Arrest of teacher still churns
‘Traumatized’ woman sought medical help, died; a son killed himself
Her friends remember Beverly Saruwatari as a model citizen – an honored public school teacher, a goodwill ambassador on Spokane’s Nishinomiya Sister City Committee and a devoted single mother.
She died suddenly one year ago today of a brain hemorrhage – 20 days after a confrontation with police in the doorway of her South Hill home.
Her arrest and unexpected death stunned her family, fellow teachers and friends.
They soon learned that – like the 2006 police encounter with Otto Zehm – it appeared officers with incomplete or inaccurate information about a criminal suspect confronted a law-abiding citizen, and the situation went sideways.
Since then, the ripple effects have been profound. Her two surviving sons blamed Saruwatari’s death on stress related to her arrest. Saruwatari’s oldest son, Jerud Melcher, took his life, leaving a note that called his suicide an “un-silent protest” of what happened to his mother. And Spokane City Councilman Bob Apple said the incident contributed to his belief that Spokane’s police ombudsman needs to have expanded powers to investigate police activity.
Apple, who had spoken with both Saruwatari and her son Jerud shortly after her arrest, attended their separate funerals.
“She was a sweet little older lady, a respected schoolteacher who I’ll bet hadn’t gotten a parking ticket,” Apple recalled last week.
“It’s tragic the price that’s been paid by this family for allegations that were completely unfounded,” said Apple, a member of the city’s Public Safety Committee charged with overseeing the police and fire departments.
Police suspected her son
Saruwatari’s first and only encounter with police came on June 7, 2009.
In her personal daily journals, posted by her son Jerud Melcher on Facebook after Saruwatari’s death, the 61-year-old Hamblen Elementary teacher said she was surprised and dumbfounded when police showed up at her home as she was repairing her front screen door with a hammer.
They were looking for a pharmacy robbery suspect they wrongly believed was in her home.
In those entries, Saruwatari, a breast cancer survivor, said she was “traumatized” by the way police treated her – eventually arresting her on two counts of third-degree assault after she wouldn’t drop the hammer as ordered. Saruwatari wrote that she didn’t immediately drop the hammer because she was wearing open-toed sandals and was worried the tool would crack her floor tile. Officers Dustin Howe and Stephanie Kennedy weren’t struck with the tool, but Howe said in his report that he felt threatened by Saruwatari, who held the hammer by her side and refused to drop it.
She was arrested on a Sunday and wasn’t released from jail until Monday, when she was taken before a judge. She didn’t make it to her sixth-grade classroom on that Monday, causing her further distress since it was nearing the end of the school year.
Police said they had no choice but to arrest her on the two felony charges after she refused to drop the hammer; they said they felt threatened by the 4-foot-10 woman.
In jail, Saruwatari said in one journal entry, she was taunted by a guard who asked her, “Do you like hitting people with a hammer?”
“I asked him to please not harass me, but he laughed just like the officer did when I was in his police car,” the schoolteacher wrote. “I was being treated as if I was guilty.”
Police arrived at her home on 27th Avenue after earlier contacting one of Saruwatari’s neighbors following a pharmacy robbery that day at 29th Avenue and Grand Boulevard.
Officer Christopher Crane said in his report he thought Saruwatari’s son, Jerud Melcher, likely was the robbery suspect. Police had been looking for Melcher, named in a felony warrant issued on May 5, 2009, after he failed to meet drug court requirements. He had been charged in December 2008 for suspicion of driving under the influence, possession of marijuana and resisting arrest. Two days before his mother’s death, all the charges against him were dropped.
The man eventually arrested and convicted of the pharmacy robbery doesn’t bear much physical resemblance to Jerud Melcher.
The day of the robbery, Saruwatari’s neighbor, instructed by police to call 911 if he saw any young men enter her home, told a police dispatcher that he had seen a young man go inside. Police swarmed to the home.
‘A person respectful of authority’
Born in Spokane, Saruwatari was raised in the East Central neighborhood and graduated from North Central High School in 1966. She got her teaching degree at Eastern Washington University in 1970 before taking a teaching job with the Central Valley School District. After a divorce, she raised her sons while variously teaching second, fifth and sixth grades at Sheridan, Holmes, Lincoln Heights and Hamblen elementary schools in the Spokane Public Schools district.
In 1988, while teaching at Sheridan, Saruwatari was named the district’s “distinguished educator,” district records show. In 2001, then-Washington Gov. Gary Locke presented her with the Washington Award for Excellence in Education.
“She was such an astonishing woman, educator and friend that it’s hard to describe,” recalled Debbie McWilliams, who taught with Saruwatari at Hamblen.
There, in technology and English courses, she had sixth-graders write pen pal letters to students in Japan, and Japanese students would visit her classroom.
“She was a very loving, strict teacher who demanded respect, and the kids loved her,” McWilliams said. Some parents lobbied to get their kids in Saruwatari’s class, others said.
Lifelong friend Janice Ueda said through her personal example, Saruwatari “reminded me and everyone around her the importance of family and community.… Bev was truly extraordinary.”
Former neighbor Stefanie Pettit, whose boys were childhood friends of Saruwatari’s boys, said she knew Saruwatari to be “a law-abiding person, a person respectful of authority.”
