After days of community outrage over the handling of a sexual encounter between a firefighter and a 16-year-old girl, the Spokane Police Department has reopened its criminal investigation of the incident.
The Spokane County prosecutor’s office has also informed the Police Department that it intends to review all the evidence in its decision not to file criminal charges against firefighter Daniel W. Ross, who resigned Wednesday – the day before he was due to face a disciplinary hearing that could have led to his termination.
In an interview Friday, Mayor Dennis Hession said he’ll directly oversee the new police investigation, which has been assigned to Deputy Chief Bruce Roberts because the other deputy chief, Al Odenthal, was in charge of the original investigation – which Hession now says was bungled.
“I believe the investigation has been problematic, and in order to meet the needs of the prosecutor, new oversight is warranted. … I guarantee that it will be done right,” Hession said in a statement from City Hall.
“As we look at this case with fresh eyes, we want to get this right and present the most complete file possible to the prosecutor,” said Cpl. Tom Lee, Police Department spokesman.
The prosecutor’s office made the request to reopen the investigation after an avalanche of public outrage about the handling of the case, including calls from three Spokane City Council members for an independent investigation and a press conference by an influential women’s coalition on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday.
“There’s some heat on the county prosecutor,” said Spokane City Councilman Bob Apple.
Hession said his legal department has been told the prosecutors want to revisit the police decision not to arrest Ross because he said he didn’t know the girl was under 18.
Former Spokane County Prosecutor Don Brockett has said it is “not a defense” that Ross did not know the girl’s age, and that element of the case should have been aired before a jury.
Sexually explicit digital photos that the 35-year-old Ross took of the girl – deleted at the direction of city police detectives – should be retrieved by a forensic expert because taking them was “a violation of state law,” Apple said.
Ross, the married father of an infant daughter, invited the girl he’d met on the Internet to Fire Station 17 on the afternoon of Feb. 10, where they had sex in the station’s furnace room, according to Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams.
After Ross resigned Wednesday, Williams revealed that Ross had used city computers 22 times at his regular-duty North Side fire station, No. 13, to access an adult Web site and had also used his private computer to distribute sexually explicit photos of himself on the Internet.
The incident was initially reported as a rape by the girl’s boyfriend. Detective Sgt. Joe Peterson and sex crimes Detective Neil Gallion directed Ross to delete about 10 sexually explicit photos of the tryst that he’d taken on his private digital camera, police Lt. Scott Stephens told the newspaper on Monday.
Stephens and Acting Police Chief Jim Nicks said the detectives informed Ross the girl was only 16 and that he couldn’t be allowed to possess the digital photos.
Peterson and Gallion returned to the police station without Ross’ camera, but Nicks told them to go back and get it. The camera was taken to the police property room.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Ed Hay concluded that no prosecutable crime had occurred.
While the age of consent in Washington is 16, Ross could have faced other charges, including communication with a minor for immoral purposes, sexual exploitation of a minor or possession of depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.
If any digital images of the girl were sent across state lines on the Internet, the FBI would have jurisdiction, according to Bill McCrory of Coeur d’Alene, a retired physical security specialist with the U.S. Secret Service who has posted a blog about the case on the newspaper’s Web site. It is unclear whether that happened.
“I’m not surprised they’ve reopened the case,” McCrory said. “What they did is completely inconsistent with good evidence-handling.”
George Orr, a retired Spokane Valley firefighter and Democrat who’s running against Republican Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris, said he’s been talking to a lot of firefighters’ groups recently. The firehouse incident comes up continually, and the firefighters fear it is tarnishing their image, Orr said.
“When 9/11 happened, people brought cookies to the fire stations. We were embarrassed by their love. Now, we’re all being hurt by this incident. It’s important that we speak out and say, folks, we don’t want this to happen,” Orr said.
“I’d give the cops credit – they may have wanted to protect the kid. But they shouldn’t have erased those photos,” Orr said.