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Shawn Vestal: Another arrest and a stubborn question: How can the system handle Dennis Sprayberry?

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 19, 2020

On a hot June night in 2016, something woke Anne Walter from her sleep.

She went to look at her phone to see what time it was, and it was gone from her nightstand.

“I saw something – I thought a raccoon – crawling across the floor,” she said.

It was not a raccoon. It was a man, Army-crawling across the bedroom floor. Anne shouted at him, and she and her husband, Jess, chased him from their West Central home. As he ran, he carried bags full of their belongings and something else, too: their sense of security.

“It’s a terrible feeling to know someone’s been in your home,” she said recently. “There’s not ever a time now that our house isn’t locked, and it never ever used to be that way.”

A man named Dennis Sprayberry – whose criminal record began in his childhood and has grown so long and detailed as to defy summary – was soon arrested, jailed, charged with four felonies, and released on $25,000 bond.

Eight months after his release, while awaiting trial, Sprayberry burglarized the High Drive home of Kevin and Amy Eddy while they were out of town, police say. Soon thereafter, tracking the Eddys’ stolen minivan, officers caught Sprayberry as he tried to break into another home. He was charged with another four felonies.

The Eddys recall officers were hopeful that this time, at last, Sprayberry would stay behind bars for a long time.

“I remember there was a lot of optimism when he was being arrested that this was going to be it,” Kevin Eddy said. “They were going to be able to put him away.”

Not long after his arrest, Sprayberry attempted suicide in his cell at the county jail and suffered traumatic brain damage. The charges were dropped in February 2018, with an order saying Sprayberry “is not able to understand the nature of the proceedings against him or assist his counsel.”

So the Eddys and the Walters – and, presumably, the other victims in the case – were shocked to learn earlier this month that Sprayberry had been arrested on suspicion of stealing a Tesla and burglarizing at least two homes.

A complicated challenge

If you were to chart the issues that present the steepest challenges to the criminal justice system, you’d find many of them personified in Dennis Richard Sprayberry III.

Our crime rate is driven by property crimes, and Sprayberry has been an incredibly prolific property criminal (though he has also committed violent crimes.)

Our rate of property crimes is driven largely by repeat offenders, and Sprayberry has a more or less continual pattern of committing crimes.

Much of our crime is associated with drug abuse and mental illness, and Sprayberry has a history of using and selling drugs, as well as a diagnosis of substance use disorder, or addiction. He has also been diagnosed with mental illnesses – and been determined to be pretending to have mental illnesses.

Criminal activity often is associated with poverty and problems in childhood. In a court-ordered mental health evaluation, Sprayberry has described a childhood including abuse and neglect. Several members of the Spokane family he grew up in are also well-known to local police for criminal activity.

By his 18th birthday, Sprayberry had four felony convictions – including burglary and possession of stolen property – and four misdemeanors.

As an adult, he has seven felony convictions, all for robbery or attempted robbery, and served five years in prison. His record of convictions – as with all frequent offenders – does not capture the full spectrum of his criminal activity; his cases often involve the consolidation of charges in exchange for guilty pleas.

And it does not include, for example, the eight felony charges he faced following the burglaries in the cases above – cases for which he was not convicted but for which the evidence is strong: He was arrested with stolen property in one instance and caught in the act of trying to break into a home in the other, according to police affidavits.

Or the four charges filed in his most recent arrest on Sept. 30, in which his identification card was found in the Tesla.

What can the system do with someone like Dennis Sprayberry? Lock him up forever? Try to wrap him up in services and hope for reform? Devise some creative combination of both?

Upon his most recent arrest, there was a lot of commentary online that boiled down to this: put him in jail and throw away the key. But that’s not a possibility under current sentencing laws and pretrial release standards. Even if we had the laws, resources and means to lock up prolific criminals for life, there are a lot of reasons to doubt how effective that would be.

