Last spring, the Kettle Falls police chief waited a week to tell another law enforcement agency that someone had stolen 29 guns from a safe in his house.
Chief Chris Courchene tried to investigate the crime himself, later telling Stevens County sheriff’s detectives he had twice sent his girlfriend to meet a mysterious suspect and paid $1,250 in hopes of retrieving the weapons.
Courchene managed to get one gun back. The other 28 – including numerous pistols, a 12-gauge shotgun and at least two AR-15-style rifles – are still missing.
“As a cop, I’m embarrassed that I got ripped off,” Courchene, 58, said in an interview with The Spokesman-Review, adding that he’s worried the guns will be used in a new crime. “It’d be my worst nightmare if something happened with them.”
Complicating matters, Courchene suspects his ex-girlfriend, 34-year-old Alayna R. Smith, had something to do with the April 6 burglary because she stole his credit card and the next month fled to a cabin in Northport.
Last week, however, Smith reached a deal with prosecutors that ensures she won’t be charged in connection with the stolen guns.
Smith, who had been in jail since May 8, pleaded guilty Monday to three counts of theft, four counts of trafficking in stolen property, two counts of drug possession and 13 counts of identity theft. Superior Court Judge Patrick Monasmith sentenced her to more than three years in prison, followed by more than three years under state supervision.
Smith’s attorney, Brooke Hagara, said she had nothing to say about the case beyond what’s described in court records.
Courchene, a Marine Corps veteran, has worked in law enforcement in northeast Washington for about 15 years, leading the tiny Kettle Falls department for the past eight. With only two officers under his command, the department often relies on backup from the sheriff’s office. Cops from the two agencies work hand in hand.
In an interview, and in his initial report to the sheriff’s office on April 13, Courchene said he had waited to report the burglary because he thought he could recover the guns faster on his own.
“Courchene initially didn’t report the theft because there were thousands of dollars of guns and he was afraid if he didn’t jump on it, the guns would disappear,” court records state.
Courchene’s position as a law enforcement officer could present some legal gray areas. Prosecutors advised him not to discuss details of the investigation before it’s finished, though it’s unclear if there have been any significant breakthroughs. For the most part, they have treated him like any other victim of a property crime.
“It is very concerning when crimes have occurred that would normally be of interest to law enforcement and remain unreported, especially when the victim of those crimes is a law enforcement officer,” Tim Rasmussen, the county’s elected prosecutor, said Friday.
Something ‘off’ before burglary
Courchene lives in the Blue Creek area between Colville and Chewelah. According to court records, he had been noticing small oddities around his house in the weeks prior to the burglary. One day, he found an open window that he thought he had closed. Another day, he found a door ajar.
Courchene told investigators he sensed that something was “off” when he returned home on April 6, and that’s what prompted him to check inside his gun safe.
While many of the stolen weapons were modern and high-powered, Courchene said, a few were family heirlooms and collectibles, including an antique service pistol that had belonged to a World War II soldier. The keys to the safe were stolen, too, according to court records.
The records state that Courchene “put feelers out to his informants to determine if anyone knew of a large gun theft.”
One of those “informants” was Smith, who had been living with Courchene for several months. The records state that Smith “was contacted by an unknown person who advised they had information, but wanted money.”
In an interview, Courchene said he had a hunch about that person’s identity but declined to give a name. Records describe a man in his 40s or 50s with shaggy black hair. It’s unclear how or why the man contacted Smith.
Courchene agreed to pay the man $250 in exchange for proof that he had the guns. The day after the burglary, Smith met the man at an undisclosed location and gave him the money. The man returned the keys to the safe, as well as photos of Courchene’s guns in the back of an SUV.
At some point shortly after the burglary, the man made contact again, and Courchene agreed to pay an additional $1,000 for the return of all his guns, according to court records.
Courchene sent the money with Smith again, but the man feared he was being set up. He gave back only one pistol and promised to call again and reveal where the rest of the weapons would be stashed, according to court records.
Courchene never heard from the man again.
In an interview, Courchene said he did not arrest the man during those meetings because he had hoped to build a case and potentially identify other suspects.
