Cheryl Steele will never forget the day her life changed.
It was Oct. 21, 1991. A resident of Spokane’s West Central neighborhood, Steele was one of the people directly affected when two young girls – 12-year-old Rebecca West and 11-year-old Nicki Wood – went missing.
Wood’s body was found later that evening, and West remains missing to this day. In 1998 Michael W. Tarbert, though insisting he was innocent, entered a no-contest plea to two counts of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 20 years.
On that night seven years before, however, as the horror of the crimes reverberated throughout Spokane, the events held a special significance for Steele and her family.
“Nicki was my daughter’s good friend and, in fact, the night before had been at our house,” Steele says. “They had been rollerblading, and Nicki’s roller skates I still have.”
Steele, who now works as a classification counselor at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, was at the time a stay-at-home wife and mother of two. She still remembers breaking the news to her then-10-year-old daughter. It was difficult to explain, she says, that “Nicki wasn’t going to come over anymore.”
“And the pain and agony of having to explain that to her made me realize that there was something I grew up with, something called community, that was gone,” she says. “It was just gone.”
The community Steele had known as a child involved having a father who was a member of the U.S. Navy. In fact, the memories of her childhood hit her hard that same night.
“I had a kind of epiphany,” she says, “about a time that my dad was in Vietnam and we lived on Larson Air Force Base (in Moses Lake). Every time the blue car came on base, it meant that somebody was coming to tell a family that their dad wasn’t coming home. And I prayed, and made all kinds of promises, that I would be good if God brought my dad home.”
Her realization, Steele says, “was, ‘All right, you better step up to the plate, because you made promises and now is the time to keep them.’ ”
Shortly after Nicki Wood’s murder, Steele contacted Don Higgins, then-director of the West Central Community Center. Higgins in turn formed a coalition of people that had, as one component, public safety.
“That interested me,” Steele says, “so I became the chair of the subcommittee. And that, ultimately, led to the formation of C.O.P.S. West.”
Today, Spokane boasts 11 Community Oriented Policing Services substations. But C.O.P.S. West was the first, and its founding was a joint production of Higgins, local grocery owner Bob Lipe, the Spokane Police Department and West Central residents such as Steele.
For another of those residents, Andy Rathbun, Steele was the spark that fueled the production’s flame.
“Cheryl started off as a volunteer and was able to work it into a full-time job, based on all her experiences,” Rathbun says. “She’s just the kind of person who never takes no for an answer. She’ll just keep pushing and pressing until she’s able to accomplish something.”
The accomplishment that resulted in C.O.P.S. West was impressive. Grocery owner Lipe donated the building and agreed to charge the nonprofit organization that became Spokane C.O.P.S. a mere $1 annual rent. With the support of Terry Mangan, then-chief of police in Spokane, the city agreed to pay for the building’s taxes, insurance and utilities.
“We got all the tradespeople to come in and donate their time,” Steele says, citing a group that included union electricians, plumbers and Spokane Community College cabinetmakers. Augmented by neighborhood volunteers who painted and provided other necessary services, C.O.P.S. West opened on May 1, 1992.
“That’s how fast that community effort culminated,” Steele says, “and that’s what drives me today. When you give people the opportunity to participate, they will. And they will bring gifts beyond your belief.”
Steele, who ended her association with Spokane C.O.P.S. in 2000 when she took a state job, retains her devotion to public service. Kim Ferraro, current executive director of the West Central Community Center, speaks highly of Steele’s dedication to neighborhood issues.
“Cheryl is very focused,” Ferraro says. “She loves the community. She raised her kids here, and her grandkids are being raised here. She has a great passion for it, and she is very articulate. My goodness, when she embraces something that is important to her, she articulates beautifully on the reasons for it.”
In her current position, which she has held for eight years, Steele assesses risk levels for inmates who are released from custody, identifying those who need education, job skills or even mental-health services.
“It’s a public-service job,” Steele says, “but it’s a career choice for me.”
A career choice that allows her to act on the commitment she made one horrific fall night in 1991: being a watchdog over her community.
“I once heard a guy in Washington, D.C., talk about the millions and millions of dollars we spend on sending spaceships up into space, but we spend billions planning on their re-entry,” she adds. “We spend millions and billions of dollars sending people to prison, and we spend nothing on their re-entry. And if I drop somebody with no skills and abilities, job, housing or clothing in your neighborhood, essentially I’ve dropped a bomb in your neighborhood. And I don’t want that to happen.”