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Nov. 27, 2021

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Probe reveals kickback to King County deputy’s wife, exposes concerns over police ties to confidential informants


The King County Sheriff’s Office’s investigation into longtime deputy Sgt. Raphael Crenshaw started in early 2018, amid a swirl of allegations from his subordinates. Among their claims: that he’d forged a deputy’s signature on a “chit” — a voucher used by cops to document public money spent for information or drugs during undercover operations.

Other detectives contended Crenshaw, the supervisor of their Burien-based street crimes squad, had mistreated them and mishandled the informants used to glean details about the illicit drug trade, records show.

When a confidential informant later told an investigator that he’d paid Crenshaw’s wife a $12,000 kickback from his cut of drug money seized from a narcotics trafficker, the department’s probe intensified.

Two years later, after two sprawling internal investigations substantiated multiple misconduct violations, Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht fired the veteran deputy over his insistence that he’d been unfairly targeted.

“The trust you have breached here cannot be repaired,” the sheriff wrote in a January 2020 memo informing Crenshaw of his fate — among hundreds of pages of records in Crenshaw’s internal investigation obtained by The Seattle Times.

Crenshaw’s case underscores some of the long-running concerns about police officers’ relationships with confidential informants, or “CIs” as they’re known in law enforcement circles. The ties between undercover cops seeking intel and the street informants often engaged in criminal activity is fraught with potential problems, vulnerable to exploitation and could put lives in danger, police watchdogs and experts have long said.

While it has made some changes to its confidential informant policies in recent years, the Sheriff’s Office has not implemented two key recommendations its civilian watchdog agency says are needed to address some of those risks.

Over the Crenshaw probe’s 23-month span, he was kept on leave while still collecting his six-figure salary. By the time Johanknecht fired him — more than seven months after recommendations to do so — Crenshaw was three months shy of 53, the age he became eligible to start drawing an $81,000 annual pension, according to state retirement records.

In a recent interview, Crenshaw and his wife, Claudia, countered the department’s investigation was biased and intent on firing him from the beginning. Investigators piled minor violations dating back years on top of “lies, misrepresentations and exaggerations” of a few disgruntled deputies with credibility problems and personal grudges against him, they said.

Crenshaw concedes that at times he used foul language and broke a few other minor rules that many deputies regularly disobey. But he denied committing any crimes or violating major policies to warrant his firing.

“I gave a good portion of my life to that department, and I did everything they asked of me,” said the 28-year deputy, a onetime “Sergeant of the Year” honoree. “I’d never been written up in my career, not once. Then, all of a sudden, they dump everything on me. The truth didn’t matter.”

Workplace conflict

The Sheriff’s Office launched its investigation in February 2018, when several detectives who worked under Crenshaw complained he was a bullying boss whose handling of drug cases raised ethical questions, the probe’s records show.

By then, Crenshaw had been in charge of the Burien-based Street Enforcement Team, or SET — a squad of about a half dozen plainclothes detectives who worked undercover cases often generated by tips — for about seven years. Crenshaw was placed on leave while internal investigations Sgt. Gabriel Morris interviewed his team members.

Some detectives told Morris that Crenshaw’s relationships with informants seemed unusual, and at least two deputies suggested the sergeant possibly had ties to drug cartels, records show.

Crenshaw also refused to keep his own “buy fund,” instead paying informants from his detectives’ accounts by ordering them to fill out or sign chits for payments they didn’t witness, several detectives told Morris.

Detective Alex Hawley said the day he started on Crenshaw’s team in October 2016, he found a copy of a chit for $500 on his desk. Hawley said he noticed his signature had been forged on the voucher, which was dated before he’d even started working with the team.

Crenshaw told The Seattle Times he sometimes signed and completed paperwork his detectives forgot to fill out but did so with their consent. He called any suggestion he skimmed money from buy funds or had personal ties with criminals “complete garbage.”

“Not one dime ever went into my pocket,” he said. “Ever.”

Some of the detectives also contended Crenshaw pushed subordinates he didn’t like out of his unit and often bad-mouthed and pressured those who took vacation, sick leave or training days, detectives claimed.

Detective Scott Fitchett told Morris that Crenshaw once arrested a key informant being used by another SET team, blowing their case, and twice relied on an untrustworthy informant to set up undercover operations that later fell through, putting officers in potential danger.

Five months into the internal probe, Morris had compiled a list of misconduct allegations dating back seven years against Crenshaw, from ridiculing fellow employees to making fraudulent reports.

Crenshaw denied to The Times he put any cop in danger or blew cases and said the deputies who Morris mostly relied upon, including Fitchett, were detectives he’d previously clashed with over workplace issues.

Some detectives “just wanted to sit around the office all day,” Crenshaw said. “So, I encouraged them to do work. They didn’t like it.”

Crenshaw’s accusers included a deputy previously disciplined for calling a Black teenager a “monkey boy” and for lying during an investigation, records show. As the investigation dragged out, a lawyer for Crenshaw, who is Black, sent Johanknecht a letter citing that deputy’s misconduct history, the two deputies’ suggestions Crenshaw had ties to cartels, and other problems in what she called the “racist and false accusations lodged by a group of disgruntled white subordinates.”

But the most serious allegations surfaced from outside of Crenshaw’s team. In July 2018, one of Crenshaw’s informants told Morris he had paid Crenshaw’s wife $12,000 from his cut of seized drug money.

