Inquiry details weakness in police

Several officers mishandled interactions with wanted woman

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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In July 2009, Tegan Rushworth was a known felon with three warrants out for her arrest. But she didn’t go to jail — instead, she went to a barbecue hosted by a Vancouver Police sergeant.

She spent the Fourth of July that year with her boyfriend, Officer Erik McGarrity, at the home of McGarrity’s supervisor, Sgt. Duane McNicholas, socializing and drinking with law enforcement.

That wasn’t the first time she associated with cops while wanted either: VPD officers also failed to arrest her on a felony warrant in 2007, according to a Vancouver Police internal affairs investigation.

Also in the investigation are revelations that Rushworth was paid money from police funds, but the files don’t document what she was paid for.

The two-year investigation ended this week, and two more officers were handed suspensions for their roles in the way her case was handled.

Rushworth — the 2003 Fort Vancouver Rodeo Queen turned felon methamphetamine-user and paid police informant — had received special treatment earlier from some Vancouver officers.

She leaves in her wake a Washington State Patrol criminal probe and black marks on the records of four officers.

McGarrity, who was Rushworth’s “handler” in 2007, struck up an inappropriate sexual relationship with her after she was released from prison in 2008. He resigned from the department in November.

Another of Rushworth’s handlers, Detective Brian Billingsley, was fired for neglect of duty and other reasons in March but reinstated with a 28-day unpaid suspension by City Manager Eric Holmes in June. The police union is appealing that suspension.

Now, McNicholas, 48, has been given a 10-day unpaid suspension for five policy violations: socializing with informants; neglect of duty; association with known offenders; failing to report information; and failing in his supervisory responsibility in using informants.

“When considering the aggravating factors, I initially considered demotion of rank as the most appropriate discipline,” VPD Cmdr. Dave King wrote in a disciplinary letter. “When applying the mitigating factors, I have decided a lesser penalty would suffice to change your behavior.”

King added that McNicholas had the power to stop McGarrity and Rushworth’s relationship before it got out of hand.

Officer Spencer Harris, 35, will get a six-day unpaid suspension and remedial classes in filing search warrants for violations in: using informants; neglect of duty; and failing in his duty to report information.

He ignored mounting evidence about McGarrity and Rushworth’s forbidden relationship, and did not pass it on to higher-ups, Cmdr. Marla Schuman wrote in his disciplinary letter. He also wrote at least one search warrant, based on Rushworth’s information, that later caused a criminal case to be appealed.

‘She never stunk’

Internal affairs documents seem to spell out evidence that a blind eye was repeatedly turned toward Rushworth and McGarrity’s relationship, and also toward crimes Rushworth committed when she had regular contact with some Vancouver officers.

Along with allowing her to attend the barbecue in 2009, King blasted McNicholas for failing to arrest Rushworth in 2007, when she had a felony “no bail” warrant — but was still working closely with McGarrity.

Despite knowing she had a warrant, “You allowed Officer McGarrity’s continued use of Ms. Rushworth as a VPD informant until she was arrested by members of the Career Criminal Apprehension Team, which required the expenditure of additional law enforcement resources,” King wrote. “You placed the department in potentially litigious situations and allowed the credibility of the agency, Officer McGarrity and yourself to be impacted.”

King also writes that Rushworth was paid $1,410 over 14 occasions, but neither McNicholas or McGarrity could specify the reasons for those payments.

McNicholas has described Rushworth as “attractive.”

“She never stunk like most of ’em do,” he told the WSP. “She was clean-cut. She just hung out with all these people.”

When McGarrity asked McNicholas if he could leave the July 4, 2009, barbecue and return with Rushworth, the sergeant said he had “been consuming a great deal of alcohol.”

“At that point in time, and I’m not gonna use the crutch of being drunk, but I was, and I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t care,’” he told VPD internal affairs.

Rushworth told the WSP that she’d visited Harris’ home, as well. But Schuman wrote that throughout the investigation, Harris denied being aware of the relationship except for rumors.

“The investigation also revealed that both Det. Ryan Demmon and Det. Josie Hopkins alerted you in or around September 2009 of the relationship. You chose to ignore those warnings,” Schuman wrote. “You took no action to notify a supervisor, discontinue the use of Rushworth (as an informant), or alert fellow officers until Rushworth herself advised you of the relationship and you could no longer ignore it.”

Schuman also criticized Harris’ “alarming lack of communication” in checking with other officers about Rushworth’s status as an informant, which led to his using her in search warrants despite the fact she was not an active informant for the department.

In determining the level of discipline to apply, Schuman noted that Harris had no previous disciplinary history and has several commendations.

Both Harris and McNicholas have the option to appeal their suspensions.

Department responds

When first interviewed about the investigation in August 2010, Police Chief Cliff Cook called the officers’ actions “a disappointment.”

This week, he said that he was ready to move on from the ordeal.

“I hope that the closure of this larger case … will put those events behind us as a department,” he said. “Our department membership has learned from that investigation.”

The entire confidential informant policy has been rewritten to more clearly track informant use. More-specific requirements are put on supervisors to approve or disapprove of the use of individual informants.

Despite the seriousness of the neglect in handling Rushworth, Cook said he felt the discipline meted out to McNicholas and Harris was appropriate. He said having his firing of Billingsley overturned by the city manager would not cause him to lighten the punishment in a similar future case.

The department has a discipline matrix, and Cook said the officers’ policy violations fell within the appropriate range in that matrix.

Cook said he did not believe that the treatment of Rushworth by McGarrity, Billingsley, McNicholas and Harris reflected the department’s overall culture.

“The total number of individuals involved is a very small percentage of the police force,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it occurred. There are a variety of reasons that I believe that those behaviors occurred. I believe we’ve taken corrective action to prevent them in the future.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall.