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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Paperwork no-show frees suspect with DUI history

A Spokane man with a history of DUI crashes was allowed to walk out of court Tuesday with his driving privileges intact after a prosecutor failed to file paperwork on time in his latest arrest.

James L. Crabtree, who worked as a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy in the 1980s, appeared Tuesday for arraignment on a felony DUI charge stemming from an incident Nov. 17 where several motorists noticed him passed out at the wheel of his Cadillac. The other drivers used their cars to prevent him from leaving the scene after Crabtree, 49, rear-ended another car at the intersection of Broadway Avenue and Pines Road, Spokane County sheriff’s Cpl. Dave Thornburg said.

But on Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Michael Price let Crabtree go because the proper paperwork had not yet been filed.

“The state has not filed charges … so orders preventing you from driving are no longer in place,” Price said, after Crabtree noted that the judge during his preliminary court appearance earlier had placed driving restrictions on him.

Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Mary Ann Brady, who is prosecuting the case, could not immediately be reached for comment.

But Crabtree’s release frustrated the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, which handled the arrest.

“This guy has a pattern. He nearly killed Earl Howerton, who is a law enforcement officer,” Thornburg said, referring to a 2001 collision for which Crabtree was convicted of vehicular assault and drug charges. “Within months of serving that term, he got into another DUI … crash on Market Street. Here he has a DUI again. He’s not getting help and he continues to break the law. He’s going to keep going until he kills himself or somebody else.”

Crabtree, a local real estate agent, worked three years as a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy in the 1980s. In 1997, he received a deferred prosecution for DUI.

Then on Dec. 16, 2001, Crabtree was under the influence of cocaine while speeding along Bigelow Gulch Road. Howerton, now a sheriff’s lieutenant, was on duty and in a patrol car and saw Crabtree coming. Howerton said in an earlier interview that he steered his car off the side of the road and was braking as Crabtree’s car approached, yet it still slammed head-on into Howerton’s patrol car.

Both men suffered serious injuries, and Crabtree was convicted in 2003 of vehicular assault in connection with the crash. While awaiting trial, Crabtree also sold cocaine four times to an undercover deputy, leading to several drug charges.

Superior Court Judge Greg Sypolt sentenced Crabtree to five years in prison despite pleas for leniency by former Prosecutor Don Brockett and then-Spokane police Chief Roger Bragdon.

Crabtree had only been out of prison a short time in October 2006 when he was again arrested for DUI and driving on a suspended license. In that case, Crabtree was driving northbound on Market Street, crossed the centerline and collided with a southbound minivan. That case resulted in a March 2007 conviction, Thornburg said.

Detectives got the paperwork to prosecutors before Thanksgiving on the most recent crash, Thornburg said. The paperwork is time-stamped to avoid any confusion.

“Yeah, it’s disappointing to me. For someone like Crabtree, that’s why we have that law,” Thornburg said. “The frustrating part is we are trying to make the community safer and stuff like this happens.”