Killer’s relatives allege police vendetta
Most members of Pirtle family have faced charges
It was a little-noticed event in the flood of courthouse felony charges. But it was the latest chapter in a bitter saga for a Spokane family with a notorious relative.
Andrew Pirtle, 19, a talented artist with three juvenile felonies, stood before Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno in November and pleaded guilty to second-degree malicious mischief, the result of a plea bargain.
“I messed up. I need to get out of Spokane to change,” he said.
He’s not the only Pirtle leaving town. His entire family is moving.
After a troubled five years, the Pirtles believe they have been targeted by Spokane police and prosecutors because they’re related to Blake Pirtle, who murdered two young Burger King workers in 1992. Blake Pirtle won a reprieve from the death chamber after a federal judge ruled that Spokane police violated his civil rights during the arrest.
The Spokane County prosecutor’s office denies the Pirtles have gotten unfair attention, saying their legal problems are of their own making.
Either way, nearly every family member has faced criminal charges in Spokane, including an 11-year-old daughter.
Their relative, Blake Pirtle, was 25 when he killed Tod Folsom and Dawnya Calbreath at the fast-food restaurant. He is serving a life sentence in prison.
“Every time we get in trouble, they bring up Uncle Blake,” Andrew Pirtle said. “I think the Spokane police are preying on my family.”
Andrew’s father, Jayce Pirtle, is Blake Pirtle’s half-brother. Blake was the best man at Jayce’s 1985 wedding to Debra Bullock. The family lived in the Tri-Cities and moved to Spokane in 2003, the year Blake Pirtle won his death penalty appeal.
Since then, six of the seven Pirtles have been charged with crimes:
•Andrew’s big brother, 20-year-old Jayce Jr., is in prison at Shelton, serving time for second-degree assault. It’s his second felony strike. Before Moreno sentenced him March 21, a Spokane County Jail guard turned to an observer and said, “Do you know who that is? That’s a Pirtle.”
•Debra Pirtle, 44, the children’s mother, had a 2001 misdemeanor citation from Benton County but no felony record. She’s been jailed twice in Spokane, charged with eluding a police officer, harassment and assault. She finished probation June 30.
•Conner, 15, was charged with fourth-degree assault for a fight.
•Dominick, 18, was charged for guns found in the family home. He recently finished probation.
•Katrena, 13, was briefly charged with felony witness tampering when she was 11. She was diverted to juvenile court.
Only Jayce Pirtle, a construction worker who often works two jobs to provide for his large family, has managed to avoid a criminal charge.
Blake Pirtle “committed a horrific crime,” said Jayce, who graduated from North Central High School. He changed his name to Pirtle after his mother married Blake’s father, Emory, a man who called himself “God” and beat his 10 children for the smallest infraction, according to testimony in Blake Pirtle’s trial.
“My brother apologized and he’s doing his time. But his crime has nothing to do with my family,” Jayce Pirtle said. He’s convinced that “crooked cops” set up his family to retaliate for Blake Pirtle’s crime. “I don’t want revenge, but I want things better here,” he added.
The Pirtles have engaged in “ganglike, pack behavior” targeted at their neighbors, and that is why they’ve drawn repeated police attention, countered Eugene Cruz, one of four deputy prosecutors in the county’s gang unit.
“If Blake Pirtle’s name is brought up, it’s brought up by them. They are internalizing that. But they are continuing to cause problems in this community,” Cruz said.
Questions of police bias
The story of the blue-collar Pirtles is not black and white, but it raises questions about police bias and the truth of sworn police affidavits, some say.
The family may have been treated unfairly because of who they are, said Lynne Guhlke, a family therapist who worked with the Pirtles as they struggled to resolve their legal problems. They “deserve the same response and protection as any other individual,” Guhlke said in a December 2006 letter.
The three oldest boys got into trouble as juveniles for a 2004 residential burglary, skipped school and hung out with the wrong crowd, according to prosecutors and the judges who sentenced them.
The Pirtle family was trouble, said a neighbor who asked that her name not be used. The police told her she should have checked out the East Bridgeport neighborhood better before buying her house in 2005. “The cops told us they’re relatives of the Burger King murderer,” she said.
The Pirtles have caused repeated problems, including fights and vandalism, in their neighborhood, said Mary Strand, a victim-witness coordinator in the county prosecutor’s office.
Spokane patrol officers are aware of the Pirtles’ infamous relative, but they respond to the Pirtle home because the family and neighbors frequently call 911, said Spokane police Officer Erin Blessing.
“Most of us would prefer not to deal with them. There’s always a confrontation when we go there,” Blessing said.
Two local attorneys who represented the family question why Spokane police filed a blizzard of charges against the mother and the children while failing to protect the Pirtles from gang-related violence directed at them.
“As a former prosecutor, it would appear to me that the police have been pressuring the prosecutor to run the Pirtles out of town,” said attorney Richard Wall, who represented Debra Pirtle. “They’ve been all over these people.”
An investigator for Jayce Pirtle Jr.’s case agrees.
There’s “no question” that the Pirtles have been driven out of Spokane, said Val O’Donal, the now-retired investigator for Jayce Jr.’s court-appointed lawyer, John Nollette, a former district court judge.
However, the Pirtles “are not entirely without fault,” O’Donal said.
