The county’s top law enforcement officer expressed outrage Wednesday that a suspected heroin dealer facing his fourth stay in prison was released from jail just weeks before shooting two deputies in a gunbattle north of Spokane.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich waved a thick packet detailing the extensive criminal history of 41-year-old Charles Robert Wallace at a news conference, criticizing U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Imbrogno’s order to release Wallace into a voluntary drug rehabilitation center.
“Mr. Wallace put this entire community at extreme risk,” Knezovich said. “I question why this individual was allowed to be on the streets of Spokane instead of being in jail where he should have been.”
Authorities believe Wallace shot Deputies Matt Spink and Michael Northway as the deputies approached the SUV in which Wallace was a passenger. The deputies were working with U.S. Marshals to track Wallace, who had been wanted since leaving rehab last week, when they conducted a traffic stop on the vehicle because they knew Wallace was inside.
The shooting set off a manhunt and high-speed chase on U.S. Highway 2 and into Deer Park that ended with Wallace shooting himself in the head after crashing into a police car.
Knezovich on Wednesday said law enforcement personnel are in shock. They and others in the community are questioning how Wallace, whose criminal history includes assault and gun convictions, could ever be allowed back on the streets.
Wallace was arrested in Clayton, Wash., on April 24 on a federal heroin charge for an alleged distribution ring involving five other Spokane-area residents. Imbrogno decided on May 25 to allow him to leave jail for drug rehab.
At that time, the charge against Wallace carried a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. But on Tuesday, about the same time as the gunbattle and manhunt, a grand jury coincidentally indicted Wallace on five new counts that carried a maximum penalty of life in prison.
The charges allege Wallace sold heroin on two occasions in November and February. The charges also allege the longtime felon was armed when federal agents arrested him. He’s accused of unlawfully possessing a .45-caliber pistol, as well as 15 rounds of ammunition, during his arrest. He also had at least 100 grams of heroin with him, the indictment alleges.
Too many inmates with extensive dangerous criminal histories are being released pending trial, Knezovich charged in rare criticism of a federal judge’s decision.
An assistant in Imbrogno’s office said the magistrate, who was first appointed in 1991 by federal judges in Eastern Washington, is not allowed to comment on the decision.
“She can’t actually discuss this case with you because the code of federal judicial ethics precludes judges and their staff from discussing cases with anyone, not just the press, but with anyone,” she said.
Knezovich said a “federal law enforcement partner” called him Tuesday night and “wanted me to know in no uncertain terms that the U.S. attorney’s office fought very rigorously to prevent Wallace from being released.
“The judicial system needs to take a hard look at what they’re putting back on the streets,” Knezovich said. “When somebody’s facing those type of serious crimes and they’re a repeat offender, you keep them in jail. That’s the solution.”
U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby said he isn’t sure if the release of dangerous, repeat offenders is a widespread problem, but that his office examines each case “on its own merits.”
“We felt the charges merited (Wallace) being detained,” Ormsby said. Wallace’s federal public defender, Jaime Hawk, did not return multiple calls requesting an interview.
Imbrogno allowed Wallace to leave jail at 6 p.m. on May 31 and check in at American Behavioral Health in Spokane Valley.
The rehab center is the region’s largest, with 200 licensed beds for treating men and women, owner Craig Phillips said.
It is not a lockup facility, and most of its funding comes from government programs designed to provide rehab for the poor.
“The people who seek treatment here can leave and we can’t stop them,” Phillips said. The rehab center has a security system and staff, but they are not empowered to detain or apprehend rehab patients who leave before their therapy program is completed. In some cases, the staff is required to report when a patient decides to leave.
Phillips said federal privacy laws prohibit him from disclosing whether Wallace was ever admitted, as ordered by Imbrogno, or if he walked away from the center located along East Mission Avenue a block from Valley Hospital and Medical Center.
A review of Wallace’s criminal history in Spokane County shows a pattern of disobeying court orders, using drugs and fighting with law enforcement.
A document prepared by a court official in 1985 for a car prowling charge says he “made no effort to comply with his court-ordered conditions.” Wallace, then 13, was ordered to spend five days in juvenile detention.
Wallace first went to prison in July 1998 after leading a Washington State Patrol trooper on a high-speed chase in Spokane Valley.
Wallace ditched the stolen truck he was driving and ran from the trooper but was arrested after a struggle.
Knezovich, then a deputy, was off duty but witnessed the arrest and helped the trooper by picking up a syringe and pouch filled with more syringes, spoons and methamphetamine, according to court documents.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Knezovich said Wednesday evening, though he said he didn’t realize who the man was until a reporter contacted him.
The truck belonged to Wallace’s mother, 62-year-old Melissa A. Wallace. She told police her son stole her truck and identified him as the driver.
It wasn’t the only time Wallace victimized his mother. He was charged with forgery in 1996 for forging a check from her and cashing it at a Liberty Lake bank for $275.
Wallace was sentenced to five years in prison but served less than three. He began probation in March 2001, but his freedom didn’t last long. He was arrested in May 2002 on drug charges after a traffic stop in Spokane. He was ordered to report to Geiger Corrections Center for drug monitoring on June 25, 2002. It wasn’t until September that he arrived at Geiger, and when he did he tested positive for methamphetamine, cocaine and morphine.
That episode earned him a felony conviction for escape.
He returned to prison in February 2003 and was released in April 2006. He was arrested in Adams County just two weeks after his release and ordered back to prison. He left again in October 2009. His probation period with the Washington Department of Corrections ended on Nov. 10, 2010.
The federal grand jury indictment alleges Wallace was back selling drugs within a few months.