TACOMA — Attorneys blazed through questioning six witnesses in the criminal trial of Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer on Monday, setting the stage for two of the case’s most central figures to take the stand.
Prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office said the newspaper carrier Troyer accused of threatening him Jan. 27, 2021, Sedrick Altheimer, and the Tacoma officer who authored the police report about the emergency response, Chad Lawless, are scheduled to testify Tuesday. Officer Grant McCrea also is expected to take the stand.
Monday’s most consequential testimony came from Tacoma officer Zachary Hobbs, who was among the first law enforcement at the scene and spoke briefly with Troyer about the incident. Defense attorneys pressed Hobbs on differences between his memory of the incident, in which he was adamant Troyer didn’t mention a threat to his life, and body-worn camera footage that depicts him telling his partner conflicting information.
The state plans to rest its case Tuesday afternoon, meaning prosecutors will have presented the evidence they believe proves Troyer is guilty of reporting a false emergency and making a false or misleading statement to a public servant. The charges, both misdemeanors, carry penalties of up to a year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.
After the state rests, Troyer’s defense team will have the opportunity to present evidence in his defense, but the attorneys aren’t required to do so. The sheriff’s lawyers have said Troyer will testify he never recanted his accusation that Altheimer threatened to kill him.
Defense attorneys have asked for the opportunity to recall two of the prosecution’s witnesses so far: Hobbs and his partner Aaron Beran.
Troyer’s attorneys also listed a number of the sheriff’s neighbors and former Pierce County Council candidate Josh Harris, who the Seattle Times reported came forward during a County Council investigation to report a tense encounter with Altheimer.
After the jury went home Monday, Judge Jeffrey Jahns ruled that Troyer’s wife couldn’t testify about an alleged December 2020 incident where she claims Altheimer went along the side of their house and delivered a newspaper to the back porch. Jahns said the anecdote wasn’t relevant to Troyer’s charges and should have been presented to prosecutors before trial.
Troyer’s defense attorneys said testimony from Troyer’s wife about the alleged incident would show why Altheimer confronted and allegedly threatened Troyer about a month later.
“They’re trying to paint him as menacing and the state objects to that,” said assistant attorney general Melanie Tratnik, who noted Altheimer is not on trial.
Newspaper distribution company owner testifies
Steiner Distribution owner Darren Steiner, Altheimer’s employer since early 2016, told jurors that he’s never received a personal complaint about Altheimer.
Steiner, who has about 40 delivery drivers in Tacoma, said most of his complaints about Altheimer were about missed deliveries, misplaced papers and wet newsprint. Steiner said he worked for distribution for The News Tribune from 2009 until starting his company in 2017.
A former newspaper carrier himself, Steiner said he has been “stopped many times” by law enforcement.
“What we do looks strange,” said Steiner, who noted that most people moved on quickly after asking what he was doing.
TPD South Sound 911 Dispatcher testifies
The prosecution’s first witness was Leah Heiberg, who has been a South Sound 911 dispatcher for about six years and was working Tacoma police dispatch Jan. 27, 2021.
After colleague Conrad Shadel took Troyer’s back-channel call and entered a top-priority officer needs help incident into the system, Heiberg was the one who dispatched Tacoma police officers to the scene.
“All I had was that someone was threatening (Sheriff) Troyer,” Heiberg testified. “I was scared for him.”
Heiberg said she counted 43 patrol cars with 46 officers from several departments across the region heading to the scene before the call was downgraded by the first Tacoma police officers who arrived.
“All those other dispatchers are doing the same thing that I am,” Heiberg said about how South Sound 911 handles Priority 0 calls.
Priority 0 is reserved for officers in danger and natural disasters. Heiberg said most officer-needs-help responses are added to an existing incident, like a home invasion or traffic stop, and happen daily. She recalled three times before where an incident began with an officer needs help call.
“An (initial) officer-needs-help call we have nothing except he needs help,” Heiberg said. “One usually has a wealth of information, and the other has nothing.”
Heiberg said Troyer’s request to have one or two patrol cars respond to his call wasn’t entered into a computer dispatch system until the emergency response was well underway.
In the days after the incident, Heiberg said, she was reprimanded for sharing “gossip” about the incident but countered a defense attorney’s characterization of her discipline.
