At the end of the year, the Islands’ Sounder takes a look at the biggest headlines of the past 12 months. We chose the top stories from our most-read online articles and events we feel impacted our communities. See next week for Part II.
#1 The Southern resident orcas are in serious peril
In the summer of 2018, islanders watched as an orca mother carried her dead calf for 17 days. Then a sick, adolescent whale struggled to survive, went missing and was presumed dead. By September, the Southern resident orca population had reached a 30-year low, forcing government authorities to expedite solutions to bring the endangered species back to life.
In December, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee proposed $1 billion in the next biennium’s budget to protect the orcas. Most suggestions came from a task force advising the governor on solutions. The task force’s recommendations ranged from the popular — helping Chinook salmon return to the Columbia River to spawn — to the controversial — temporarily suspend viewing the Southern residents by boats. In 2019, whale supporters will look to him and the Legislature to implement suggestions. In the meantime, whale advocates have relied on volunteer efforts.
Last spring, state fish and wildlife managers called for a voluntary “no-go” zone along San Juan’s west side. In summer 2018, San Juan County staff also dispensed 250 whale warning flags. The flags are voluntarily raised by those on land or vessels to signify when orcas are nearby, alerting others to slow down or change course.
San Juan County government helped further by increasing fees to provide cleaner water for both the local people and marine life, like the orcas. Starting in 2019, county landowners will pay more to clean rain that falls to the ground before it reaches drinking water and the Salish Sea.
Other projects supported by the charge include increasing fish spawning and passages. County staff says it is the lowest of such fees in the state.
#2 Explosive device found on Turtleback Mountain
A hiker at the San Juan County Land Bank’s Turtleback Mountain Preserve on Orcas Island found an undetonated explosive device on the morning of Aug. 6.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was called in from Seattle to disarm the bomb.
It was confirmed to be an explosive device, created from commercial-grade materials not readily available to the public, that would have likely killed or injured someone had it detonated.
The ATF is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible.
#3 Kulp convicted of murdering his wife
Eric A. Kulp, 45, received just under 16 years in prison for the murder of his wife Abigail Finney, 38. He was sentenced on Sept. 17. When he is released, department of corrections staff will supervise Kulp for three years.
Finney was missing for almost four months before her body was located in a minivan last April, on the Shaw Island property she shared with her husband. Kulp’s whereabouts were unknown when the body was found, but eight days later, deputies detained him after a standoff in Skagit County. He stabbed himself repeatedly in the abdomen and neck prior to being apprehended.
According to court documents, Kulp has previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and involuntarily committed several times. Investigators determined that Finney died on the evening of Nov. 22, 2017, or the following morning. The autopsy could not determine the cause of death because her body was too decomposed, but the investigation determined Finney was murdered.
Kulp pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree murder on Aug. 3 as part of a plea agreement, which dropped an unlawful imprisonment charge. In exchange for the plea, prosecutors requested the sentence he received. Kulp did not provide a confession, but at the Aug. 3 hearing, he presented a statement that read, “On or between Nov. 22-23, 2017, … I did assault and thereby cause the death of Abigail Jane Finney.” Court documents state that Kulp understands there are “unanswered questions” about the case but it is “intensely painful and disturbing” for him to discuss the details.
#4 Public hospital district approved on Orcas Island
More than six months after UW Medicine took over the Orcas Medical Clinic, voters approved the creation of a hospital district to fund future medical endeavors on the island. When it signed the contract to serve Orcas, UW Medicine said that it would withdraw from the island if a reliable source of funding the clinic’s debt was not found within its first year of operation.
In April, Orcas voters approved the creation of the hospital district by a more than 53 percent margin. During that election, five commissioners were also selected to serve on the inaugural board: Diane Boteler, Richard Fralick, Pegi Groundwater, Art Lange and Patricia Miller.
District commissioners had until Nov. 15 to set a levy rate to begin collection in April – they set it at 65 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed value. The funds will go towards operating UW Medicine and the Orcas Family Health Center.
#5 San Juan County housing crisis leads to initiatives to fund affordable housing
In 2017, a San Juan County report found that nearly half of the population cannot afford to buy nearly 80 percent of the houses in the county, and only 16 percent of the county consists of renter-occupied homes, compared to 34 percent of the state.