Based on the CI’s statements, Morris opened a separate investigation.

‘Deficient’ management

Long before the Crenshaw investigation, troubles had surfaced in deputies’ ties to confidential informants.

In 2009, an internal probe found a deputy had engaged in a personal relationship with a DEA informant, compromising a federal investigation. Four years later, Mitchell Wright, a deputy in Shoreline, was found to be having an improper personal relationship with a CI discovered shooting up in Wright’s car.

The woman later told investigators she was the deputy’s live-in girlfriend. Wright later resigned and was prosecuted for stealing drugs seized by his task force.

Following Wright’s arrest, the Sheriff’s Office reviewed the Shoreline SET unit’s CI files, finding all were “deficient in some way, either missing information or containing procedural errors,” said Deborah Jacobs, former director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.

“I felt that the management of confidential informants deserved the urgent attention of both OLEO and KCSO,” said Jacobs, who left the office last year. “There are ample examples nationwide — and right at KCSO — of the life-threatening consequences of rogue use of confidential informants.”

After dozens of communications about the issue, OLEO recommended in 2020 with help from an outside expert that the sheriff establish “a centralized database to track the reliability of confidential informants and include defense counsel when confidential informant agreements are made,” said Adrienne Wat, OLEO’s current deputy director.

So far, those recommendations have not been implemented, Wat said.

Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Tim Meyer said no organization “can fully safeguard itself from persons like Mr. Crenshaw who engage in conduct that willfully violates written policies, best practices and their oath to serve.”

Nonetheless, Meyer said the sheriff “is taking a critical look at both policies and procedures involving the use and management of confidential informants to see if there is an opportunity for further safeguards and improvement.”

Splitting the check

The informant who came forward during Crenshaw’s investigation told Morris he’d met the sergeant in 2016 and agreed to provide information “because I do not like people who run drugs and wanted to do the right thing.”

The informant’s wife, an acquaintance of Crenshaw’s wife, had previously told Claudia Crenshaw about a high-level drug trafficker she knew about, according to statements the informant and his wife gave. Claudia convinced the woman that she and her husband should pass information to Crenshaw to investigate.

Crenshaw typically would meet the CI alone somewhere in Burien, paying him from $100 to $700 in cash for information, the informant told Morris. After his tips helped deputies make drug money seizures of $541,000 and $278,000, the informant received two checks under a Sheriff’s Office agreement that paid him 10% of the net cash proceeds.

The informant said he split his first check of $48,000 between himself, his wife and Claudia, based on arrangements Claudia had made. He met Claudia in a Puyallup parking lot to give her a cashier’s check for $12,000, he told Morris.

Later, Claudia began asking for money from a second $25,000 seizure check “before Raphael even told me about the second check,” the informant said in a statement. Claudia became increasingly angry and threatening with the informant’s wife when she didn’t receive a cut, according to the couple’s statements.

Claudia Crenshaw acknowledged to The Times that she arranged with the informants to be paid, saying she deserved it for the hours she devoted to helping them and believed it was perfectly legal. She added she had helped deputies translate information for cases many times over the years.

“My time is not free,” Claudia said she told the informant’s wife. “If you’re going to pay me for my time, then I’m willing to do it.”

But Claudia denied ever threatening them and said she didn’t tell her husband about her pay arrangement; he only learned about it months after the fact, she said.

“He never touched that money,” Claudia added.

Crenshaw, in his interview with Morris, acknowledged Claudia had “put the whole case together” by convincing the informants to come forward, arranging a meeting and helping with some Spanish translation. He also admitted the informant once sent him a text referencing a check for his wife, to which Crenshaw didn’t respond.

“If there was some type of an agreement to share, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it, period,” Crenshaw said. “Nothing.”

He also said he never talked to his wife about her payments and never saw, or benefited from, any money she received. He and Claudia kept separate bank accounts and “her money is her money,” he said.

During his internal interview, Crenshaw acknowledged he never told a supervisor about the matter and said he did not believe his wife’s payment constituted a crime or policy violation.

In retrospect, when he eventually learned about the payment, “I probably should have told someone from the department,” Crenshaw told The Times.

“I was just not aware that of any policy that required that,” he said. “But if they really looked at this fairly, they would find out it had nothing to do with me.”

The sheriff sustained allegations that Crenshaw willfully violated civil service and ethics rules and department policies multiple times, used his position to accept a gratuity or other gift, and engaged in conduct that was criminal in nature. In a statement for this story, Johanknecht’s spokesperson described the evidence against Crenshaw as “clear and convincing.”

After firing him in January 2020, the Sheriff’s Office reported Crenshaw’s termination to the state agency that licenses police officers and noted potentially “disqualifying conduct” that could revoke his officer’s certification. The state agency has yet to respond to several requests made by The Times about the status of Crenshaw’s license. Crenshaw’s name also was included on King County prosecutors’ so-called “Brady list,” an accounting of officers with credibility issues.

Along the way to his dismissal, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle opened their own criminal investigation of Crenshaw after internal affairs deputies alerted them to details of the case, records show. Federal agents won’t say whether they’re still investigating Crenshaw. He has not been charged after more than two years.

Three months after being fired, Crenshaw turned 53 and submitted his application for full retirement benefits to the state. He began drawing a police pension that will pay him $6,741 a month, after taxes, for the rest of his life, records show.