“It’s certainly not based on how I handled the call,” Heiberg said. “I handled the call appropriately.”
Tacoma police testimony, body-worn camera footage
Hobbs, the Tacoma officer, said from the witness stand Monday that he didn’t know who’d called for help Jan. 27, 2021, until he arrived at the scene.
After reaching the front bumper of Altheimer’s sedan, Hobbs said he turned around to talk to Troyer, who was standing just outside the driver’s door of his Chevy Tahoe parked nose-to-nose with Altheimer.
Troyer told the officer how he was inside his home when he saw someone he believed to be prowling his neighbor’s house with a flashlight and a garage door opener, Hobbs said. After Troyer started following the car, the sheriff told the officer, Altheimer got out of his sedan and cursed at him.
In body-worn camera footage played for the jury, Hobbs relayed part of that story to his graveyard shift partner, Aaron Beran, who testified Thursday.
“There was no gun, no threat,” Hobbs told Beran in a video clip. “At one point he said, ‘He’s going to kill me,’ and then when we asked him again, he didn’t say that.”
Hobbs told defense lawyers the “we” he referred to might have been Lawless, the lead officer at the scene, but said he wasn’t present during Lawless’ longer interview of Troyer. Defense attorney Anne Bremner claimed that contradicts Lawless’ depositions this fall where he reportedly said Hobbs was with him.
Neither Hobbs nor Lawless recorded talking to Troyer with their body-worn cameras. Lawless forgot his camera at a police station, and Hobbs forgot to activate it until partway through the emergency response.
Hobbs testified the camera program was new at that point, and “I didn’t even think about it.” He also said in video footage that he’d forgotten to stop the recording from a prior call.
Throughout questioning the officer maintained that Troyer didn’t tell him anything about a threat directly but confirmed what he said to Baran in video footage.
Hobbs said Troyer didn’t appear afraid of Altheimer, rather annoyed about the situation. “He seemed like he didn’t want to be there,” Hobbs testified.
Tacoma police Lt. Robert Stark, the shift commander the night of Troyer’s call, testified that he decided to respond to the incident with his lights and sirens activated after hearing it involved Troyer. He was at the scene for less than 10 minutes, he said.
Later that morning, Stark and Capt. Bart Hayes decided an officer should write a formal report due to the significance of the incident. Stark said he signed off on Lawless’ report before it was submitted.
Pierce County Sheriff Department witnesses testify
Deputy Patrick Parham, who is a contract officer for the city of University Place, was the first Pierce County deputy to testify in Troyer’s trial.
Parham said he and Deputy Ian Beddo were the only deputies assigned to University Place on Jan. 27, 2021. They drove separately to North Tacoma from the Fircrest police station when they heard the Priority 0 call alert.
“There was some type of perceived threat and the officer was alone,” but Parham didn’t know who it was, the deputy testified.
Parham said he and Beddo were a few blocks away from Troyer with their lights and sirens on when the call was downgraded. He said he and Beddo continued to the area to assist and helped with scene security for several minutes before learning it was Troyer who called for help.
“I was just simply there observing,” Parham said. When he realized he saw Troyer alone, he walked over with Beddo to introduce himself and make small talk. “I didn’t ask any investigative questions to anyone.”
Mike Blair, a former sheriff’s department chief of staff who retired at the end of April, said he was working as a graveyard shift sergeant during Troyer’s January 2021 call.
“My understanding was there was someone that showed up at his house and was threatening him, and they were kind of boxed in with each other, and he needed help,” Blair testified.
Blair said he and another sergeant responded from the department’s South Hill precinct. A few minutes into driving to Tacoma, Blair said, officers at the scene downgraded the call but he decided to continue.
“He was my boss at the time, and I needed to ensure his safety,” said Blair, who arrived after most law enforcement had left, around 2:35 a.m.
At the scene, Blair said Troyer started to tell him and another sergeant, “This guy just showed up” but stopped talking before giving more details. Troyer declined to have a marked car sit at his house.
Later that morning, Troyer called Blair to report that Altheimer had returned to his house and thrown a newspaper.
“I didn’t get any sense that there was a threat, just to clear him out of the area,” Blair said.
Blair said Troyer also asked him to find out who Altheimer worked for but declined.