Federal judge stings Woodland police officer

Trial set to determine if power was abused

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LONGVIEW — A federal judge has awarded both sides some victories in a lawsuit in which a former Woodland woman alleges an abuse of police power by the Woodland Police Department and two officers.

But in a ruling handed down last month, U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton had some stern things to say about now-retired Woodland officer Brad Gillaspie.

Leighton wrote that there is strong evidence indicating Gillaspie stalked and threatened Jody Petersen, caused her to lose her job, spread lies about her parenting ability, interfered with her child custody proceedings, interfered with her attempt to divorce her husband and tarnished her reputation in the community.

“By stalking Petersen’s home, threatening her, belatedly initiating an investigation that resulted in her losing her job … and tarnishing her reputation in the community, Gillaspie egregiously influenced and interfered with Petersen’s divorce and child custody proceedings. A reasonable jury could find he was motivated by malice and a perverse sense of friendship, not by some ethical sense of duty,” Leighton wrote.

Gillaspie, officer Brent Murray and the city of Woodland had asked Leighton to dismiss Petersen’s suit, filed Sept. 25, 2016, in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. Leighton tossed out the cases against the city and Murray, saying there was no evidence that they had engaged in or encouraged any systematic or unfair treatment or violation of Petersen’s rights. But the judge sustained Petersen’s complaints against Gillaspie, meaning they will now go to trial or lead to a negotiated settlement.

A trial is scheduled for April 16.

The case originates from a marital dispute between Petersen and her now ex-husband, Steve Petersen. On Sept. 14, 2014, after hearing her son report that her husband had been “making out” with another woman in their kitchen, Jody Petersen called and yelled at him and threw his clothing on their lawn. Steve Petersen told Gillaspie, his friend, but he did not seek charges or an investigation. At the time, the Petersens were still living together in their Woodland home even though they were getting divorced.

According to Leighton’s findings of fact, a long series of events then unfolded:

When Petersen filed for a protective order the next day, she returned home to find Gillaspie and Steve in the driveway. Steve left, but then Gillaspie told Petersen, “You need to work this s— out, Jody. I know all the judges. You will lose everything. Your house. Your kids. Stop being so vindictive and make this s— work.”

Petersen said Gillaspie began stalking her, and his patrol vehicle’s GPS coordinates confirmed he lingered for hours outside her home. He did so often enough that neighbors complained.

On Oct. 7, 2014, Jody Petersen reported a theft at her house to Woodland Police Department, claiming her estranged husband had entered in violation of a protection order and took her lawn mower and computer and had rearranged pictures on her walls.

In October 2014 — a month after the clothing incident — Gillaspie decided that incident and Petersen’s phone threats to her husband were cases of domestic violence requiring reporting to his commanding officer. He also called Petersen’s chief at the North Plains, Ore., police department, where she was an officer. The chief testified that Gillaspie asked him to advise Jody Petersen not to “do something to screw herself and knock the crap off” and to “jerk her chain.”

The North Plains police chief called Bill Mahoney, a former Cowlitz County sheriff who was acting Woodland police chief. Mahoney asked officer Murray to investigate, and after doing so, Murray recommended that Petersen be charged with malicious mischief, third-degree domestic violence and telephone harassment. The city prosecutor declined to file charges, but he spoke to The Oregonian newspaper, which did a story about the case. Petersen was not disciplined by her chief, but she claimed her reputation had been tarnished, and both sides agreed she should resign.

At some point, Gillaspie and Murray testified on Steve Petersen’s behalf during child custody hearings. Gillaspie told the hearings personnel that Jody Petersen was “psychotic” and had “lied her ass off” and had “no business being a cop with that level of dishonesty.” It’s unclear what Murray said.

‘Shock the conscience’

Petersen’s suit alleges that Gillaspie and Murray violated her constitutional right to associate and petition the government for a redress of grievances by interfering with her job, divorce and child custody proceedings. She also claimed a violation of her 14th Amendment right to equal protection by conducting an investigation only into her and failing to investigate her then-husband for violating a protection order (they considered it a civil matter). And she argued that their investigation was motivated to discredit her and punish her for filing for divorce. The city, she said, knew of and allowed Gillaspie’s “abuses of power.”

Gillaspie and Murray argued they did not violate her rights and, if they did so, they are immune. Gillaspie also argued he was a “mandatory reporter” under the police department’s domestic violence policy.

In rejecting Gillaspie’s attempt to dismiss the case, Leighton wrote that “a reasonable jury could find that Gillaspie repeatedly and intentionally interfered with Petersen’s fundamental, constitutional right to disassociate from (her husband) by giving misleading statements (at the custody hearing), threatening Petersen, stalking her and making unannounced visits to her home.”

Gillaspie actions “shock the conscience,” Leighton wrote, citing a legal standard for holding officers legally accountable.

Murray said he did not violate Petersen’s right because he was ordered to investigate her and did so according to department policy. Leighton found that there is no evidence suggesting Mahoney’s decision to have Murray investigated was inappropriate. Accordingly, he dismissed both Murray and the city from the case.

However, the city and its insurer likely still will be on the hook if Petersen prevails at trial or if the two parties come to a settlement.

Gillaspie retired from Woodland Police Department on June 30. Petersen is working as a nurse in Western Washington, according to her lawyer Sean Riddell.

Woodland Mayor Will Finn could not be reached for comment. City officials have previously declined comment on the case.