We already jail more people than any other country on Earth, and there is research showing that longer sentences are not a deterrent for prolific offenders. There is also plenty of evidence that suggests putting people in jail helps to create a loop where it’s more and more likely they’ll commit more crimes – that frequent incarceration is one of the causes of, or at least is strongly associated with, recidivism.

On the other hand, some of the promising ideas about shifting away from incarceration and toward a more flexible, creative range of alternatives for dealing with crime and its underlying causes – using more pretrial and community supervision and focusing on connecting defendants to social services for addiction and mental illness – also tend to run aground on the particulars of cases like Sprayberry’s.

Perhaps he is amenable to reform, but his record does not inspire hope.

‘It was just stupid’

Sprayberry was born and raised in Spokane, where he had what he described as a “tumultuous upbringing,” according to a psychiatric evaluation in 2016.

He said he started drinking at age 9 and has done “every type of drug there is.”

He dropped out of school in the 11th grade but later earned a GED and attended classes at Spokane Falls Community College, according to court records. He now has a son named Dennis R. Sprayberry – the name of his father and grandfather.

His first adult arrest, at 19, was a bizarre case: He and some friends were on a drunken joyride one night in August 2005, and he and a 17-year-old girl had climbed onto the top of a Ford Explorer when she was thrown off and badly hurt. A man stopped by to help the injured woman, only to be assaulted by Sprayberry and others, who were reluctant to take her to the hospital.

Sprayberry – who did not answer messages seeking an interview for this story – gave a garrulous interview from jail about the beating, in which he said they’d all been drunk and accused the Good Samaritan of being aggressive in trying to climb in with them and go to the hospital immediately.

“For us not to bring her directly to the hospital was just retarded,” he said. “It was just stupid of us. There’s no way to explain it. Me, I’m just done drinking. Period.”

Over the next few years, according to court records, Sprayberry engaged in a persistent series of crimes involving drugs and robbery. Two days before Christmas 2007, he and two others broke into an apartment, held the residents at gunpoint, duct-taped several of them, and stole a gun, marijuana and a computer.

Less than a month later, he robbed a marijuana dealer at gunpoint and pistol-whipped him. Then, in February 2008, he robbed a woman in her home, putting a gun to her head, according to court records.

In March 2008, he was arrested and charged with nine felony counts, including drug, gun, kidnapping and burglary charges. He was 22. Already, his record was long enough that prosecutors filed a motion indicating they would pursue an exceptional sentence because of his high offender score.

Over the rest of that year, prosecutors tried to manage a case that grew to include so many charges and other players that they eventually charged him with a count of “leading organized crime” and asked a judge to join five cases against him – involving 18 separate criminal counts – into one.

Judge Annette Plese rejected the motion to join the cases, in part because the sheer number of charges might “infer guilt on the defendant,” and that “18 counts put together might cause some confusion and overwhelm some jurors.”

By summer of the following year, the case was consolidated, many of the charges were dismissed, and Sprayberry pleaded guilty to seven robbery counts. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

While he was awaiting a transfer from the county jail to prison, he was filmed as part of a Discovery Channel documentary called “Behind Bars.” The filmmakers showed Sprayberry as he pushed the laundry cart among the cells – and passed messages and other contraband, including one elaborate effort to transfer hot water, which was prohibited during a lockdown period, to an inmate so he could have hot coffee in his cell.

“Anything we’re not allowed to do, we’ll do it anyway,” Sprayberry said. “The guards think they run it, but we run it. … The smallest things in jail, you get enjoyment from. Like coming out to do this laundry. Even though it’s a dirty job, I enjoy it because I can get out of my cell, plus I can pass (stuff) to my homies.”

‘I go to work every day’

A relatively small number of offenders is responsible for a large proportion of crimes. That’s always been the case, here and everywhere.

The Spokane Police Department used to have a unit focused specifically on tracking 50 of the most persistent repeat offenders – “ropes,” they called them informally, because they were members of the Repeat Offender Program.

