Two-and-a-half years after Benton County voters approved a public safety sales tax, one of the more surprising outcomes is a rise in the number of people arrested for sex crimes against children.
In 2014, voters raised the local sales tax by .3 percent, or three cents on a $10 purchase. Collectively, the county and the cities of Kennewick, Prosser, Richland and West Richland have collected more than $22 million.
They’ve used the money to add 32 law enforcement officers and three prosecutors, and support a broad array of activities to combat gangs, drugs and other crimes.
In Richland, “other” crimes means child sexual abuse.
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Richland’s city leaders decided to use the money to revive its anti-child pornography work, and the young effort has led to a striking increase in arrests and some startling headlines.
In April, for example, a former Kennewick School District superintendent was arrested for allegedly arranging to have sex with a young teen who was actually a Homeland Security detective.
The Washington Policy Center, a conservative research group with a Tri-City office, did not object to the tax, noting public safety is a core role of government. It did want the initiative to include an audit requirement, which failed to make the final version approved by nearly 53 percent of voters.
Audit requirement notwithstanding, Richland Police Chief Chris Skinner and his peers recently shared how they’re using the money with the Benton County Commission.
17 child victims
11 defendants considered “positions of trust”
The tax allowed Richland to establish the Southeast Washington Internet Crimes Against Children task force. Its twin missions include combating child pornography and enticing would-be predators online by posing as young teens willing to sell sex on Craigslist and other social media.
The effort is supported by the $2.4 million Richland has received through 2016. It expects to receive more than $1.5 million from the tax this year.
The task force includes a sergeant and detective from Richland, two Homeland Security Investigations officers and a detective from Kennewick. It is hosted in Richland and housed in an off-limits federal building. Its net is as wide as the internet. It works with police agencies across state lines and its work is felt throughout the region.
The task force has investigated 57 cases of child pornography and sexual exploitation, identified 17 child victims and arrested 24 people, mostly men of all ages and socioeconomic status.
The arrests included 11 people in what Skinner called “positions of trust” — former Kennewick School District Superintendent Paul Rosier, educators, a nurse and a man with foster children living in his home and an adoption pending.
One of those arrested, Skinner noted darkly, was carrying duct tape and condoms when he was arrested at Howard Amon Park.
“This is a real problem,” he said.
This is a real problem.
Chris Skinner, Richland police chief
Some cases have made their way into the news as suspects are arrested, charged and appear in court, the sordid details of the alleged crimes outlined in charging documents. Many stories remain untold, tied up in larger investigations.
“It’s a larger landscape than what we are able to share,” Skinner said.
Many cases end up in federal court, prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller said state and federal prosecutors cooperate and often consult on which jurisdiction has the stronger sentencing guidelines. Usually, but not always, federal guidelines are tougher.
Miller likes to think the uptick in prosecutions is deterring crime, causing people to think twice before they look for sexual content and contact with children online, he said.
“I think it’s nice that in the back of their mind, they’re thinking, ‘This might be a 45-year-old cop instead of a young girl,’” he said.
I think it’s nice that in the back of their mind, they’re thinking, ‘This might be a 45-year-old cop instead of a young girl.’
Andy Miller, Benton County prosecutor
The uptick is getting noticed in the legal community.
“I’m definitely seeing more cases being prosecuted,” said Sam Swanberg, a criminal defense attorney in Kennewick and former candidate for the Benton-Franklin Superior Court.
Skinner said the team anticipated large volumes of activity around child pornography. It was surprised by the number of people willing to travel long distances on the promise of sex with the “minors.”
In one instance, detectives posted an ad on Craigslist. The ad used discrete terms to sell the opportunity to have sex with a young teen. It was live for 36 minutes before Craigslist took it down. By then, 36 would-be customers had responded.
“That paints a picture of the need for the unit,” Skinner said.
Detectives going online to catch criminals is common, although criminal defendants often attempt to make the case they were victims of entrapment.
Mary D. Fan, the Henry M. Jackson Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law, said the “entrapment” defense rarely succeeds.
“Just because officers gave the opportunity, that is not a defense,” she said.
Just because officers gave the opportunity, that is not a defense.
Mary D. Fan, professor, University of Washington School of Law
A sample of the task force’s recent cases
▪ Jesse Allen Shandy of Burbank was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison on Tuesday for producing child pornography after he was caught masquerading as a teen online to entice an 8-year-old in Michigan to send explicit photos. The child’s mother discovered the exchange and contacted law enforcement, which traced the suspect to Washington.
▪ In May, Jerry W. Lindsey, 34, of Idaho, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for trying to meet up with a teen girl for sex during a trip to the Tri-Cities. The “girl” was an undercover detective.
▪ Darrin Lee Ruddell, 47, of West Richland, faces 11 years in federal prison when he is sentenced June 20. The former nurse at Kadlec Regional Medical Center pleaded guilty in March to two charges of receiving child pornography after 1,480 pornographic images of children were linked to him.
▪ Paul Rosier, 75, of Olympia, faces charges of attempted child sex trafficking after he allegedly arranged to have sex with a girl, 13, through the Pinger social media application. The arrangement was brokered by a “girl,” 16, who was actually a Homeland Security officer. The former Kennewick school boss was arrested at a Richland hotel.
Skinner said the task force will expand in coming years. The Benton County Sheriff’s Office is considering lending support. and Skinner has invited the Pasco Police Department and Franklin County Sheriff’s Office to join as well.
“This is not a Richland thing or a Kennewick thing or a Pasco thing. It is an everybody thing,” he said.