Nothing mattered more to Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy James Slater than his family. His love for his wife and two daughters shone so bright that it was a guide to the young deputies who worked with him.
Slater, 41, died Friday night at Sacred Heart Medical Center after suffering head injuries in a traffic accident early Friday morning. He was the first Spokane County deputy to die in the line of duty in more than 20 years.
The first thing Slater did every morning after getting off the graveyard shift was to call his wife, Sheriff’s Deputy H.J. Whapeles said.
“The first words out of his mouth were always `Hello beautiful,”’ Whapeles said. “He made all of us want to call our wives and tell them we loved them. He was our model on how a husband and father should be.”
Slater was one of 11 graduates from basic law enforcement training in 2001 who went on to be deputies with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.
“He always had a smile on his face and you couldn’t help but be happy around him,” Whapeles said. “He was the best of all of us. He was what we want to be.”
Co-workers describe Slater as a man who never complained, who ran extra laps every morning during his training, who always showed a caring interest in the lives and families of his fellow deputies, who showed great respect to the public he served and who was always talking lovingly about his family.
Slater came to law enforcement after a 22-year career in the Marine Corps. He had been on the force for two years.
His leadership qualities and work ethic were obvious to everyone who worked with him, his supervisor, Sgt. Tom Thompson, said.
“He was a top-notch guy,” Thompson said. “He was never down and as such he always brought the rest of us up. He always had a smile for us. He did a great job and was a good deputy.”
What his co-workers remember about him most, however, is what a good husband and friend he was.
Deputy Chad Ruff said that when he entered the academy, he was a 21-year-old newlywed, “inexperienced in life” and so helpless that when his wife left town, he knew how to make a grilled cheese sandwich and not much else.
“Jim always invited me to dinner,” Ruff said. “He was like a father to me.”
When Ruff first heard about the retired Marine, he imagined a “huge, roughneck guy.”
But Slater wasn’t like that: “You’d see him and he’d be calm, almost like a pastor, and soft-spoken,” Ruff said. “But he also had this amazing bark that came out of nowhere.”
Slater’s wife, Miriam, baked, and he would share cookies, pies and brownies with his co-workers every day. When the 11 of them graduated, Slater and his wife hosted the party.
Deputy Shawn Audie remembered talking to Slater about wearing a wedding ring. Audie was newly married and didn’t care for jewelry and had an agreement with his wife that he wasn’t going to have to wear a ring.
“I asked him if he ever took his ring off for any reason. He said `Never,”’ Audie said. “That’s how much he loved Miriam and how devoted he was to her.
“That showed me the path to the kind of husband I want to be.”
Slater was injured at around 2:20 a.m. Friday morning when his patrol car left Grove Road, southwest of Spokane, on a sharp curve posted at 45 mph.
At the time he was responding to back up Audie, who was following a stolen car south of Cheney. Slater had spike strips in his car and could have blocked the stolen vehicle if it had attempted to flee into the West Plains area.
Investigators have not released how fast Slater was driving. Officials said he was “running code” - trying to respond to a call as fast as possible.
The car struck a wooden pole head-on, then rolled for 60 to 70 feet before coming to rest in the ditch. Slater was wearing his seat belt and his air bag deployed. He apparently struck his head on a door post.
Slater underwent surgery at 5:30 a.m. Friday at Sacred Heart and was placed on life support before passing away Friday night.
On Saturday, someone placed an American flag and flowers at the scene of the accident. A sheriff’s spokesman said funeral arrangements had not been made.
“He was my friend and I’ll never forget him,” Audie said. “The department will never be able to replace him.”
Deputy Wade Nelson called Slater “a man of character and full of honor.”
“It’s amazing to me how many lives he’s touched,” Nelson said. “You hope one day you can be in those shoes and say you touched that many people.”