“Their neighbors, when I talked to them, were glad to see them leave. The kids have gotten into trouble, but they’ve also been falsely accused,” and Spokane police have been “less than responsive” to the family’s complaints of gang threats and vandalism, O’Donal added.
Debra Pirtle arrested
Shortly after the Pirtles bought their house in May 2005, Debra Pirtle was arrested after an incident at a 7-Eleven.
According to police reports, Officer Blessing approached Jayce Jr., who was in his mother’s van, telling him he was violating a noise ordinance for blasting a stereo. Debra Pirtle ignored Blessing and drove away at a “high rate of speed,” the report says.
“She called me a swear word and took off down Indiana,” Blessing said. Pirtle says she never heard Blessing say she couldn’t leave and that she backed, not sped, out of the parking lot.
Other officers called to the scene surrounded her vehicle. “They handcuffed me, pushed me into their patrol car and Tasered me while I was handcuffed,” Debra Pirtle said.
Wall, her lawyer, obtained a police report that indicates Blessing was running Pirtle’s license before the confrontation. “She called for backup before the incident,” Wall said. Debra Pirtle was charged with eluding police and spent four months in jail.
The Pirtles began to complain they no longer felt safe in their home.
Nortenos, North Spokane gang members who hid their faces with red bandanas, began driving by the house, asking for the Pirtle boys. In August 2006, gang members shot out the windows of the family’s van.
Debra Pirtle called repeatedly to ask for protection, 911 recordings from November 2006 show. She told the 911 dispatcher that gang members had threatened to slit her throat.
On the tape, the dispatcher says the police won’t respond immediately because more than an hour had elapsed since the alleged threat.
Fight escalates problems
A Jan. 13, 2007, fight between Jayce Jr. and his former girlfriend, Sara Johnson, now 18, led to big trouble. Jayce Jr. had just been released from jail and was partying at home with friends. Sara objected to him drinking – a probation violation – and they began to fight.
When the girl’s father, Tim Johnson, came to the Pirtle house to get Sara, a brawl broke out.
In a police report by Gang Task Force Detective Corey Turman, Johnson said the Pirtles assaulted him, fracturing two of his ribs. The Pirtles say Johnson pushed Debra and entered their yard uninvited.
Jayce Jr., Andrew Pirtle and a friend, David M. Martinez, circled Johnson “like a pack of dogs” when he tried to retreat from the home, the police report says. It also says Jayce Jr. grabbed Sara and wouldn’t let her leave.
The Pirtles never should have been charged in the incident because all witnesses except Johnson said Martinez was responsible for the assault, O’Donal said. Martinez was also charged and served time. Further confounding the story, Sara and Jayce Jr. ran away to Walla Walla shortly after the fight.
Jayce Jr. was charged with first-degree kidnapping and second-degree assault. Debra was charged with second-degree assault; Andrew was charged with third-degree assault.
When Katrena Pirtle text-messaged Sara, begging her not to testify against her mother, Katrena was charged with felony witness tampering. She was 11 at the time.
The charge astounded Wall, the former Spokane County prosecutor. “What kind of prosecutor would actually file that?” he asked. “The law assumes that someone under 12 doesn’t understand the consequences of an act.”
Deputy Prosecutor Andrea Duggan, who handled Katrena’s case, didn’t respond to an interview request.
In his investigation of the brawl, attorney Nollette asked the prosecutor for evidence of “electronic surveillance” of the Pirtles’ home because Turman, the police detective, had told witnesses he had a videotape of the fight taken at a neighbor’s house.
“Turman did not have a videotape. It was a ruse” to discourage witnesses from backing up Jayce Jr.’s version of what happened that night, Nollette said.
O’Donal is still upset about the tactic.
“In drug investigations, they frequently use ruses. I’ve used them myself. But this was an out-and-out falsehood; he did not have video of the incident,” O’Donal said.
‘Never been any justice for us’
Jayce Jr. was arrested again on Dec. 14, 2007, after a dispute over a phone call that police said violated a no-contact order with Sara Johnson.
Jayce Jr. said a girl using the name Amberly asked him in an e-mail to meet her at Hays Park. When he arrived, “a bunch of police cars were there,” Jayce Jr. said. The police from the gang unit approached him with their guns drawn. During his arrest, Sara pulled up in a car to watch.
“She was there for the police sting,” he said.
The intimidation charge was later dropped. “We were able to show unequivocally that the charge was a setup” that Sara Johnson had bragged about in e-mails, O’Donal said.
“My sister Nicky set him up” by pretending to be Amberly and alerting a police sergeant to the planned rendezvous, Sara acknowledged.
“It was a way to keep him locked up,” said Jackie Piper, Sara’s mother, who said Jayce Jr. continued to threaten her daughter.
Jayce Jr. pleaded to second-degree assault and was sentenced to 43 months in prison, with 11 months credited for jail time already served.
In a jailhouse interview, he said he pleaded guilty for the sake of his infant son rather than risk a long prison term if convicted at trial. He’ll likely be released sometime this year.
Andrew is out of jail on probation. Debra, who has been working in Kent, regrets ever moving to Spokane.
“It was the biggest mistake I ever made,” she said. “My boys did some things wrong. But there has never been any justice for us.”
Reach Karen Dorn Steele at (509) 459-5462 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.