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April 2, 2020

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Romance between informant, officer troubles Vancouver police, prosecutors

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Vancouver Saddle Club member Sarah McKinzie hangs Tegan Rushworth's 2003 Fort Vancouver Rodeo queen portrait inside the Clark County Saddle Club Thursday. Vancouver Officer Erik McGarrity is on paid administrative leave while police internal affairs investigates his relationship with Rushworth, who served as a paid drug informant for him.
Vancouver Saddle Club member Sarah McKinzie hangs Tegan Rushworth's 2003 Fort Vancouver Rodeo queen portrait inside the Clark County Saddle Club Thursday. Vancouver Officer Erik McGarrity is on paid administrative leave while police internal affairs investigates his relationship with Rushworth, who served as a paid drug informant for him. Photo Gallery

Editor’s note: Much of the information in this article is from a Washington State Patrol investigation conducted this spring and obtained through a public records request. Many names were redacted and so some quotes and information cannot be directly attributed. To see the investigation, visit http://www.columbian.com/documents.

It’s not clear that Vancouver Police officer Erik McGarrity broke the law or violated department policy when he fell in love with his former confidential informant — a much younger woman with a troubled past and a methamphetamine habit.

But the relationship between the cop and the repeat felon has landed McGarrity, 43, under investigation and put his nine-year career with the VPD in jeopardy.

The fallout includes the potential retrial of nearly a dozen felony cases in which 25-year-old Tegan Rushworth provided key information.

After the affair came to light, police administration changed the rules for who oversees informants. It is also reworking policies regarding confidential informants and officer conduct.

It also got some wondering just how far into a cop’s personal life police policy should tread.

Rushworth is currently serving a 17-month prison sentence for car theft, forgery and identity theft at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in Belfair.

McGarrity, who did not return a phone call seeking comment on the incident, has been on paid administrative leave from his $76,486-a-year job as a patrol officer since February. A Washington State Patrol investigation into whether he should be charged with the misdemeanor crime of official misconduct ended in June, when no charges were filed.

Vancouver police expect to complete an internal affairs investigation, which involves some 7,000 pages of text and interviews, within the next month, Chief Cliff Cook said.

Cook called the situation “a profound disappointment.”

“It does result in some embarrassment for me as the chief,” he said. “More specifically, it’s embarrassing for the entire department. When there is information that indicates that one of our officers has violated policy in such a way, it reflects on everyone, and it’s an undeserved reflection. ”

Middle-class upbringing

Based on more than 1,000 pages of Washington State Patrol interviews and investigation notes obtained by The Columbian, Tegan Rushworth didn’t seem to many like the typical girl who would wind up on the wrong side of the law:

She came from a middle class family. She was the 2003 Fort Vancouver Rodeo queen.

But while she was mastering her equestrian skills, she also became immersed in the drug subculture. In 2002, she was picked up while riding in a stolen vehicle. A string of misdemeanors and a felony firearm theft conviction followed over the next few years.

By 2006, she was serving as a confidential informant for Det. Josie Hopkins from the Clark-Skamania Drug Task Force. Hopkins felt Rushworth’s information was more suited to smaller-scale drug crimes, and introduced her to McGarrity in June 2007.

At the time, McGarrity was a part of the West Precinct Neighborhood Response Team, charged with handling street-level crimes. McGarrity became Rushworth’s “handler,” meaning she worked directly with him. She supplied information on up to 25 search warrants and was paid for that service.

Others in the department who knew Rushworth said she stood apart from typical career criminals they deal with. Vancouver Sgt. Duane McNicholas, who was McGarrity’s supervisor on the Neighborhood Response Team, called her “attractive” in an interview with state patrol detectives.

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

McGarrity was married with children, but some said the sexual affair between the two started then, despite a Vancouver police policy that prohibits personal relationships with informants.

“(Rushworth) had told me that she’d go and stay with Eric, sometimes hotel rooms,” a friend who lived with Rushworth in July 2007 told WSP investigators, adding later, “She told me they had sex in the cop car.”

But the friend — like almost everyone who talked about Rushworth — also called her a “pathological liar.”

