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Jan. 28, 2023

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Reversal of Fortune: Release from prison doesn’t mean freedom, ex-cop finds

The Columbian

Ray Spencer was raised in Southern California by his seamstress mother. He joined the Air Force after high school and went to Guam as an air traffic controller during the Vietnam War. On Guam, he fell in love with a triage nurse who would become his third wife and key supporter decades later while he was in prison for sexually abusing his children.

“I thought he was arrogant at first,” Norma Spencer said. “Back then, he was incredibly good looking. He could just snap his fingers and women would fall all over themselves.”

Ray and Norma agreed to marry after they returned to the mainland. Norma changed her mind a decision she regrets.

Ray Spencer knows well the feeling of regret. He spent nearly two decades in prison after pleading no contest to sex offenses until his release late last year by Gov. Gary Locke. The outgoing governor commuted Spencer’s sentence because of the “troubling aspects” of the investigation that was conducted 20 years ago by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

Spencer finished his military career as an air traffic controller at Mather AFB near Sacramento, Calif., where he was respected for his outgoing personality and work ethic, Karen Donovan said. As secretary to the commander of Spencer’s unit, she says she heard every rumor, innuendo and accusation floating around the air base. If Spencer was molesting children, “I would know,” Donovan said.

Spencer married his first wife, DeAnne, in 1971, and the couple had two children. His move from the Air Force to demanding jobs in federal law enforcement first as a U.S. air marshal and then doing undercover drug work as a U.S. Customs service agent helped doom the relationship.

“I take full responsibility for that marriage not working,” Spencer said. “I did not honor my vows.”

Still, the idea of Spencer as a child molester is “the stupidest story anyone’s ever made up,” said Mike Cleveland, who worked with Spencer as a Customs agent. “When you work undercover, your life depends on building your instincts in reading people as quickly as you can. You learn to look into people’s eyes and see into their souls. Not Ray. Not in a million years.”

In 1979, Spencer began working as a motorcycle officer and assistant SWAT team leader at the Vancouver Police Department. He hoped giving up the long, unpredictable hours of federal undercover work would save the relationship, Cleveland said. Instead, the Spencers soon divorced.

Spencer next lived with girlfriend Karen Stone and her two children, who defend him.

“He drank a little beer. He chased a little skirt. He wrote beautiful, romantic things,” said Stone, who was a widow when she met Spencer. “He was really a good dad. His hand wasn’t ever where it wasn’t supposed to be. I don’t believe he did it. My kids don’t believe it.”

Spencer’s children, who spent summers and holidays with Spencer and Stone, also didn’t strike her as victims. They “were entertaining, sweet, well-adjusted and loving,” Stone said. “They called me Momma Karen. They loved their dad. If Dad was coming home, they were at the front door. They were well-behaved children and well-loved. I was physically abused as a kid; I was clingy to my abuser. They ( Spencer’s children) weren’t like that.”

Stone is particularly bothered by the way she was interviewed by Detective Sharon Krause of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

“I felt through the interview, as the interviewee, they were out to nail him facts or no facts,” Stone said. She vouched for Spencer and never heard from detectives again. She never heard from James Rulli, Spencer’s defense attorney.

“I would have testified for Ray,” Stone said. “My kids would have been good witnesses for Ray. I didn’t understand it then. I don’t understand it now.”

Rulli, now a Clark County Superior Court judge, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Other suspects raised questions about Krause’s techniques during her 17 years as a sex crimes detective. In one case, the supposed victim recanted and alleged Krause coerced her into saying she had been victimized by her father. Charges were dropped just before trial, according to court records. Still, no one sent to prison on the basis of Krause’s work has successfully challenged his conviction.

Lies and lie detectors

Spencer married C-Tran bus driver Shirley Hansen in 1983. While he was away at police training in August 1984, his daughter told Shirley that her mommy, daddy and ex-girlfriend Karen Stone all molested her. (Detectives focused almost exclusively on Spencer.) The girl returned to DeAnne’s home in California before Spencer got home.

When he arrived, Spencer had Shirley write a detailed description of his daughter’s allegations and reported them to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and child protective services in California. A Sacramento County detective had DeAnne take her daughter to the University of California Davis Medical Center. A medical exam found no evidence of sexual abuse.

Krause was assigned to the Spencer case in late August 1984. She and supervising detective Sgt. Michael Davidson questioned Spencer, who voluntarily took two lie detector tests. The results were inconclusive, according to court records. Detectives instead reported that Spencer flunked the second lie detector test. The Vancouver Police Department placed Spencer on administrative leave.

Both Davidson and Krause are retired and did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.

Krause repeatedly questioned Spencer’s 9-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. His daughter continued to implicate her father, police reports said. His son not only denied any sexual misconduct by Spencer, but told a California investigator his sister fabricated stories. That changed suddenly, eight months into the investigation, when Krause threatened the boy with a lie detector test.