These ropes take an incredible toll on the criminal justice system. In 2012, Major Frank Scalise headed the ropes unit, and he went over three illustrative cases with me: a 25-year-old woman with 12 convictions, 25 arrests and more than 250 “contacts” with police; a 34-year-old man with 22 convictions and 329 police contacts; and another man, age 25, with 13 convictions, nine arrests and 95 police contacts.

Those examples, Scalise said, were “run of the mill” for the cases he tracked.

Sprayberry has long been a part of that mill.

As Spokane Police Sgt. Terry Preuninger dryly put it recently, “Yes, we know him.”

Preuninger oversaw a similar unit at SPD more recently, though the department no longer has a dedicated repeat-offender unit. He said they tried to target their efforts toward monitoring repeat offenders, diverting them and helping them get services if possible, in addition to arresting them when they broke the law.

He tells the story of repeatedly arresting one man for burglary over a decade in Spokane. When Preuninger pointed out how often he’d been arrested, “He said, ‘I’m a burglar. I go to work every day. I may have been arrested a hundred times … but I go to work every day.’ ”

It’s a game of whack-a-mole, and it’s incredibly frustrating for police and others in the justice system and for the people whose lives these crimes affect. Property crimes are nonviolent, but that doesn’t mean they don’t do violence to the victims’ sense of safety and security; it doesn’t mean they aren’t a violation that lives with people long afterward.

A lot of time and energy in criminal justice circles is expended not so much on what to do with established career criminals as it is on trying to divert them earlier in their path. There is a lot of reason to believe that the system, as currently composed and carried out, might actually help foster and encourage the development of so-called career criminals.

A 2013 Department of Justice report on strategies police can use in dealing with recidivism estimates that half of all crimes are committed by “prolific offenders.”

That DOJ report noted there are two general points of view about those prolific offenders – that some people are simply predisposed to commit crimes and set out on a lifetime of doing so or that committing crimes, and the consequences of doing so, actually helps create a cycle that inadvertently guides people to commit more crimes.

“For example,” the report says, “someone convicted of a crime finds it more difficult to resume a law-abiding life, either because they have fewer job opportunities or because they are shunned by normally law-abiding members of the community. Therefore, they persist in criminal behavior and associate with others who are in a similar position.”

Many prison reform advocates argue, persuasively, that we are using a jail-first approach to address too many social ills, including poverty and addiction, and the recidivism cycle often sweeps up people who could escape it if we addressed those causes.

After all, we put more people in jail in this country than any other nation – 698 per 100,000 residents. If incarceration were a solution to crime, we’d have solved it.

A large part of our incarceration rate involves what the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to ending mass incarceration in the U.S., describes as “churn” – the constant revolving door in local jails that arises from two chief factors: the fact that we put so many people in jail while awaiting trial and the proliferation of repeat offenders.

But the hopes for reform through one or two simple approaches is misbegotten, the Prison Policy Initiative argues. It supports a wholesale rethinking of the justice system – including how we handle pretrial supervision, youth offenses, procedural offenses such as probation violations or failures to appear in court – and views many reform proposals skeptically.

In the absence of thoroughgoing reforms, the initiative argues, efforts to reduce incarceration through alternatives that are still essentially tied to current practices may fall short: “Simplistic solutions to reducing incarceration, such as moving people from jails and prisons to community supervision, ignore the fact that ‘alternatives’ to incarceration often lead to incarceration anyway.”

‘I never felt unsafe before’

Sprayberry was released from prison on New Year’s Day 2015. He was still on probation when he roamed through the Walters’ home that hot June night in 2016, gathering up phones, computers, credit cards, jewelry and other household items, according to court records. He unplugged a big-screen TV and had it ready to haul away.

All while they slept.

Anne is a former Spokesman-Review reporter and editor who now works as a school counselor, and Jess, also a former Spokesman-Review reporter, is a well-known best-selling author. Like Sprayberry, they’re Spokane natives.

