A judge on Thursday threw out the confession of former Lewis and Clark High School student Ryan B. Lee, who had been charged with harassing other students and threatening to shoot up the school.
Spokane County Superior Court Judge John Cooney said the Spokane police traffic stop of Ryan Lee’s mother on May 30, 2018, was lawful under the “Terry stop” rules because officers had reason to believe that a crime had been committed. They had learned the day before that messages sent to LC students were believed to have originated from the Lee home.
However, Cooney said officers did not have probable cause following the traffic stop to detain Lee. His mother drove him to the Public Safety Building, where two detectives obtained what they described as a confession from Lee on May 30, 2018.
“The state concedes that they did not have probable cause to arrest Ryan Lee,” Cooney said. “No facts have been presented to sever the unlawful conduct from the detention.”
As a result, Cooney said the statements Lee subsequently made to investigators about his alleged involvement “were the product of an unlawful arrest and therefore excluded from trial,” he said.
Defense attorneys Derek Reid and Carl Oreskovich have argued that police had no evidence linking the threatening messages, sent via Instagram, to Ryan Lee. Without any known direct evidence linking Lee to the threats, the strongest evidence prosecutors presented was his alleged confession. Now that has been thrown out.
“It was the ruling I expected the court to make,” Oreskovich said after the hearing. “All of the forensic evidence points to (Lee’s) innocence.”
Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Mark Cipolla quickly left the courtroom after Thursday’s ruling. He did not immediately return a message left at his office. Court filings from Deputy Prosecutor Richard Whaley have argued that even if Cooney ruled that Lee’s arrest was unlawful, the judge had legal justification to allow the confession to remain valid.
“An illegal detention does not ‘ipso facto’ make a confession involuntary,” Whaley wrote. “Here, Mr. Lee’s confession was sufficiently severed from the unlawful arrest.”
Lee was arrested in 2018 and charged with felony harassment with threats to kill and with communication with a minor for immoral purposes after a threat was posted to Instagram about shooting up the downtown Spokane high school. In all, investigators found more than 110 Instagram messages posted by the account steven_smith__4.
Investigators found 42 IP addresses, which are unique numbers generated whenever an electronic device connects to the internet, and 10 of those were linked to Lee’s home address.
On May 30, 2018, Spokane police waited outside the Lee home and pulled over the family van containing Lee’s mother, Sarah Lee, Lee and Lee’s sister. According to court records, officers “asked” Sarah Lee to drive her son for a police interview. But Sarah Lee said in court records that she believed the officers ordered her to go to the police station.
“Based on Sergeant (Kevin) Keller’s statements and body language, we understood that we were not free to leave or decline his demand and had no choice but to follow the police to the Detective’s office,” Sarah Lee said in court records.
But Whaley argued that the drive to the police station afforded Sarah and Ryan Lee, who had just turned 18, plenty of time to discuss their situation.
“Mr. Lee … had the opportunity to speak with his mother in his vehicle as they drove to the police station,” Whaley wrote. “He had ample opportunity to seek any advice that he wanted at that time or for them to discuss a course of action, including a discussion about whether or not to partake in any interview at the station.”
Under questioning by police detectives, Lee initially denied any ties to the Instagram account and denied sending messages to anyone referencing a school shooting. During a second interview the same day, detectives wrote that he admitted to creating the account and sending the messages and images to the 15-year-old girl, according to records.
In January, prosecutors filed more charges against Lee after more messages were sent via a different Instagram account. They added two new counts of felony harassment with threats to kill and one count each of cyberstalking and a violation of a court order.
But Oreskovich has claimed that Lee could not have made the later posts because all of his electronic devices had been taken from him and he had been barred from his Instagram account.
Spokane detectives later acknowledged that their searches of the electronic devices did not implicate Lee, Oreskovich said. According to court records, police investigators had FBI forensic analysts look at all 13 electronic devices seized from Lee and his family. That analysis found no evidence that any of those devices had sent threats to several girls or threats to shoot up Lewis and Clark in May 2018.
“Part of our theory of the defense was that Mr. Lee’s account had been hacked,” Oreskovich said earlier this year. “And, that it wasn’t Mr. Lee himself who sent the messages.”
On Thursday, Oreskovich said he intends to file a motion to have all charges dismissed following Cooney’s decision to toss the alleged confession.
“This is not a circumstance where this child made confessions,” Oreskovich said. “I think he admitted to things that did not occur. I think we’ve shown that forensically.”