Organizations like the OPAL Community Land Trust help islanders find affordable housing, but this year San Juan County government also brought solutions to fix the problem. Voters approved a Real Estate Excise Tax in November after the county council approved putting it on the ballot.
The tax is only applied in the sale of a home. It is expected to generate roughly $15 million in the next 12 years to maintain or build local housing for low- or middle-income residents, as well as those with disabilities.
Starting in late December, a 0.5 percent tax will be added to sales, so a home priced at $500,000 will incur a REET of $2,500 that the buyer must pay and the seller will pay $25.
San Juan County staff is also selling land on Lopez Island for long-term permanent rentals and purchasing property on San Juan Island for an affordable housing project.
Additionally, the county and San Juan Family Resource Center teamed up to launch a pilot home share program, matching those in need of housing to live with those with spare room.
#6 Controversial race for county prosecutor
San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randall Gaylord was re-elected for his sixth consecutive term against his opponent Nick Power, a local attorney, by about 63 percent of the votes. Gaylord initially won the seat in 1994.
The hotly contested race was fueled by a complex criminal case. A jury found an Orcas High School teacher guilty of misconduct with a student, but then it was discovered that the student had an alleged sexual relationship with the case’s lead detective Stephen Parker. The original misconduct case was thrown out and the teacher, represented by Power, threatened to sue the county for $10 million in damages for violating the teacher’s constitutional rights by not giving him a fair trial. An independent investigation conducted by Skagit County could not prove Parker had sex with the victim but found he showed disrespectful conduct toward her, used aliases to hide communication with her and shared details of other cases with her.
After announcing his candidacy for prosecuting attorney, Power tried to petition “citizen charges” against Parker. Power attempted to show that because the prosecutor’s office failed to charge Parker with a crime, it was his duty to get justice. The San Juan County District Court judge rejected the petition and stated there was no wrongdoing on behalf of the prosecutor’s office. The case went to San Juan County Superior Court, where the motion was also denied.
Gaylord has maintained that he sent the case to Skagit County because it was a conflict of interest for him to try the case in San Juan County. Skagit declined to press charges against Parker.
That spring, Power also filed a motion against San Juan County stating they infringed his First Amendment rights by enforcing a code limiting the posting of political signage except for 45 days within an election. Power claimed the ordinance helped Gaylord win his elected position over the last 15 years because it limited opponents’ campaign signs. The county maintained it never enforced the ordinance. Sparks flew when county auditor Milene F. Henley wrote a guest column calling the ordinance a guideline rather than a rule. Power fired back with a lawsuit claiming that her column admitted that the county had an unconstitutional code in its books.
A San Juan County Superior Court ruling stated the county could not enforce sign regulations. The ordinance was removed by mid-summer. Power’s lawsuit – seeking a retraction of Henley’s column – went to Federal District Court where the request was denied. By August, attorneys representing Power and the county mutually agreed to dismiss the case.
#7 Sex crimes against minors in the county
Two sex crimes involving minors shook the islands this year. One case was settled in court, while the other is pending a trial.
Kelsey Lee O’Day, 27, of Friday Harbor, pleaded guilty to child rape and was sentenced to 13 months in prison on Aug. 14, in San Juan County Superior Court. At the sentencing, an advocate read a statement from the victim’s mother, who wrote her son experienced depression and talked of self-harm. The defendant’s parents, Pat and Stephanie O’Day, stated that drugs and alcohol-impaired O’Day’s judgment. She is now sober.
The sexual encounters occurred on Oct. 23, 29 and 30, 2017, when the minor’s father was out of town. O’Day was known to the father and son. Shortly after being charged in 2017, O’Day went to Mexico, even though there was a warrant issued for her arrest. No additional charges were filed against her for leaving the country.
In the other case, a named Sean Michael Hunter, 24, is facing felonies from three cases of alleged rape involving three victims, two of which were 12 and 14 years old. The alleged assaults took place on Sept. 13, 16 and 17, on San Juan Island. In two of the cases, he allegedly gave the two young girls alcohol and marijuana before assaulting them.
Hunter pleaded not guilty to all of his charges on Monday, Oct. 15, in San Juan County Superior Court. His court date is scheduled for Feb. 5.