Editor’s note: The isolating nature of being a judge is cited as a reason for tremendous levels of stress and the potential for mental health, substance abuse and other issues. The Washington State Bar Association has an assistance program specifically for judges facing these issues. Read that story here.
The calls started coming in at 1:50 p.m. on a hot Monday — a man was pacing at the edge of the Interstate 82 bridge north of Yakima.
Troopers headed that way with lights and sirens. They know the Fred G. Redmon Memorial Bridge well.
In the past five years, 14 people have been on the bridge threatening to jump from the arching twin spans, the Washington State Patrol reports.
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On July 9, they found a well-dressed man, his hands in his pockets, looking over the canyon 325 feet below. He stood just behind the waist-high guardrail, according to dash-cam video and investigative reports obtained by the Tri-City Herald.
Doug acknowledged he was having a bad day.
“Uh, just trying to decide whether to live or not,” he told troopers after some hesitation.
Minutes later, once buckled into the back seat of a patrol car, Doug told a trooper why his name sounded familiar.
Doug Federspiel is a sitting judge on the Yakima County Superior Court bench.
He considered a run at the Washington state Supreme Court earlier this year, but did not file in May. Federspiel told the Yakima Herald-Republic that he decided against running because he needed to care for his ailing father.
Last fall, Federspiel presided over one of the largest Benton County jury verdicts in recent years when a Hanford nuclear reservation contractor and a manager, then-Kennewick Mayor Steve Young, were found to have discriminated against an employee.
Nine months later, Federspiel was presiding over a trial in his own Yakima County courtroom when he ended up on the freeway bridge outside of town.
The 55-year-old who grew up in Prosser left the downtown courthouse at some point during the lunch hour, drove toward Ellensburg on Interstate 82, crossed the bridge and pulled into the median.
He parked his Toyota pickup in the emergency turnaround used by first responders, then got out and crossed the busy eastbound lanes to reach the outside shoulder.
Federspiel walked past one of the call boxes designated for people in crisis on the Redmon Bridge over Selah Creek.
The solar-charged phones on each side of the highway were installed five years ago as a problem-oriented policing project by the state patrol and Department of Transportation, said state Trooper Chris Thorson.
The project’s intent was to eliminate or reduce suicides after eight people jumped from the bridge or drove into the canyon from a nearby rest area between 2008 and 2013, Thorson revealed.
It’s the same bridge where in April 2017, a Tri-City driver under investigation for a vehicular homicide jumped to his death.
Threat to themselves
People who are contacted by police out of concern they may harm themselves can be ordered held by a judge in a mental health facility for up to 72 hours to be evaluated by a doctor.
Then, in a follow-up civil commitment proceeding, a judge can order inpatient treatment for a set length of time if they find the person is severely disabled or a serious threat to themselves or others.
Because Federspiel is a Yakima judge, it would have been a conflict for one of his judicial colleagues to make that decision. So, he was brought to the Tri-Cities for a mental health hearing.
A Benton-Franklin Superior Court judge ordered Federspiel to undergo two weeks of involuntary inpatient treatment at a Richland counseling center, according to multiple sources.
Documents and recordings from mental health court proceedings are not open to the public under the Involuntary Treatment Act, but the Herald has learned he spent 1 1/2 weeks in treatment.
Yakima County Superior Court schedules show Federspiel was back to work in his chambers within several weeks of his release. He was back on the bench on Sept. 10.
Federspiel did not return phone and email messages from the Herald.
The judge’s recent and future legal rulings may be scrutinized by lawyers given what happened on the bridge.
However, legal experts say there is little likelihood it would result in cases being thrown out.
The appellate courts look at the record of the case, including what rulings were made, and then base decisions on that, said Bill Bailey, a trial attorney and University of Washington School of Law professor.
And if an attorney doesn’t want Federspiel on a Superior Court case, the law in Washington state allows a party to disqualify a judge or ask for their recusal, said Mary Pat Treuthart, a lawyer and professor at Gonzaga University School of Law.
