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News / Clark County News

Questions over lack of GPS monitoring after bodies of Vancouver mom, daughter found

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Local News Editor, and
Becca Robbins, Columbian staff reporter
Published: March 23, 2023, 8:15pm
5 Photos
A small memorial is seen Thursday afternoon along Wooding Road in Washougal. Authorities found two bodies, believed to be those of Meshay "Karmen" Melendez and her daughter, Layla Stewart, in a brushy area farther down the road Wednesday.
A small memorial is seen Thursday afternoon along Wooding Road in Washougal. Authorities found two bodies, believed to be those of Meshay "Karmen" Melendez and her daughter, Layla Stewart, in a brushy area farther down the road Wednesday. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Many questions remain as the police investigation continues into the deaths of 27-year-old Meshay “Karmen” Melendez and her 7-year-old daughter, Layla Stewart.

As of Thursday, Melendez’s former boyfriend, Kirkland C. Warren, had been named a person of interest in their disappearances but not identified as a suspect in their deaths.

The Vancouver Police Department Major Crimes Unit is leading the investigation, with help from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office will confirm their identities and release their cause and manner of death next week.

While investigators assemble a potential case against Warren, an internal document from the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office details the office’s rationale for when it requests defendants be subject to electronic monitoring rules, made possible as a result of the 2019 domestic violence murder of Tiffany Hill.

Prosecutors did not initially request Warren be subject to electronic monitoring.

The document, which provides guidance to domestic violence prosecutors, states prosecutors will not request electronic monitoring if domestic violence victims are “not on board.” They would be unlikely to request it in a first appearance — when bail is set for a defendant — due to a lack of information in the early stages of the case, opting instead to argue for a higher bail amount.

“I would be nervous to say that just because the victim stated in the police report that they are fearful of the defendant that this is enough information to allow us to believe that they will actually use GPS monitoring — we all know how DV works,” Senior Deputy Prosecutor Lauren Boyd writes in the policy.

Murder spurs new law

The option for GPS monitoring of defendants in domestic violence cases came to be after Tiffany Hill, a former Marine sergeant, was fatally shot by her estranged husband Nov. 26, 2019, in her minivan outside Sarah J. Anderson Elementary School in Hazel Dell.

Hill’s estranged husband had been freed on bail and blocked by court order from having contact with her before tracking Hill to the school, where he shot her and his mother-in-law, who survived her injuries, in front of the couple’s three children. He killed himself following a short police chase.

Afterward, the state significantly strengthened protections for domestic violence victims with protection orders. Senate Bill 5149, also known as the Tiffany Hill Act, was sponsored by Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, and signed into law March 9, 2020, allowing judges to order electronic monitoring for domestic violence offenders who are released pending trial. It provides real-time alerts to the victim and police when the offender violates the distance provision of the protection order.

“As the prime sponsor of the legislation that eventually became the Tiffany Hill Act, I have questions about the Melendez case,” Wilson said in an emailed statement Thursday. “But I will also say Clark County has done an exemplary job of putting the Tiffany Hill law into action on behalf of domestic-violence victims, and I am not going to rush to judgment about what prosecutors did or did not do.”

Both Wilson and Sen. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said attention needs to be given to bail policies in such cases.

“I don’t know what went wrong and what could have been different in this particular case, but my heart hurts,” Wylie said in a phone interview Thursday.

Meshay Melendez and Layla Stewart

Law enforcement officials work at the scene along Wooding Road east of Washougal on Wednesday afternoon, March 22, 2023. Authorities found two bodies believed to be those of a missing Vancouver woman and her 7-year-old daughter in a brushy area farther down Wooding Road.Police: Bodies of missing mother, daughter found near Washougal
Authorities found two bodies believed to be those of a missing Vancouver woman and her 7-year-old daughter in a rural area east of Washougal, police…
Layla Stewart's auntie, Lashay Taylor, in purple memorial shirt, grieves at a community vigil Sunday for the 7-year-old girl and her mother, Meshay Melendez, in Esther Short Park.Hundreds gather to mourn, honor Meshay Melendez and daughter Layla
Slain mother and daughter Meshay "Karmen" Melendez and Layla Stewart will be remembered for being “so full of energy and life." No matter how bad…
Meshay "Karmen" Melendez and daughter Layla Stewart, 7Records detail timeline in disappearance, death of Meshay Melendez, daughter Layla
The following information comes from court records filed in Clark County Superior and District Courts and Jefferson County Circuit Court in Arkansas, as well as…
Kirkland Warren makes a first appearance on suspicion of murder in the deaths of his former girlfriend, Meshay Melendez, and her daughter, Layla Stewart, as Judge Suzan Clark looks on at the Clark County Courthouse on Monday afternoon, April 3, 2023.Prosecutors will charge Warren with aggravated murder in shooting deaths of Meshay Melendez, daughter Layla
Clark County prosecutors say they plan to charge a Vancouver man accused in the slaying of his former girlfriend and her 7-year-old daughter with aggravated…

Electronic monitoring

Clark County was the first Washington county to implement the electronic monitoring program, which launched June 1, 2021, about a year after the Tiffany Hill law went into effect, according to Clark County District Court Administrator Bryan Farrell, who oversees the program. He said only Clark and King counties are using the program statewide.

