholic and an addict and a street person, (but) I’ve never hurt nobody.”
A murder trial is at least six months away. Tarbert is charged with aggravated murder in Wood’s slaying only because West’s body has not been found.
Sweetser said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll seek the death penalty.
“This will be a tough case,” he acknowledged. “It’s based on circumstantial evidence.”
Tarbert has been a suspect from the start because:
He was the last person to see the girls alive. A friend of Wood’s mother, Tarbert told police he had given the girls a ride home from a neighborhood store. He said he dropped them off a block from Wood’s house on Gardner.
Friends said Tarbert acted edgy the day after Wood’s body was found, saying the police were “trying to pin a couple murders” on him. The statements were made before police even had a suspect, according to court records.
Bloodhounds tracked Tarbert’s scent from a cabin he once lived in on Seven Mile Road to the nearby spot where Wood’s burned body was found. The dogs also tracked the girls’ scent to the cabin.
It wasn’t enough to convince former Prosecutor Donald Brockett to file charges. He stood by that decision Tuesday, more than a year after he retired.
“I heard Mr. Sweetser say he had a moral obligation to go forward with these charges,” Brockett said. “I say the only obligation a prosecutor can have is to the law. When I reviewed the case, there wasn’t enough evidence - under the law - against Michael Tarbert.
“This was a tragic crime, and if (Tarbert) is guilty, he deserves to be punished for what he did,” Brockett said. “If Jim Sweetser can prove that, well, more power to him.”
Clark Colwell, former chief criminal deputy prosecutor, said he agonized over whether to charge Tarbert with murder several years ago. He decided to wait for new evidence, which never came.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Colwell said of Sweetser’s move. “The case was a real fence-sitter. My gut reaction is you might as well flip a coin.”
Wood’s father, Dan Wood, said he is relieved someone is paying attention again to the case, weak or not.
He pestered police and prosecutors for years to arrest Tarbert, whom he believes killed his daughter.
It doesn’t matter if jurors don’t agree, Wood said. Going forward will help him heal.
“I am relieved and thankful that (Tarbert) may get his day,” Wood said. “But I am always going to be missing part of my life.”
When the girls disappeared, Tarbert was wanted by police for raping his 49-year-old former landlord.
That woman said Tarbert had invited her to a bar but took her to a secluded spot in northwest Spokane - near the place where Wood’s body was found a month later.
He raped her and took $400 from her purse, the victim said.
Tarbert testified they had had consensual sex at the woman’s apartment and that he had found the money under her pillow and kept it.
A jury deliberated a little more than an hour before convicting him. He has been in prison for that crime since early 1992.
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