Pettit – a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review’s Voices sections – said the police version of events of what occurred “is so out of sync with the character of the woman I knew.”
“Something went terribly wrong on her front porch that day,” Pettit said. “We’ll probably never know what really happened, but I cannot conjure up any scenario in which this tiny lady, this respectful woman, would make a hostile move toward armed police officers.”
Officers cleared of wrongdoing
As Saruwatari was being led in handcuffs to a patrol car, the neighbor who had called police identified her as the person he had seen enter the home, police reports say – not a young man, as a recording indicates he told police when he called 911. Police reports don’t address the contradiction, and the neighbor has moved from the rental house.
The reports say officers found no one inside Saruwatari’s home, only her old Pekingese dog.
Although they asked to search her house for the suspected robber, officers dumped clothing and lingerie from her bedroom dressers during the search, angering her, Saruwatari said in her journal entries.
She claimed the incident left her with numb fingers on one hand, a knot in her stomach “and bad thoughts about my future.” She expressed worries about how she would pay for an attorney to defend her spotless reputation and the possibility of losing her retirement, which was nearing.
She sought medical treatment and was sent home with anti-anxiety drugs. She suffered the brain hemorrhage on June 27 and never regained consciousness. Medical experts, including the American Heart Association, say emotional or physical stress can cause circulatory changes, sometimes causing brain hemorrhages.
Saruwatari’s sons, Jerud and Travis Melcher, believed her arrest put her in a stress-induced state of anxiety that led to her death. They also accused police of violating their mother’s civil rights.
Her sons talked to lawyers and a city councilman and pleaded for help during three meetings with the city’s new police ombudsman, Tim Burns, but he lacked authority to investigate. When police administrators said they had closed their investigation, clearing officers of any wrongdoing, Saruwatari’s sons grew increasingly frustrated.
Jerud Melcher took a small hatchet with him to his third and final meeting with the police ombudsman at City Hall in September.
“Are you working for the police department or are you working for us?” Melcher screamed at the ombudsman, demanding to know why the family wasn’t being given police reports. They had to hire a lawyer to eventually get the reports.
Burns didn’t want to discuss the incident last week, but records show the city attorney’s office got a court order barring Jerud Melcher from returning to City Hall.
Melcher left town shortly thereafter.
Funeral included ‘call to justice’
Just 10 months after his mother’s death, 37-year-old Jerud Melcher took his own life with a pistol in a seaside cottage in Newport, Ore. In an interview earlier this year, he said he had taken his late mother’s dog and hoped to find solace living oceanside, away from the memories in Spokane. He said he feared a deadly encounter with police if he stayed in Spokane.
“This is in un-silent protest of my mother’s death,” said the suicide note written by the former student body president and wrestling team captain at Lewis and Clark High School. He graduated in 1996 from Washington State University with a degree in international business and Asian studies and had worked for a trading company in Japan.
His suicide note and his mother’s death were mentioned at Jerud Melcher’s funeral in Spokane on April 30, attended by 250 people, many of them saying they were stunned by the deaths.
In the printed funeral program, Travis Melcher, 32, said it was his opinion that the actions of police caused his mother’s death and later led to his older brother’s suicide.
Travis Melcher, who has no criminal record, said police would follow him and his fiancée – a practice he called harassment – for a time following his mother’s arrest.
“I am asking all of you to please help me take a stand against the corruption of our law enforcement,” Travis Melcher wrote in his “Call to Justice” essay in the program handed out to those who attended his brother’s funeral.
“We all know my mom was not a criminal,” he wrote. “Let us come together to seek justice.”
‘It’s just wrong’
Apple, the Spokane city councilman, said recently that Jerud Melcher suffered from “stigmatism and guilt” about his mother’s arrest.
“What he was accused of doing, he didn’t do, but his mom paid the price,” Apple said. “When government accuses you, a lot of people think you’re guilty until you’re proven innocent.”
When Saruwatari contacted him just days before she died, Apple said he sent her to the police ombudsman, who had just been hired. The ombudsman lacked authority to investigate, but did refer the matter to the police chief’s office.
Police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer DeRuwe said last week that a police department internal affairs investigation and a subsequent review by the chief’s office cleared all the officers of any wrongdoing.
But Apple said the case shows why someone other than police should be involved in reviewing such cases.
Police, he said, were aggressively looking for a suspect after the June 7, 2009, robbery “but they had the wrong suspect. I tend to believe they took punitive action against her because they didn’t get what they wanted.
“They arrest her over the weekend, knowing full well she’s going to have to sit in jail until Monday and miss a day of teaching school for having done absolutely nothing,” he said.
“Some of the officers who were there that day, I believe, were upset that it happened,” Apple said of the arrest, “but they don’t dare do or say anything or the others will come down on them.
“This whole thing shocked her, mentally stressed her out, and I think it contributed to her death,” Apple said. “I think it was absolutely unnecessary.”
Apple said the incident, like the earlier Zehm case, “is another example, in my opinion, of our police making mistakes or procedural errors, but never admitting guilt.
“We’ve got city attorneys telling the police to never admit they screwed up,” the city councilman said. “It’s just wrong, and our community is paying the price.”
Bill Morlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.