Early in the morning of Sept. 22, a homeowner in Vinegar Flats was awakened by what he thought was his cats fighting.
When he went downstairs, he found a man exiting a side door from his home onto a porch area – where the man had assembled a variety of objects he’d taken from the house, including keys and a teenager’s Vans sweatshirt, according to police reports.
The homeowner wrestled with the burglar, who got away. Later in the day, however, a mail carrier spotted the man walking around the neighborhood, and alerted the homeowner and his wife, who raced to confront the man and held him for the police, according to court records.
Once again, 35-year-old Dennis R. Sprayberry was back in jail.
And once again, homeowners who had caught Sprayberry in their house – or returned after the fact to discover they’d been burglarized – began urging a judge to keep him there as long as possible.
“Why is this guy still walking around?” asked Michael Moore, a Vinegar Flats resident who has captured Sprayberry on his home security cameras on several occasions. “We need to be able to protect ourselves.”
The answer is far from simple and far from settled. Sprayberry has a criminal record that began in his childhood. Mention him, or some of his family members, to cops or attorneys – and they recognize the name instantly.
In many ways, his criminal history resembles that of many persistent property criminals. He’s been repeatedly caught and charged with burglarizing homes, sometimes while awaiting trial for other charges. The crimes for which he’s been convicted represent far fewer accusations than those for which he’s been arrested or charged – as plea deals or prosecutorial decisions have winnowed down the allegations to the most serious or provable cases. The system seems to have trouble keeping up with him.
Now, though, Sprayberry is moving from the overburdened criminal justice system to the overburdened mental health care system, due to the effects of a brain injury he suffered from a suicide attempt in the county jail.
During the most recent burglary in Vinegar Flats, he was out of jail on his own recognizance in a case involving an earlier burglary and theft of a Tesla. But he’d been waiting for more than a year in that case for an evaluation by Eastern State Hospital to determine whether he was competent to stand trial.
Now he’s in jail, and his case is on hold, as he awaits another such evaluation – one that his defense attorney and state officials say will proceed more quickly because he’s in custody.
Neighbors in Vinegar Flats say that in recent months, in addition to the alleged burglary, he’s been trespassing regularly and brazenly on people’s property and making them afraid.
When he was initially arrested, several testified at his first appearance and persuaded the judge to raise his bail from $1,500 to $10,000.
“The feeling is a lot of frustration that he seems to just get away with this,” said Celeste Shaw, who owns two businesses in the neighborhood. “He’s terrorizing Vinegar Flats. I just feel I’m part of that community, and if our neighbors are afraid I want us to stand together.”
‘Not the person he was’
Sprayberry’s mother says that he’s not a danger to others and that he’s not trying to hurt or scare anyone. Since the brain injury in 2018 – for which she faults the jail staff for failing to monitor him more closely – he has needed in-patient care, she said.
He was in the psychiatric ward at a local hospital for months after the incident, and then was in an assisted-living facility. But when he left during the pandemic, he wasn’t allowed back in, she said.
“Dennis is not a bad person. He’s not the person he was before,” she said. “All I’m trying to do is get him into a hospital to get help.”
From a young age, Sprayberry’s life has been continuously intertwined with the criminal justice system. His first felony convictions – for burglary and possessing stolen property – came as a teenager.
As a young adult, he piled up such a long record of drug and robbery allegations that prosecutors in one case sought an “exceptional” sentence, and attempted to consolidate 18 separate criminal charges into a single case of “leading organized crime.” Those charges included two robberies at gunpoint.
A judge denied the organized crime consolidation in that case, and the 18 felony charges against him were trimmed to seven; he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a decade in prison.
While awaiting a transfer from the Spokane County jail to prison, he was filmed as part of a TV documentary, “Behind Bars.” Sprayberry was shown engaging in an elaborate ruse to use a paper funnel to give an inmate hot water so he could make coffee in his cell – which was against the rules during a period of lockdown.
“Anything we’re not allowed to do, we’ll do it anyway,” Sprayberry said in the film. “The guards think they run it, but we run it.”
Following his release from prison on New Year’s Day in 2015, Sprayberry apparently began burglarizing homes again – before his life took a sharp turn with the attempted suicide in his jail cell in 2018, where he was being held on eight felony charges related to home burglaries.
Prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the charges because he had “organic brain damage, hypoxia and is not able to understand the nature of the process against him or assist his counsel.”
One of his victims was told by prosecutors that he was probably going to die, and if he didn’t he would never offend again.
But after a period of hospitalization and rehabilitation, he was arrested again in September 2020 on charges related to a burglary and theft of a Tesla. He was with his brother, Elijah, in that incident; Elijah already has pleaded guilty.
But Dennis was released on his own recognizance in that case, awaiting a competency evaluation.
The previous charges – those that were dismissed immediately after the suicide attempt – were never refiled.
The prosecutor’s office would not answer questions about that decision or this case. In response to questions, the office issued a statement that said it could not comment on its strategy in any particular case, and generally explaining the competency and civil commitment process.
‘Not able to keep up’
The question of competency involves whether a defendant can understand the criminal proceedings against him and participate with his attorney in his own defense.
In the Tesla case, Sprayberry’s public defender sought a competency evaluation from Eastern State Hospital, and the case was put on hold while awaiting that evaluation. The court file shows that month after month, officials filed the same brief update: “Still awaiting out-of-custody eval.”