A 30-year career
Federspiel described himself in past campaign literature as an avid outdoorsman and a dedicated husband and father who “works hard every day to make Yakima County a safe place to raise your family.”
The Canadian immigrant grew up on an orchard in the Lower Yakima Valley and managed a cherry packing line for several seasons, said the materials.
He graduated from Selah High School and attended the William O. Douglas Honors College at Central Washington University, Whitman College in Walla Walla and Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Ore., campaign literature states.
Federspiel started his law career in 1988 with a special litigation unit at the Oregon Department of Justice, then spent 17 years as a trial attorney.
He had been general counsel for a real estate investment firm for nearly five years when he was elected to a seat on the Yakima County District Court bench in 2010.
Federspiel then was elected to Superior Court in 2012 when a judge retired, and in 2016 kept his position in a contested race. He was reprimanded last year for a campaign violation, according to the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.
He’s up for re-election in 2020 for the position that pays about $172,000.
Over the years, Federspiel has sat on the bench in the Tri-Cities to handle Benton-Franklin Superior Court matters that local judges couldn’t hear.
Most notable was the $8.1 million Benton County jury verdict against a Hanford contractor for discrimination, retaliation and wrongful firing. Federspiel upheld the verdict in January and it’s now on appeal.
‘Having a bad day’
Six months later, a despondent Federspiel was seen grabbing the guardrail on the interstate bridge several times and leaning over the edge.
A caller to 911 said the man kept “rubbing his hands on his head” and placing his foot up on the curbing of the bridge, according to the WSP dispatch log.
Troopers Joe Campbell and Michael Cortez arrived on the bridge nine minutes later.
State patrol video of the encounter shows Campbell, the first out of his car, encouraging Federspiel to walk toward him — away from the edge.
“Hey partner. Come on over here. Hey there, I’m Joe. What’s your name? Doug? What’s going on Doug?”
Federspiel says he was “having a bad day.”
Campbell gently clasps Federspiel’s right elbow while Cortez approaches and puts his hand on Federspiel’s back.
“We’re here because we care about you, Doug,” says Campbell.
When Federspiel says he’s trying to decide whether to live or not, Campbell asks, “What if we provide you with some help, would you be OK with that? Get you some help? Yeah?”
The officers don’t learn that Federspiel is a judge until after he’s been patted down and placed in the back of a patrol car.
“I just give up,” Federspiel says at one point.
“Well, we don’t want you to give up. Nobody wants you to give up,” another trooper says. “I’m sure a lot of people care about you. We all do. We hauled ass up here to try and stop you.”
‘I appreciate you not jumping’
Campbell takes Federspiel to the highway rest area while he waits for word on which agency has a mental health professional on staff that day.
The judge eventually was taken to Virginia Mason Memorial, state patrol records show.
On the drive to Yakima, Campbell thanks him for not going through with it, and says the judge gave him hope.
“Doug, your honor, I appreciate you not jumping, I really do,” he said. “I’ll be honest, you’re the first person I’ve gotten to personally deal with that hasn’t jumped, and you had me a little scared. And I really appreciate you coming and talking to me.”
“It’s been a rough month for me, real rough month at work. You’re some good news for me, OK?” he adds. “We’re going to get you the help you need, the help you deserve, OK?”
Patrol car footage shows Federspiel became emotional, wiping his eyes.
The trooper tries to engage Federspiel in conversation on the 17-minute drive to the hospital. What’s his taste in music? Where he went to school? Why did he return to the Yakima area to practice law?
“I appreciate you being kind to me,” Federspiel says at one point.
“Absolutely, absolutely, that’s my job,” Campbell replies. “I’m not out here to judge anybody. I’m out here trying to help people the best I can.”
▪ The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a toll-free hotline staffed 24 hours a day for people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. To talk with someone now, call 1-800-273-8255.
▪ If you’re more comfortable chatting with a trained crisis counselor through text messages, the Crisis Text Line is another 24-hour support service. Text HOME to 741741.