“Of course, for us, it was front and center, it was very important for us to build the program, whether it be required by law. It was one of the biggest priorities we had after the Tiffany Hill incident,” Farrell said.

The county averages about 20 clients using the equipment daily, he said. That average is between both District and Superior courts, which order about the same number of referrals. District Court refers slightly more, likely due to fourth-degree domestic violence assault being a misdemeanor, he said.

The prosecutor’s office’s policy is to not ask for electronic monitoring unless the victim in the case wants it.

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“We likely will not have this information at first appearance, so we shouldn’t be making a request for it at first appearance and should be objecting to defense request for the monitoring instead of a higher bail,” the document reads.

The policy states once prosecutors have had an opportunity to talk to victims and determine they would participate, prosecutors should bring the cases back before a judge to request the resource.

Court records do not indicate if Melendez was unwilling to support electronic monitoring, but they do indicate she had attempted to get charges against Warren dropped.

Complicated decisions

There are numerous reasons a domestic violence victim might not want a no-contact order or electronic monitoring in place, said Jake Fawcett with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. He noted sometimes people rely on their abusers for housing, transportation and child care.

“I think paying attention to what a particular survivor needs and wants in each situation is really important,” he said. “It’s important to think through what it looks like on the ground and in practice to know what’s going to make this work for survivors in real life.”

Ultimately, he said, inconsistency and ambiguity in the justice system can leave victims feeling vulnerable and lacking trust in the protections the courts may offer.

“Survivors are between a rock and a hard place, where on one hand they have an abuser who is threatening them and threatening to escalate violence if they report them or leave or do those things, and on other hand, they have a legal system that sometimes can make them safer and sometimes doesn’t,” he said.

Beyond court-ordered resources, Fawcett noted the importance of connecting with a domestic violence advocate, who can help people create a safety plan and understand the process.

Domestic Violence Resources

The YWCA Clark County offers a 24-hour crisis hotline for domestic violence at 360-695-0501 or toll free at 800-695-0167. People can also call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 800-799-7233.

How it works

Judges order GPS ankle devices — more often than not — for defendants who are already in custody, as a condition of release. The devices must be installed before a defendant walks out of the Clark County Jail, Farrell said.

The process is the same for either court: A judge checks the box for the device and then the county sends a referral to its vendor, 2 Watch Monitoring. The vendor coordinates with the jail, and once a defendant has cleared all other conditions of release, 2WM responds to install the equipment. It handles all of the programing to set up stationary exclusion zones, such as a victim’s residence, workplace and relatives’ homes.

Victims are not required to use the mobile app for the program to be in place. If the victim wants to participate in the program, as well, 2WM will install a mobile app for a mobile exclusion zone.

The standard default for a no-contact order is typically 1,000 feet. But the program adds a 1,000-foot buffer to that, for a 2,000-foot radius, Farrell said.

If a defendant breaches that zone, the victim will receive push notifications and text and email reminders to put their safety plan in place. There are also two programmable buttons — a panic button for 911 and a second one for a number of their choosing.

The defendant is also alerted if they’ve breached the zone.

The monitoring center will call the defendant’s bracelet, which is equipped with a speaker and microphone, and vibrate if they come within the 1,000 foot buffer of the stationary zone. If they continue into the exclusion zone, the monitoring center will call Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency and report a restraining order violation in progress, and law enforcement is contacted, Farrell said.

For the mobile exclusion zones, the defendant is not alerted if they are in proximity to the victim; only the victim is notified. Instead, the program will analyze whether the breach was accidental or intentional, Farrell said. The bracelets ping GPS satellites every minute, resulting in a sort of bread-crumb trail.

Farrell said he doesn’t know why more counties aren’t implementing the program; though, he speculated it’s due to the cost.

Memorial Fund

National Women's Coalition Against Violence & Exploitation has established a Memorial Fund for Meshay "Karmen" Melendez and Layla Stewart.

• Businesses and/or individuals wanting to support the family can send cards or checks to National Women's Coalition Against Violence & Exploitation (NWCAVE)
Make checks payable to NWCAVE
Memo: Meshay and Layla Memorial Fund
P.O. Box 872494
Vancouver, WA 98687
• Businesses wanting to provide inkind support (i.e. catering for funeral, printing, etc) may do so by contacting Michelle Bart at NWCAVE, info@nwcave.org or 360-852-8019.
• Direct funeral donations can be made by contacting Scott at Evergreen Memorial Gardens Vancouver, 360-892-6060.
• For those wanting to make an online donation, a GoFundMe has been set up for the family.

The device runs $21 per day, which includes the cost of the victim’s app if they decide to use it. That cost lands on the defendant, unless they’re deemed to be indigent.

Washington, through the Tiffany Hill Act, allocated $1.8 million through June 30 of this year to help pay for indigent defendants using the program, Farrell said.

It’s unclear what will happen when the money runs out. Farrell said it’s back in front of the Legislature for funding consideration for another year, though that remains to be seen. There’s currently no county budget for it, he said.