Once they chased him from the home, they called police and started taking stock. They realized their teenage son’s phone had not been taken, and so Jess used it to track their phones – to a block on West York Avenue.

Police found Sprayberry in an unoccupied rental home there, in possession of the items taken from the Walters and others. He was charged with four felonies and jailed. He posted $25,000 bond and was released.

Sprayberry’s attorney argued – as his attorneys had in the 2008 robbery cases – that he was mentally ill and not competent to face the charges. He had complained of a wide variety of problems, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, and had been treated for some in the past, including with medication. He also spoke of hearing voices, claimed he could fly and said “he was one of God’s angels and stated he gave birth to Jesus Christ.”

The psychologist that evaluated Sprayberry expressed great skepticism about many of Sprayberry’s statements and responses on a personality evaluation, noting the symptoms he described were “highly questionable” and suggested he was “over-reporting and exaggerating.”

Sprayberry was diagnosed with substance use disorder, anti-social personality disorder and “malingering symptoms of psychiatric illness” – faking it, in other words. He was deemed competent to stand trial.

Meanwhile, as his trial date in that case was repeatedly postponed, Sprayberry was burglarizing others, police say. The Eddys returned from a family trip in March 2017 – eight months after Sprayberry’s psychiatric evaluation – to discover that someone had broken into their home and taken several personal items, including checkbooks, passports, cellphones and the keys to their Nissan Quest minivan. Not long after, the minivan vanished.

Kevin Eddy used a phone-finder app to track a stolen phone, which led police to the van. By tracking Sprayberry’s use of the van, officers caught him trying to break into another home, according to investigators’ reports.

He returned to jail. Later that month, Sprayberry attempted suicide in his jail cell. The public details of what happened are limited, though court records say he made “a significant suicide attempt in the (Spokane County Jail) in 2018 with lasting brain trauma and is in need of medication.”

The county denied a request to release the official incident report, saying it was not a public record under state law, but the incident was confirmed by several sources. Sprayberry’s mother, Sherry, confirmed this, but did not want to discuss the case in an interview. Attempts to reach Dennis Sprayberry through his mother were unsuccessful.

The charges against Sprayberry were dismissed without prejudice on February 27, 2018; the dismissal without prejudice means the charges would, theoretically at least, be refiled. The court order said Sprayberry’s brain damage rendered him unable to understand the proceedings against him.

One of his victims said he was told by police that he was in a vegetative state. Anne Walter said the prosecutor handling her case told her, “They’d decided to release him on his own recognizance so the family could say goodbye. If he lived, (the prosecutor) said he’d never offend again.”

But he was arrested in June, on a charge of trespassing at a local cemetery and a charge of possession of methamphetamine.

He was arrested again on Sept. 30, with his younger brother, Elijah, walking near a stolen Tesla, and in possession of items that had been taken from two homes.

The two were booked into jail on a combined 13 charges, but Dennis was released shortly thereafter. It’s not clear now how the case will proceed or how Sprayberry’s brain trauma from 2017 may affect the case moving forward.

His mother told police he had been living in an adult family home between his release in 2018 and the onset of the pandemic, and that he needed to be hospitalized; he is being evaluated to see if he requires inpatient treatment at a local hospital.

However that is resolved, the effect he has had on the lives of his victims continues. The Eddys say the break-in left them with increased concern about their safety. Kevin is a stay-at-home dad and swim coach, and Amy is a doctor; both grew up in Lewiston, Idaho.

“I never have felt unsafe before, and now every day I check – I check that my doors are locked, I check that my kids are with us,” Amy said. “I check.”

Walter, who had such a rude awakening, still finds it hard to sleep soundly, she says, and worries more about safety in her home than she ever did before. The crime also shook something deeper – her belief in the fundamental decency of people.

“I think most people are good, and I believe there is good in Dennis Sprayberry as well,” she said. “I want him to be better so he has a good life, and I want him to be better so he doesn’t come back to my home.”

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