Friday Harbor man pleads guilty to Voyeurism

Ryan Hargrave Bennett, 46, of Friday Habor, pleaded guilty Oct. 10 to a charge of voyeurism.

He was originally charged with one count of Residential Burglary with sexual motivation in the first degree, and one count of Voyeurism in the first degree. As part of the plea agreement, the burglary charge was dropped.

“Voyeurism really captures what he did, which was to view her in her bedroom,” Deputy Prosecutor Theresa Barnett explained.

According to the Probably Cause Statement, the victim rented the downstairs area of the building from Bennett, who lived in the upstairs area.

In April 2021, the victim discovered a black device taped to the carpet by the hamper. The victim learned it was a device capable of recording audio and video. San Juan County Sheriff detectives discovered audio, video and still images on the device. A video shows Bennett looking at the device, carrying it downstairs, handling tape, placing the device and adjusting the camera lens to view what was identified as the victim’s bed inside their room. Images then show Bennet leaving. Later, the victim can be heard talking to their dog. Sometime after that, the video shows images of the victim straightening their bed.

As part of the investigation, deputies obtained a search warrant and seized digital storage devices from the defendant’s home. The Department of Homeland Security made copies of the digital content. The detective assigned to the case reviewed the content, according to court documents and concluded there wasn’t anything pertinent to the investigation.

In October 2022, at the defendant’s request, the Sheriff’s Office returned the seized electronic devices, including digital data recorders, to the defendant. Later, the counsel for the defendant informed the counsel of the state, that the devices contained no data and appeared to have been erased or damaged. Trial was postponed in order to provide time to address the situation.

The defense filed a motion to dismiss the case based on the erased or damaged devices.

The defense hired a computer expert to inspect the storage devices. The expert testified, “I cannot determine, however, when the data and files were erased or eliminated. It could have been after or before the Sheriff’s Department seized the devices in the search warrant. Additionally, based on my training and experience, if during the seizure of the hard drives and electronic devices the deputies improperly stored, jarred or handled the data and the files of the devices could have been damaged or destroyed. This is not uncommon unless careful measures are taken to preserve these often delicate devices.”

On Oct. 1, Judge Christon Skinner denied the Motion to Dismiss, and concluded his decision by writing, “While it was concerning that there was a failure to communicate the existence of three portable hard drives to the prosecutor’s office until January 2023, and that the data of those drives appears to be inaccessible or damaged, the motion to dismiss related to the state’s failure to preserve potentially useful evidence contained within the digital data is denied.”

Barnett clarified to the Journal that the devices returned to the defense were not damaged, however, they could not open it. The Prosecutor had three that were damaged, and there were copies they could not open as well.

“It was probably deleted before the equipment was seized, but it does not show when it was deleted,” Barnett said. “It got messy, but none of that was going to be used as evidence during the trial. The evidence was coming from the spy camera.

Bennett changed his plea to guilty on Oct. 10, and a sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 27 at 2 p.m. There is an agreed sentence of two months in jail, followed by 12 months of community custody. Voyeurism is a sex offense, Barnett added, and as such, he will need to register as a sex offender. The Washington State Department of Corrections is also required to issue an investigational report and will have its own recommendations in its report at the hearing.

“Ultimately, we are pleased with the result because we achieved the sex offense conviction and the registration. Those are very important,” Barnett said.