Rushworth’s mother, Alisa Sam, also told investigators that the two were intimate during that time. Sam has custody of Rushworth’s two children and reportedly lives in Seattle.

Rushworth maintained that she and McGarrrity began a sexual relationship in May 2008, when they were no longer informant and handler. Other witnesses also back up that claim.

“All of that stuff’s not true,” Vancouver Police Guild President Ryan Martin said in a recent interview. “The people they interviewed, witnesses, are convicted felons. They’re all in that part of the world. In essence, they’re not credible witnesses.”

Legal trouble

The entire time Rushworth worked with McGarrity, she was in legal trouble of her own.

In April 2007, two months before she began working as an informant for the VPD, a felony warrant was issued for her arrest, stemming from her earlier weapons theft conviction. Rushworth was 21 and pregnant with her second child.

The state patrol focused its criminal investigation on this period.

“The allegations centered on Officer McGarrity either refraining from performing his duty, or intentionally committing an unauthorized act under the color of the law,” wrote Washington State Patrol Detective Sgt. Terry Liebrecht in a case summary.

Chief Cook said McGarrity would have been aware of Rushworth’s legal woes: Officers must check state and national warrant files, and also must check the status of confidential informants while they’re in the program.

McNicholas said McGarrity lobbied to work out a deal to keep Rushworth out of prison.

“I’ve had plenty of warrants quashed, that are … taken out of the system for informants,” McNicholas told investigators. “It’s not necessarily a difficult process to do here in Clark County.”

Cook confirmed that criminals’ working off warrants by informing on other criminals is a common practice. Informants are an important part of police work, and by their nature, those people are a part of the criminal subculture.

If the warrant is for a misdemeanor, the cops will contact a prosecutor to arrange a deal in which the informant works off their charge with the police, Cook said.

“But when it comes to serious felony crimes,” like Rushworth’s, “we don’t endorse the acceptance of those types of deals,” he said.

Nevertheless, Rushworth continued to inform on cases for the VPD until September 2007, when she was picked up by police and sent to prison.

However, Liebrecht wrote, the time when official misconduct would have occurred — between June 2007 and September 2007 — is outside the two-year statute of limitations for gross misdemeanor crimes.

“Based on these facts, further investigative activity would have been fruitless,” he wrote.

Relationship develops

Tegan Rushworth served eight months in prison and was released in May 2008.

Erik McGarrity transferred from the Neighborhood Response Team to the East Precinct Patrol Division in January 2008, which ended his role as Rushworth’s handler. He also separated from his wife and moved into an apartment near the East Precinct.

The documents don’t say just how the two reconnected, but they did. The romance developed, and by September 2008, Rushworth had moved into the apartment with McGarrity.

“We love each other. Bottom line,” Rushworth told investigators. “I mean, like you said, we can’t help who we fall in love with.”

This is where the Vancouver police internal affairs investigation of McGarrity picks up.

The investigation hinges on one particular police policy: That members avoid continued association with those who have a reputation or known involvement in current criminal activity. The VPD oath also says that officers will “keep my private life unsullied as an example to all.”

Yet while the officer and his former informant lived together, Rushworth had several appearances in Clark County District Court and bench warrants issued against her.

At least two witnesses told investigators they also saw Rushworth with a stolen Vancouver police badge.

One woman told police she called McGarrity after she spotted the badge in Rushworth’s bag, and he came to the woman’s home to retrieve it.

“I probably assumed that it was Erik’s badge, because he’s the only VPD that she would have access to or would know how to sneak around to get something like that,” the woman said.

Rushworth told investigators that the badge fell into the bag and she didn’t know she had it.

Another man, a friend of Rushworth’s, reported she offered to sell him a bulletproof vest at one point. Later in the interview, he said that once, when Rushworth was arrested, he called McGarrity on her behalf. McGarrity told the man: “Tell her there’s nothing I can do for her. I cannot help her. Sorry.”

As Rushworth’s legal troubles began to ramp up, the relationship began to falter. Rushworth told detectives they broke up in late summer or early fall of 2009. McGarrity finally had to walk away.

Detective Sgt. Liebrecht, with the state patrol, concluded McGarrity didn’t abuse his position as an officer to help Rushworth, “due to the fact that (she) continued to violate the law and be arrested.”

