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Islanders voice concern over drug houses

King County Sheriff John Urquhart answers questions at the community council meeting Monday night. - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
King County Sheriff John Urquhart answers questions at the community council meeting Monday night.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

The half-dozen or so reported drug houses on Vashon likely won’t be shut down any time soon, King County Sheriff John Urquhart told a large crowd on Monday.

Urquhart, invited to speak by the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council, told nearly 70 Islanders who showed for the meeting that the county simply lacked the resources required to go after most suspected drug houses. At the same time, he encouraged those in attendance, several of whom spoke about their own experiences with drug houses, to work with police and to petition elected officials if they want to address crime on Vashon.

“A drug house is something that can’t be handled on a short-term basis. … Sometimes, nothing can be done. I know that’s hard to hear,” he said.

The long question-and-answer session at McMurray Middle School centered almost entirely around drug houses and related crime on the island, with many islanders probing the newly elected sheriff on what steps the community could take to address what it sees as a growing problem.

“We have an active, involved community that wants to do something about it,” said Michael Meade. “Even if there is no funding, we’re looking for a strategy.”

Islanders’ concerns over drug houses mounted last fall, after the body of India Castle, 27, was found near a suspected drug house next to the Vashon Airport. The King County Sheriff’s Office eventually ruled Castle’s death an accident resulting from an overdose of methamphetamine, and no criminal charges resulted.

Urquhart said he wasn’t familiar with the case, but Capt. Patrick Butschli, who oversees Vashon’s precinct and was also at the meeting, said he thought the department was still “looking into a few things.”

Drug houses are usually difficult to shut down, Urquhart said, because of the long legal process involved before criminal charges can be made. Detectives must perform an investigation, often working with an undercover informant, secure a search warrant for the suspected drug house and compile the evidence required to press charges. The process, he said, can take up to three years.

“I’m not saying we can’t; I’m saying it’s difficult and don’t expect something overnight,” he said.

What’s more, Urquhart said, there are only two detectives in the sheriff’s office delegated to work drug cases. They are usually assigned to work the worst cases, he said, and even those positions are at risk due to a lack of funding.

“My advice is to work with elected officials to get funding for the sheriff’s office,” he said. “That is the answer. Let them know your priority is crime on Vashon and police presence on Vashon.”

In a statement met by applause, Urquhart, who took office two months ago, announced that he has vetoed a proposal put forward last year by the sheriff’s office to reduce deputy staffing on Vashon.

Last February, the cash-strapped agency announced it would move Vashon, which currently has two deputies on duty at all times, to a resident deputy program. The new model would have one of two deputies on call at home during the day and both deputies on call at home at night.

The proposal has been locked in union negotiations for months. But Urquhart said he dismissed it last week, after taking a closer look at the plan, because he thought it would give the island inadequate police coverage and drive up deputy response times.

“I became sheriff and said, ‘That sounds kind of stupid, we’re not going to do it,’” Urquhart told the roomful of islanders.

“If we don’t have the funding, we’ll do it anyway,” he added.

In one of the more contentious exchanges of the evening, a couple Islanders pressed Urquhart on why Richard Grant, a felon who lives at the house Castle’s body was found near, was allowed to go free last August, shortly after being arrested for possessing nearly 10 grams of methamphetamine, as reported in The Beachcomber. According to charging papers associated with the arrest, Grant was apprehended but not taken to jail via the ferry that night because of “staffing issues and the call volume on the mainland.”

“I’m beyond myself with why he was let go at the ferry. … That made me crazy to see that,” said Donna McDermott.

Urquhart said he wasn’t familiar with the incident, but if that was true, it was unacceptable. To applause, he added,  “There’s going to be hell to pay” if something like that happens again.

As for current concerns over drug houses, both Uquhart and Butschli said islanders should report as much information as they can, including descriptions of people and cars and license plate numbers. Deputies on Vashon may not be able to shut down the drug houses, they said, but they can keep an eye out for the suspects, question them in public, pull them over when possible and simply let them know they’re being watched.

“You’ve got to burn up the telephone line and knock down the door at the substation to let them know what’s going on,” Urquhart said.

Butschli, who said he thought there were six to eight suspected drug houses on Vashon, said there have been some successes on the island In the past year, the sheriff’s office obtained a search warrant for a suspected drug house and eventually recovered stolen items from the house.

“That’s how police work is done all across rural America,” he said.

After Urquhart left, a few dozen Islanders stayed to discuss how they might work together to address drug houses and crime on Vashon, perhaps delegating a few people to have further conversations with authorities, setting up a neighborhood crime watch or writing to lawmakers.

“It’s easy for all of us to be frustrated and say something has to be done,” said VMICC president Tim Johnson. “The hard question is what.”

 

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