“It was part of gathering information … and basically it fell apart,” Courchene said. He declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing investigation and the advice of prosecutors.
“There’s a whole lot more that I want to say,” he said.
Kettle Falls Mayor John Ridlington expressed confidence in Courchene, calling his job performance “satisfactory.”
The mayor expressed only minor reservations with Courchene’s handling of the burglary.
“Other than being slow in reporting it, there’s nothing that he’s done wrong here that I can see,” Ridlington said. “If it was me or you, we’d report that the next day.”
Smith arrested in Northport
Smith moved out of Courchene’s house sometime in April or early May, according to court records. She drove his black Toyota pickup truck to Northport, where she rented a cabin for several days using his credit card.
The property owner grew suspicious of Smith after seeing Courchene’s name on the card. On May 7, he called Courchene, who confirmed the card had been stolen, the records state. Deputies showed up to arrest Smith the next morning.
A detective informed Smith she was under arrest when she answered the door, then allowed her to go back inside the cabin to collect any medications or personal belongings she might have needed, the records state.
The detective wrote that she grabbed a cellphone from a window sill and tried to access it. He took it from her hand, thinking she might have been trying to delete evidence.
According to court records, Smith had exchanged damning Facebook messages with a friend named James Bumatay.
Two days after the burglary at Courchene’s house, Bumatay, now 22, was pulled over and arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. In August, he was pulled over again and charged with drug possession.
Bumatay told investigators that Smith had sent him Courchene’s credit card information, and, at Smith’s direction, he had tried to collect money from the account using the Square Cash smartphone app. The plan, he told investigators, was to send money to three friends and have them deposit it back into his Square account.
Courchene had noticed the fraudulent activity on his account, however, and most of those payments didn’t go through. Bumatay claimed he didn’t know the credit card was stolen, according to investigative records.
Detectives also asked Bumatay if he had used the credit card to purchase Moneygram transfers at the Colville Walmart in March, and he denied having done so, according to investigative records. Surveillance video from the Walmart showed him making those transactions, however, and a receipt had his signature on it.
Bumatay has not been charged in connection with the stolen credit card.
Following her arrest in May, a deputy reported that Smith had left a plastic bag containing marijuana as well as a glass pipe under the back seat of his patrol vehicle.
Courchene told The Spokesman-Review he had been unaware of any illicit drug use during their relationship.
Colville officer charged with assault
Before moving in with Courchene, Smith had been in a romantic relationship with Michael Welch, who joined the Colville Police Department about a year ago. Records indicate they had a child together, and she accused him of domestic violence on at least one occasion in August 2017.
In an unrelated incident in November, Welch was charged with fourth-degree assault, a gross misdemeanor, following a drunken altercation at a Colville bar that was captured on surveillance video.
According to court records, Welch was with a woman at Burdick’s Nightclub on the night of Nov. 1 when another man approached her, tapped her on the shoulder and then exchanged words with the couple. The man later retrieved his cellphone to show Welch that he and the woman had been exchanging texts and pictures.
Welch then got up, grabbed the man’s arm and spun him around “in a cuffing type hold before he appears to grab the back of the man’s head and push it towards a wall,” according to a summary of the video prepared by a sheriff’s deputy. Welch was off duty but identified himself as a police officer during the scuffle.
Several witnesses told responding deputies they believed Welch had acted inappropriately. The woman accompanying Welch said the alleged victim had been harassing her. Deputies noted in their reports that everyone involved appeared intoxicated.
Welch’s case is still pending. Colville Mayor Louis Janke, who spoke on behalf of the police department, confirmed that Welch was not removed from duty, even temporarily, following his arrest.
While other law enforcement agencies might have placed Welch on desk duty or administrative leave pending the outcome of his criminal case, Janke said Welch was promptly returned to patrol.
“We have no administrative policy for these kinds of things,” Janke said, adding that allegations against officers are handled on a case-by-case basis. “If it were something that happened on duty, it would be a different story.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Jan. 17, 2019, to correct Alayna Smith’s criminal sentence.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.