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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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How Washington state’s onetime ‘Most Wanted’ fugitive, in his last act, broke through the vaccine impasse

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 11, 2021

By Danny Westneat Seattle Times

SEATTLE – For months now, health experts, politicians, corporate heads, university professors and other elites have been desperately trying to persuade, entice, reason with or harangue the reluctant among us to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

It took an ex-con in Kennewick to crack the code. Only it cost him his own life doing it.

Richard Linderman, 50, once a dangerous fugitive spotlighted on “Washington’s Most Wanted,” became, in the past year, a sort of underground legend in the Tri-Cities area for turning his life around and founding an ex-con support group, called Incarceration to Inspiration.

“I was a former criminal … as everybody knows,” he wryly told local TV in July, as his group launched a bike-building program for needy kids.

But when Linderman got COVID-19 in August, he did what few have been courageous enough to do. He owned his own decision-making and mistakes. Publicly.

Hospitalized and on oxygen, Linderman cut a grainy video in which he rasped out, “This is how bad it is,” then admitted he had made a catastrophic error by not getting vaccinated.

“I was never a fan of the mask or anything else COVID related,” he wrote on Facebook.

He pronounced it all “my biggest regret … if I would’ve known a shot would’ve kept the severity of it all at arm’s length, I would’ve got the vaccine.”

“I’m trying to get the reality of this story out there for all the skeptics like myself that thought they’d never get it,” he said.

That this was coming from a man who spent years in and out of prison for assault, gun and drug crimes seems to have struck home in a visceral way that all the official pronouncements never did.

“This is the reason I got vacced,” wrote Jason Fletcher, who works security at Coyote Bob’s Roadhouse Casino in Kennewick. “Watching his video gave me goose bumps. I jumped up and went and got my shot.”

“I got vaccinated because of Richard Linderman,” said Rebekah Raasch, of Kennewick.

“Richard Linderman, I don’t personally know you but you have inspired me to get vaccinated,” wrote Andrew Witherrite, of Finley, Benton County.

For two weeks, Linderman posted uncomfortable videos and photos, along with blunt commentary, from his bed at the overwhelmed Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland.

“Not how I wanted this day to end,” he wrote on Aug. 13, above a close-up of himself on a BiPap machine, a type of ventilator.

The saga compelled one of his friends, Joel Watson, a cafe owner in Kennewick, to get vaccinated himself, and then cut a video about it for the health department.

“Of course I’m apprehensive with paranoia about the government issuing anything,” Watson says about the vaccine. “Now this delta variant is really hitting and hurting people that are close to me. It was eye-opening.”

In another video, Watson curses excessively while urging people to stop holding prayer vigils for Linderman outside the hospital, and go get vaccinated instead.

“This is everywhere,” he said about the delta variant. “So don’t gather. Have some respect for everybody around you … if you want to do something for Rich – say a prayer by yourself and go get vaccinated.”

What’s most amazing about this story is data suggests there has been a marked increase in vaccinations of late in the Tri-Cities. In the last week of August, Benton County averaged 625 shots per day – more than double the daily average in July.

On Aug. 27, they gave out 875 doses – the most in one day since early June.

Amy Green of Kennewick, who works at a hair salon, said she got vaccinated in Linderman’s honor.

“Never met him personally, but have followed all the good he’s done in the community,” she wrote.

Linderman’s postings from the hospital stopped in late August. The last one said, “I’m being moved back to the ICU … COVID!!!!!”

He died on Sept. 2.

Of course, it’s possible the surge in shots in the Tri-Cities was due to one of the many public service bulletins or the drumbeat of warnings about jammed emergency rooms. Vaccinations are on the rise somewhat around the state, though not by double.

Not everyone communicates with facts and data, though. There was something different happening here: the ex-con at death’s door coming clean with his regrets.

“Being willing to be vulnerable and share his story in an effort to help his community makes him a … hero,” wrote Amy Payson, of Richland.

“I was so loved by your transparency and honesty that I got the shot,” Kelley Wiseman, of Spokane, wrote to Linderman before he died.

This pandemic has been one strange trip. After all the death counts and case charts, the health edicts and vax passports, the lotteries and the mandates, what finally broke through, at least in the eastern part of the state, may have been the guy who got out of prison just last year and then chose, as his final act, to make himself a messenger.

As someone wrote on his support group’s site: “He’s still Washington’s Most Wanted – just for different reasons now.”

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