Three months after the allegations surfaced, Spencer became suicidal and was hospitalized in Oregon Health & Science University’s psychiatric unit. Doctors prescribed heavy doses of antidepressants and sent Spencer home after a month of intensive treatment.

“It was hard,” said Shirley Spencer. “The doctors at OHSU were trying to convince me Ray was a good guy, that he wasn’t a child molester. The sheriff’s department was on the opposite end.”

Clark County Prosecutor Art Curtis, meanwhile, asked King County Deputy Prosecutor Rebecca Roe to review the case since Spencer was a local police officer.

Roe wrote in an analysis of the case that it was “legally insufficient” and “unwinnable.” The daughter’s claim of multiple suspects, her inconsistencies and other factors “create questions about fact vs. fantasy,” Roe wrote.

Clark County pressed ahead anyway. That mystifies Seattle attorney Peter Camiel, who has represented Spencer since the early 1990s in Spencer’s efforts to appeal his convictions.

Rebecca Roe “was nationally renowned in these kinds of cases,” Camiel said. Her report “puts Art Curtis’ office on notice there were problems with the case. Suddenly his worries about a conflict disappear after she criticizes the case. After they came up with the additional charges, after interviewing the two boys, they could have sent it back to her and said, ‘What do you think now?'”

The Vancouver Police Department fired Spencer on Jan. 5, 1985. That eliminated any conflict of interest, Curtis said.

Then Clark County Deputy Prosecutor Jim Peters formally charged Spencer with rape and taking indecent liberties.

Today, both Curtis and Peters, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Boise, defend the prosecution. “The courts have consistently upheld the conviction,” Curtis said.

Domestic disputes

Six months after the first accusation, Spencer told his second wife he was leaving her and moved out of the house. He made another trip to the psychiatric ward, then moved into a Salmon Creek motel. His troubles multiplied. Shirley Spencer dropped her 5-year-old son off at the motel one night.

The boy accused his father of sexually abusing him at the motel, according to Detective Krause. Krause and Sgt. Davidson interviewed Shirley’s son “for weeks and weeks,” Shirley Spencer said. The detective relayed information to her that convinced her Spencer was guilty.

Multiple interviews, however, can induce children to report nonexistent abuse just to please the interviewer, said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law.

Meanwhile, a medical examination of Shirley’s son conducted soon after the alleged motel incident found no evidence of the heinous sexual crimes Spencer allegedly committed. Results of that examination, as well as the results of Spencer’s daughter’s examination, were never provided to prosecutors or Spencer’s defense attorney.

In his Dec. 23 order commuting Spencer’s life sentence, Gov. Gary Locke cited several “troubling aspects” with the investigation. He includes the withheld medical reports and an affair between Davidson and Shirley Spencer.

Shirley Spencer denies getting romantically involved with Davidson until long after Ray Spencer went to prison and both she and Davidson were divorced. Shirley acknowledges, however, that her involvement with Davidson and their living together for five years casts suspicion on the investigation.

“I’m sorry to this day,” Shirley said. “I compounded one thing with another. I never loved Mike Davidson. I just leaned on him.”

Resigned plea

As his trial approached, Spencer says he soon learned defense attorney James Rulli had not done much to prepare a defense. He decided he had no choice but to make the no-contest plea, hire a new attorney and appeal his conviction. Two attorneys and several years later, every appeal failed. The state parole board refused to free Spencer five times because he refused to admit guilt and enter a sex offender treatment program.

Fellow inmates at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton soon learned that Spencer was an ex-cop and, at night, shook the bars of their cells and shouted, “Let’s kill the cop,” Spencer said. He was transferred to solitary confinement and then moved to a prison in Boise, where he told inmates he was an air traffic controller convicted of dealing drugs.

Spencer contacted the triage nurse he had fallen in love with on Guam. They married in a prison chapel in September 1987. Norma started working two jobs to pay Spencer’s legal bills and help him mount a new appeal.

“I’m not the naive prison wife who has been deceived by my husband as some like to believe,” said Norma, an emergency room nurse in Los Angeles. “It has always been an indisputable fact that a woman has to be full figured preferably blonde to gain his sexual interest.”

Unyielding stain

Help came decades later. Three years ago, Kathryn Penry started hunting for her half-brother, Ray Spencer, whom she’d lost touch with years earlier. When she found him in prison, Penry began lobbying for a pardon. Spencer’s attorney felt as if a pardon was too much to request. The end result was a commutation with several strings attached.

These strings, however, “just means he’s a prisoner on the outside,” said Joan Wilson, Spencer’s one-time Vancouver landlady.

There is fresh evidence Ray Spencer didn’t molest his children. He passed a polygraph test a tool law enforcement routinely uses to keep sex offenders in check soon after leaving prison.

