September 30, 2009 in News

Details emerge in probe of developer

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A massive investigation into a suspected drug and stolen property ring has led to allegations of a methamphetamine- and sex-fueled criminal enterprise operated by a once-prominent Spokane land developer.

The raid in January at Joseph G. Ward’s home along the shores of Long Lake, northwest of Spokane, sparked a months-long probe by a Washington State patrol detective that explored an underworld of drugs, sex and thievery that documents suggest was a way of life at the millionaire’s home.

“With his money, he thought he was God,” Scott Johnson, a longtime felon and former police informant who was arrested with Ward in January, told authorities.

Johnson was sentenced to three years in prison and another three years of probation this week as part of a plea bargain involving nearly 30 felony charges, including 20 counts of first-degree theft for stolen property found at Ward’s home.

Johnson, who already had eight felony convictions, has told investigators he’ll be a key witness in the emerging case against Ward, who was taken into custody by police following the raid at his home but was released pending further investigation and has yet to be formally charged with any crime.

The Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office received the Washington State Patrol report on Ward last week that details criminal activity ranging from insurance fraud and stolen property possession to major methamphetamine trafficking and video-taped orgies with prostitutes. Deputy Prosecutor Shane Smith said he has a “rough idea” of where the case is headed but declined to comment because the case is still pending.

Ward has told the newspaper that meth is a “very insidious drug” but declined further interviews when contacted Wednesday. After his arrest Jan. 7, he thanked the State Patrol for stopping “something that I couldn’t stop myself,” according to a probable cause affidavit, and said he’d be taking daily drug tests to help stay clean.

The 100-page probable cause affidavit detailing the charges against Johnson shows he worked for Ward as a body guard after the two met through methamphetamine dealings. Soon he was stealing property from homes and businesses throughout Spokane and giving it to Ward in exchange for drugs, according to court documents.

Ward would drive Johnson around pointing out property he wanted, and Johnson would go out that night in Ward’s car to steal it, according to investigators. Johnson said he even stole tools from the Nine Mile Falls elementary school near Ward’s home at his request.

“I asked Scott why Joe would buy stolen property when Joe is a millionaire,” according to a report by WSP detective Jeff Thoet. “He said Joe likes good deals on things (which) is probably why he has so much money.”

Ward, founder of Pinnacle Realty, earned a master’s degree in business from Gonzaga University before ascending to the top of the land development business. He developed malls and other properties throughout Eastern Washington, including the Spokane Valley Mall, and works with another major developer, Harlan Douglass. Reached by phone Tuesday, Douglass said he believes the allegations against Ward are false.

“He’s a wonderful person,” Douglass said.

But at least three people who knew Ward through business dealings were victims of the theft ring investigators say was operated out of his home, according to the affidavit. When one man learned from WSP that detectives had found his jet ski at Ward’s home, he confronted Ward at the next real estate business meeting. Ward apologized, according to the affidavit.

The raid at Ward’s home in January shocked colleagues in the development industry, but a report from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office suggests warning signs began emerging as early as 2006, when he reported a burglary at his home.

The sheriff’s office worked for months tracking suspects suggested by Ward, including a prostitute who said she and two others had relationships with Ward and that he bought drugs regularly.

The case was never solved, but in January, investigators found several rifles at Ward’s home that he’d reported stolen and received insurance money for.

“Johnson said Joe Ward had bragged about still having the firearms upstairs in his residence that (he) had reported stolen to the insurance company,” according to the affidavit.

Johnson’s sentence falls under the state’s drug offender sentencing alternative program. He’ll undergo extensive drug treatment in custody and be on probation for three years.

“I want to get rid of this addiction. It’s bad,” Johnson told the court. “I just got my first grandson. I’d like to be part of his life.”


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