Sprayberry’s attorney, Jeff Leslie, said it’s not unusual for such evaluations to take a long time for defendants who are not being held in jail. Eastern State Hospital, like the mental health system statewide, has been focused on reducing the backlog of competency evaluations for in-custody defendants, which has grown dramatically over the past decade.
“That’s really common with a lot of our out-of-custody evaluations during this time period,” Leslie said. “It got a lot worse during COVID.”
The evaluation backlog has been a serious problem in Washington’s criminal justice system for several years – hospital beds, clinicians and other resources have been seriously insufficient and led to long delays of defendants being held while awaiting an assessment. These delays were the subject of a lawsuit the state settled in 2014, alleging that the extensive delays in competency evaluations were unconstitutional.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the number of orders for in-custody competency evaluations rose from 978 in fiscal year 2013 to 2,397 in fiscal 2022. That doesn’t take into account those released while awaiting an evaluation, as Sprayberry was in the Tesla case.
“We have not been able to keep up with that demand,” acknowledged Tyler Hemstreet, a spokesman for the state Behavioral Health Administration.
DSHS is now under a court order to perform the competency evaluations more quickly – or face daily fines when they’re delayed. The state has begun adding resources to the system, but hasn’t come close to solving the problem; state agencies have compiled more than $66 million in fines over delayed competency evaluations.
Those fines likely won’t be paid if the agencies take other steps to address the court-ordered competency evaluation requirements. In recent years, state agencies have hired more staff and added more crisis beds, the Legislature has provided more funding, and systems for evaluating people held in jail have been increased.
Sprayberry’s case was put on hold this week while the court awaits a competency evaluation that Leslie expects to proceed more quickly. He emphasizes that Sprayberry retains his presumption of innocence during this process.
“With his brain injury and other psychological issues, he’s pretty ill,” Leslie said. “And that’s why I’m having him evaluated.”
If Sprayberry is found competent, the case would proceed normally. If he’s not, it might go in a couple of different directions.
If the evaluation finds that his competency might be restored through treatment or medication, he could be sent to Eastern and re-evaluated to see if he’s competent to stand trial. If he’s deemed unable to have his competency restored, the charges against him could be dropped and he could be civilly committed to the hospital.
If that happened, he would be evaluated regularly to see if he could be released, perhaps into an assisted-living facility.
The question of Sprayberry’s competency has arisen before. He was evaluated in 2016, when he was facing felony burglary charges. In that case, the Eastern psychologist concluded that he was “malingering” – faking the symptoms, in essence – and was competent to stand trial.
That was before his brain injury. His mother says that Sprayberry now suffers from “bad schizophrenia,” and has lost his short-term memory, among other problems.
“He’s not a danger to these people,” she said, referring to the neighbors urging the judge to keep Sprayberry locked up. “He needs help. He doesn’t need to be slaughtered and sent to prison.”
‘No worries in the world’
However the current evaluation process goes, those who have been victimized by Sprayberry say they mostly just want to see him taken off the streets so he doesn’t commit more crimes.
Moore first saw Sprayberry’s face in the security camera footage from outside his home not long before he was arrested in the Tesla case. In the footage, you can see Sprayberry – who was later identified by a police officer after another neighbor saw Sprayberry on her property – walking around Moore’s home, peering into windows, wearing a headlamp.
“There’s a lot of footage of him standing right here,” Moore said, standing on his deck. “No worries in the world.”
That was one of four times in the past two years that Moore said he has encountered Sprayberry on his property. He confronted him once and engaged him in a conversation, in which Sprayberry made a lot of nonsensical statements. He was seen standing on the side deck again right before the most recent burglary, Moore said.
Moore, who is a retired foundation director and fundraiser, has gathered a wealth of information about Sprayberry’s criminal history – as well as the criminal histories of many others in his family.
He said the system seems fundamentally unequipped to deal with the challenges presented by persistent offenders – in some ways that are large and structural, and in others that are more simple and basic, such as the availability of information to different parties in the system and the public.
“Every time I described him being on my property he was in violation of his release requirements,” Moore said. “Every time I asked the police officer, ‘Are you sure he’s not on parole or under release conditions?’ And the answer was ‘Not to my knowledge.’ ”
Moore is also convinced we have underestimated the degree to which a few people living a determined criminal existence – and sustained by networks of family and friends living the same lifestyle – are responsible for a lot of crime. Our systems don’t provide ways to understanding and dealing with these families, he said.
This is a theme frequently echoed by police, who have developed several initiatives targeting prolific offenders over the years. The Department of Justice has estimated that half of all crimes are committed by “prolific offenders.”
“The issue is not a lot of people doing a few things each,” Moore said. “The issue is a few people doing a lot of things.”
Shaw, who owns Lucky Vintage and Pretty Things in Vinegar Flats, as well as the restaurant Chaps, has been outspoken about trying to see chronic criminals punished. She testified in 2016 at the sentencing of a man, Christopher Cannata, who had been convicted of 43 crimes, including breaking into her restaurant.
He was eventually sentenced to 27.5 years in prison.
She says the same thing about Sprayberry that she did about Cannata – that the system shows an “infinite complacency” toward repeat offenders. Some of the residents of Vinegar Flats have been reluctant to be publicly identified, for fear of retaliation, but she has made it a point to speak in court, to approach City Hall and to otherwise raise her voice about what she sees as a systemic problem.
“There’s fear – literal fear – in people’s hearts right now,” she said.
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