Even though the crimes in question allegedly happened more than 20 years ago, the new lie detector test should be valid, said Ken Simmons, a Portland polygrapher who advised Oregon’s Department of Public Safety Standard and Training about the tests.

“He certainly should fail (the lie detector test) if in fact he is lying about what happened back then,” Simmons added. He’s not dissuaded by the two inconclusive tests Spencer took in 1985. Today’s lie detector tests deliver more precise results, he said.

Spencer also underwent a detailed psychological exam, which included a comprehensive review of all of the tests and psychological exams Spencer had undergone since 1984.

“In my careful review of the material available to me, and as a result of my conversations with Mr. Spencer, I see no evidence to support that he currently has a sexual deviancy problem nor historically,” the examining therapist wrote in his report to the Washington Department of Corrections. “My greatest concern relative to Mr. Spencer is his adjustment back into society and learning how to handle all of the new demands and challenges he faces.”

Peters, the deputy prosecutor who handled Spencer’s case, dismisses these test results.

Uncertain future

Ray Spencer spent his first months outside prison in a run-down $1,200-a-month motel in Seattle infested with hookers and drug dealers. He is required to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet, have an escort at Sunday mass and adhere to a strict curfew.

Spencer pays for mandatory $150 lie-detector tests every three months and regular $100-an-hour counseling sessions. He must register with law enforcement as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

After months of rejection by prospective employers, he found an $8-an-hour job painting computer cabinets and airplane parts on the night shift at a Renton machine shop. He moved out of his shabby motel after six months of searching for alternative quarters, but continues to live a thousand miles from his wife because he cannot serve his three years of probation in California, and Norma Spencer cannot afford to leave her nursing job because of the legal bills, which once totaled more than $200,000.

The grueling price extends far beyond money.

“Norma and I have had dreams that have yet to be realized,” Spencer said. “We still live apart and try to be satisfied with what we can get until something changes. The prison gates were opened, but freedom still escapes us.”

There’s the sister and the uncle who died while he was in prison, the nieces and nephews who married and had children. The greatest loss is time with his children.

“My children grew up without me,” Spencer said. “All those firsts … first day of school, first dance, graduation etc. I loved my children more than life itself and nothing can ever replace what I have lost in regards to them.”

His nieces and nephews long to see him and to introduce their children to him.

“Ray is a father figure, a stand-up guy, someone to turn to,” nephew Randy Preston said. “I feel like a chunk of my life is gone because he was gone. He didn’t get to experience my kids growing up. These are the things I wanted to share with him.”

For the moment, Spencer focuses on the future, unsure what to do to clear his name. Once he defends his dissertation he will have his doctorate in psychology. He dreams of doing mental health work in prison as well as providing a home for the woman who supported him while he was behind bars for 20 years.

“I’ve got things I could give back to society,” Spencer said. “But I can’t with this hanging over my head.”

Stephanie Rice covers courts. She can be reached at 360-759-8004 or

The Flaws in Spencer’s Case

Gov. Gary Locke’s commutation order and court records refer to several flaws in the case against Ray Spencer, including:

o Spencer’s estranged wife had an affair with the supervising detective.

o Detectives withheld medical evidence supporting Spencer’s contention that he was innocent.

o A King County deputy prosecutor known for her expertise in child sex abuse recommended dropping the case after the first victim came forward, citing significant problems with the evidence, including “questions about fact vs. fantasy.”

o Spencer’s court-appointed defense attorney, James Rulli, now a Clark County Superior Court judge, did not attempt to interview the alleged victims until a few weeks before trial even though the case had been initiated eight months earlier. He also didn’t interview Spencer’s wife, arrange for any defense witnesses, challenge any of the prosecution’s evidence or request a hearing to determine the credibility of the child witnesses.

o Spencer maintained his innocence both under hypnosis and sodium Amytal (“truth serum”) facts that were never mentioned in court. “I have never observed an individual who can withhold information under the conditions of Amytal and hypnosis,” wrote Dr. Lawrence Halpern in a 1986 letter filed with Spencer’s first appeal.

o Spencer was taking heavy doses of antidepressants when he entered his no-contest plea. The drugs and depression made it impossible for Spencer to intelligently participate in his own defense, said Halpern, a University of Washington neuropharmacologist who analyzed Spencer’s medical records a year after he was sentenced.

o One alleged victim, a 9-year-old boy, denied Spencer abused him for eight months and changed his story only after a Clark County Sheriff’s detective threatened him with a lie detector test. Once the detective elicited allegations from the boy that he had suffered frequent, violent abuse, he was not examined by a doctor.

o Spencer was handed two life terms plus 14 years with no pre-sentence investigation.

o Results from a recent comprehensive psychological exam and a recent polygraph test support Spencer’s claim that he never sexually abused anyone.

The defense attorney, alleged victims and detectives in this case refused to answer questions or did not respond to requests for interviews.