March 31, 2009 in City

Sheriff ponders discipline for sergeant

Charges dropped, but internal investigation continues
Thomas Clouse Staff writer
 

Mahalia Thompson starts shaking when she describes watching a prowler peek around a neighbor’s fence, enter her yard and approach her teenage daughter’s window.

She called 911 twice the morning of Feb. 6 as the hooded, heavy-set man walked around her South Hill home, under her deck and into her driveway, where, Thompson says, he stared for several seconds at the license plate of a family vehicle.

Then Thompson watched and listened as Spokane police officers converged on the man on a nearby street. The man refused to comply with their repeated command and struggled with the officers as they attempted to take him into custody.

“It was so scary. It really has altered our lives,” Thompson said.

But those fears turned to frustration and anger when she learned through news reports that the Spokane city prosecutor had dropped the resisting arrest and obstruction charges against the suspect, Sgt. Patrick “Pete” Bunch, a 30-year employee of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

“I think it’s a shame the prosecutors would let this go. We can’t count on the Police Department or the Sheriff’s Office anymore,” she said. “I don’t want to let my kids outside to play. I don’t want them shot in the back of the head and the officer let off.”

As of this week, Bunch continues to draw pay and work behind a desk as an internal investigation focuses on his actions.

According to documents obtained by The Spokesman-Review, Bunch has been disciplined in the past for filing false time sheets, lying to superiors, obstructing a Fish and Game officer, and mishandling the investigation of a hit-and-run crash by an off-duty WSP trooper who had been drinking.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he is in the process of reviewing all the files in the most recent case and hopes to make a decision this week on whether to discipline Bunch, who makes more than $77,000 a year.

Asked how anyone could keep a job with his past, even before the most recent encounter, Knezovich pointed out that the other discipline decisions occurred before he became sheriff.

“It comes down to the decision of the sheriff,” he said. “There’s not much that you can say other than, as it is in this case, it will come down to my decision.”

Bunch has also been accused, and later cleared, in two incidents in which men claimed Bunch slammed them down on the hoods of cars.

One accuser was Allan Margitan, the son-in-law of former Spokane County Prosecutor Don Brockett. Margitan said Bunch and another deputy slammed him onto a car hood on Aug. 14 near Nine Mile Falls during a dispute with a neighbor over access to a private road.

Margitan said he was released as soon as he yelled at his wife and two friends to photograph the encounter with Bunch and Deputy Mark Smoldt. Margitan said he spent that night in a hospital after suffering chest pains.

That incident was investigated by the Washington State Patrol and resulted in what Brockett called “one of the most biased, slanted and poorly written” reports he had ever read.

“The investigation … was a cover-up of unlawful actions of the deputies which it was clearly designed to accomplish,” Brockett wrote in a letter to WSP officials.

In the Feb. 6 incident, Spokane City Prosecutor Jim Bledsoe dismissed the resisting arrest and obstruction charges without prejudice, meaning that he can re-file them if new evidence comes forward, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said.

Bledsoe did not respond to an interview request and instead had all questions and answers go through Feist, who was unsure what possible new evidence could come forward.

“Primarily, (Bledsoe) considered Mr. Bunch’s lack of a criminal record and the circumstances that led up to the confrontation,” Feist said. “Mr. Bunch was looking for his dog and … he had a legitimate reason to be where he was. He also noted that Mr. Bunch’s position as a sheriff’s deputy doesn’t play into the prosecutorial decision.”

But there was no explanation given for Bunch’s reaction when Spokane police Officer Dean Draper arrived at 42nd Avenue, near where Thompson had reported the hooded man prowling in her yard.

“I came to a stop and started to exit my police vehicle as I said, ‘Hey partner I need to speak with you for a minute,’ ” Draper wrote in his report. “After I said this, Bunch stopped walking but never turned around, like you might expect someone would when spoken to. This was the first of the odd behaviors that made me concerned for my safety.”

Draper described how Bunch, whose identity wasn’t yet known, leaned over and started packing a snowball.

“At this point Bunch looked in my direction, but it was not as if he were looking at me, but rather as if he were looking through me,” Draper said.

Since he couldn’t tell if Bunch was armed, Draper asked Bunch to face Officer Walt Pegram, who had arrived to assist.

Bunch said: “No. I am just looking for my lost dog,” according to Draper’s report.

Pegram confirmed in his report that Bunch refused to follow Draper’s commands. “I then could hear Bunch say, ‘You’re making a big mistake,’ which he kept repeating over and over,” Pegram wrote. “At no time did Bunch ever ID himself to Officer Draper as law enforcement.”

Draper asked Bunch to place his hands behind his head, “so I can check you for weapons.” Bunch replied, “No. I know my rights, you are not touching me.”

Draper told the man, who outweighed him by about 75 pounds, that he was under arrest for obstructing and to again put his hands behind his head. Bunch refused. “Bunch then put his right hand into his right front pants pocket and made me even more concerned for my safety,” Draper wrote.

The officer grabbed Bunch’s left arm and attempted to handcuff him.

“Pegram was on the right side attempting to control the right arm when Bunch lurched forward toward me,” Draper said. “Based on his size and the fact Bunch is stronger than me I chose to disengage from him.”

Pegram described the same confrontation.

“I rushed over and tried grabbing Bunch’s right arm to keep him from throwing any punches at Officer Draper,” Pegram wrote. “Bunch’s physical strength was enough that I could not control his right arm other than to hook his right arm to keep him from possibly hitting Officer Draper.”

Draper then pulled his Taser and aimed it at Bunch, who had climbed on top of a snow berm. “Bunch then rolled his shoulders back as if to dare me to deploy the Tazer (sic),” he wrote.

As other officers arrived, Bunch got down on his stomach and submitted to officers’ demands.

Officer Davida Zinkgraf said she recognized Bunch as soon as he rolled over.

“I looked at his eyes. They were glossed over. He had a blank stare,” Zinkgraf wrote in her report. “I thought he might have been intoxicated but I did not smell any alcohol.

“I then said, ‘Pete, what are you doing?’ He responded, ‘Hi Davida. How are you?’ ”

When Zinkgraf searched Bunch at his booking, she found he had $801 in his pocket.

Even with the dropped obstruction and resisting charges, Thompson can’t understand why city officials didn’t cite Bunch for trespassing. A sheriff’s employee later told her that Bunch lives a block away and does own a dog.

“I don’t get to trespass on other people’s property. They don’t give me a get-out-of-jail-free card,” she said. “I think it’s a shame that the prosecutor let this go.”

Feist said a large fence or signage is needed to indicate someone should not trespass. “In this case, that did not occur,” she said.

Thompson no longer draws her blinds. She keeps her doors locked.

“I don’t feel safe anymore. We shouldn’t have to feel like we feel now,” she said. “They are above the law.”


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