But as for the department policy of avoiding those who commit crimes, Cook said: “I think you can make your own judgment as to whether it was violated.”

Social interaction

But interpretations of just how far across the line Erik McGarrity went vary.

Numerous law enforcement officers were aware of the love affair. McGarrity even brought Rushworth to a barbecue around July 4, 2009, at McNicholas’ home, where other VPD and public safety officers were present.

Rushworth also said she went out to drinks at Beaches Restaurant with Department of Corrections officer Fili Matua. A friend reported that Rushworth said she’d been the home of Vancouver Officer Spencer Harris.

The relationship raised some eyebrows among those in uniform — “99.9 percent of law enforcement officers are gonna say, ‘Hey, would you do this? And, they’d say no — hell no,’” Matua told WSP investigators. But the news of the affair was never reported to higher ranks in the department.

Cook said that his investigation was looking at “any potential policy violation” by any Vancouver police member, not just McGarrity.

But it’s also easy to interpret the department policy about association with criminals in a different way, McNicholas told state patrol detectives. It says VPD members must avoid those who have “present involvement” in criminal behavior, and Rushworth seemed to him to be on the right track.

To the sergeant, that meant that while he wasn’t thrilled about the association, he didn’t see anything technically wrong with it.

“If you’ve been convicted but you’re out, you’ve served your time … and you’re not doing anything wrong, there’s … no violation if you and I are hangin’ out together,” McNicholas said. “If I know that you are in fact out committing crimes … that’s a different story.”

Love?

A friend and former cellmate said Rushworth told her the relationship was about “dating, sex and money.”

Rushworth’s mother asked, “What’s a 43-year-old man have in common with a 24-year-old girl, except for, you know, a sexual intimacy?”

Yet many said that the pair’s feelings for one another grew deeper as time went on.

Rushworth’s own words reflect that she, at least for a little while, tried to clean up, and she told investigators from prison in February that she thought their relationship was salvageable.

“We love each other,” she said. “And this is a very difficult situation for us, you know. I’m trying to get through the stuff I need to get through so it doesn’t affect him, because I don’t want my past to affect him as an officer. Because he, you know, he does his job, and he does it well.”

Martin, the police union president, stressed that officers are expected to hold themselves to a much higher personal standard than the general public.

He said he hasn’t reviewed the investigation or talked much with McGarrity about the relationship, but he questioned whether an officer should be fired for whom he loves.

“He takes a step across the line, tries to make things work, tries to fix her, it doesn’t work out,” Martin said. “Now he’s faced with losing his job because of that relationship that he started. How far are we supposed to tread into his life?”

Martin said that if the relationship had a direct affect on McGarrity’s job performance, he should be fired. But “I don’t believe you should get to termination for just a relationship.”

Cook said he’ll make a decision once the internal affairs investigation is finished, and pick discipline commensurate with what, if any, violations McGarrity committed.

New policies

At the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office, once they got wind of the situation, they got to work spreading the word.

Very early into the WSP investigation, nearly a dozen letters were mailed to area defense attorneys, alerting them that there may be mitigating evidence in cases in which Rushworth was the informant, Deputy Prosecutor Tony Golik said.

Doing so is required by law, he said. Defendants now have the chance to petition to withdraw guilty pleas or convictions. At least two such motions have already been filed.

Martin said those letters were mailed too soon, that prosecutors should have waited until the end of the internal affairs investigation.

“We felt it was appropriate and our responsibility just to let the defendants know,” Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jeannie Bryant said. “We do not believe it has any impact on the guilty pleas entered by any of these defendants.”

Things are changing at the VPD as well. Cook said the policy regarding association with both felons and confidential informants is being reworked, and Martin said that shortly after the scandal broke, administration issued a directive that only detectives may work with informants. The police chief said more oversight is necessary.

“The concern the community ought to have is: What does the Vancouver Police Department do about such conduct when it’s proven to be factual, and do they have confidence in their police department and chief’s office that these allegations will not be taken lightly?” Cook asked. “I think we’ve demonstrated that we do not take them lightly. We take them very seriously.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com.

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