Top stories of 2019 | Part One

The black bear on Orcas in 2019.

The black bear on Orcas in 2019.

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.

The following was compiled by Colleen Smith, Mandi Johnson, Laura Kussman and Heather Spaulding.

No. 1

Camera mishap causes case dismissal

A zooming camera resulted in a case being thrown out in the San Juan County District Court.

On Saturday, Feb. 2, Judge Donald Eaton, acting as a temporary district court judge, dismissed the charges against Dustin Schible of Lopez Island for criminal trespass, assault in the fourth degree and harassment.

During the trial on Jan. 31, a court security camera zoomed in on various locations around the room, including on a closed jury notebook, a prosecution exhibit, the prosecutor and the defense’s paperwork.

Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord said the zoom was quick and the documents were mostly illegible. It was the final zoom action into the defense’s paperwork that Eaton ruled caused prejudice in the case.

The camera was being operated by someone in the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office or the information technology department at the time of the incident, according to San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs. The prosecution did not see the video before it was aired in court, and therefore claimed that it did not cause prejudice against the defendant, Gaylord said.

According to Krebs, the courtroom was expected to be high tension and he was asked by Gaylord to provide extra security to the courthouse. Due to staffing restrictions, Krebs said he was unable to have a deputy at the courthouse and resorted to checking on the security camera, instead.

Unfamiliar with the way the system operates, Krebs said he double-clicked on the live camera stream to make it full screen and inadvertently zoomed in. The video feed is in the dispatch office. He said it was only on the documents for five to 10 seconds, and nothing was legible.

On Feb. 4, the camera system was updated so that the cameras in the courtrooms can no longer be manipulated or zoomed in as it did during the trial. Eaton announced during a hearing on Feb. 19 that courtroom video of the trial would be unsealed for public release. He allowed Krebs to redact portions that could compromise the security of the courtroom.

No. 2

Kaiser denies air ambulance coverage

Since June 2018, Kaiser Permanente was the only insurance provider available in San Juan County outside of through an employer or with Medicaid. In September 2018, islanders began receiving air ambulance denials from Kaiser resulting in bills of thousands of dollars.

In January, a pattern started to emerge with several Kaiser customers receiving a payment denial for their emergency medical air ambulance evacuations off island. Kaiser began denying the flights from patients in the San Juan Islands in September 2018, according to an Island Air representative. There are two emergency air evacuation providers in the islands: AirLift Northwest and Island Air Ambulance.

The Office of the Insurance Commissioner for Washington State released the results of its investigation into the company’s emergency air ambulance denials for San Juan County residents, and the board of health was not satisfied.

San Juan County Director of Health and Human Services Mark Tompkins said at the board’s June 19 meeting that 14 claims denied by Kaiser remain unpaid because the commissioner’s office concluded Kaiser’s denials were valid. The commissioner’s staff has decided to take no further action on the complaints.

Tompkins said that the report wasn’t a complete disappointment; of the 24 total claims denied by Kaiser, six were overturned and Kaiser ultimately paid the provider because of the investigation.

In June, Kaiser announced it would cease providing insurance coverage to residents of San Juan County effective January 2020. LifeWise, an insurance company owned by Premera Blue Cross, moved into the county to fill the vacancy.

No. 3

Man convicted for wife’s murder

Warning: The following story contains graphic details.

In July, Kevin Patrick Taylor, a 56-year-old San Juan Island man, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murder of his wife Julie Taylor in September 2016. Julie Taylor was 56.

“This has been a gut-wrenching case,” Island County Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock, who presided over the trial, told the courtroom.

In May, Kevin Taylor was found guilty of felony murder (a death that resulted from felony assault) for the bludgeoning death of his wife as well as arson for starting a fire in Julie Taylor’s car the same night as her murder. The jury also returned special determinations that it was a crime of domestic violence and that the death occurred with a firearm.

Sentencing was originally set for Monday, July 8, however, defense attorney Jason Schwarz filed a motion for a continuance claiming that the state had added new information while calculating restitution.

According to court documents, San Juan County dispatch received a call from someone in the Taylors’ Friday Harbor residence at 1 a.m. on Sept. 3, 2016. A deputy arrived on scene 20 minutes later and found Julie Taylor lying near an open doorway, not moving and with a large pool of blood around her head.

A motorcycle helmet and cat food cans partially covered her face. A .22 rifle broken into pieces lay scattered around her head along with a broken potted plant. Blood spatter covered the adjoining cabinet, walls and ceiling. Kevin Taylor was sitting nearby on a couch, and stated to the deputy, “I got her.” He was placed under arrest. After claiming that his wife had poisoned him, Kevin Taylor was transported to Peace Island Medical Center to be evaluated by emergency room staff. He was medically cleared and booked into San Juan County Jail. The Washington State Patrol Crime Scene Response Team assisted San Juan County in its investigation, collected blood samples and used a 3D imaging camera to photograph the scene. Officers discovered notes on the kitchen counter that said: “I don’t feel a heartbeat, I win!! Bitch,” “I hope she died,” “She forgot to kiss me goodbye,” “She told me too soon,” and “I win.”

The Taylors had been married for 25 years.

No. 4

Another black bear on Orcas

In May, as spring love filled the air, a young male black bear, most likely searching for a lady friend, found its way to the San Juan Islands. It is common for bears to search for mates this time of year, said Washington State Fish and Wildlife biologist Ruth Milner. She suspected, she said, this bear had gotten turned around during his quest.

The bear was first sighted on Camano Island before swimming across multiple bodies of water before ending up on Orcas. This was the second year in a row a black bear had been found on Orcas, though Milner does not believe this is the sign of a new trend. Bears, wolves and cougars, according to Milner, once lived in San Juan County, and black bears, with their strong swimming abilities, are still occasionally spotted in the islands.

From Orcas, the bear swam to Shaw Island. Ferry workers later spotted the animal swimming across the channel to San Juan Island. It was spotted frolicking with a fox in one homeowners backyard, shuffling off into the bushes on Beaverton Valley Road, and seen lumbering down False Bay Road. After at least a week, the animal swam to Lopez.

San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs stated there had not been reports of the bear being aggressive or causing damage though it did take down several bird feeders.

The black bear continued its island-hopping adventure — swimming to Guemes Island. Toward the end of May, a young male black bear was caught by Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife agents outside of Home Depot in Burlington, Washington. Based on its markings, it is believed by fish and wildlife officers, according to their press release, to have been the same animal sighted in the San Juans. The bear was released into the Cascades in an undisclosed location. With luck, in its new home, the bear finally found the mate it had been swimming for so long to find.

No. 5

Sen. Ranker resigns; Liz Lovelett elected

State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, resigned from his position on Jan. 11.

His announcement came after an investigation into sexual harassment allegations from a former employee and news of a serious family illness.

“What matters most is that the critical policies I have been working on advance — not that I advance them,” Ranker stated to the Sounder at the time.

In late December, 2018 an Associated Press journalist reported that Ranker was being investigated by the state for improper conduct after Ann Larson, a state employee, made allegations of sexual harassment. According to a story published in The Seattle Times, Larson met Ranker while she was a clerk for the San Juan County Council and he was a county councilman (then called a commissioner). He was elected to that seat – his first political position – in 2004.

According to the AP report, Larson said she had a consensual sexual relationship with Ranker but once she started to work in his Senate district office in 2009, she wanted only a professional one. After she rejected his advances, she said Ranker became hostile and she eventually left the position, according to the story.

Ranker wrote in a Jan. 12 press release, “I am deeply sorry for any stress I caused her, and I sincerely apologize. I wish her peace.”

Liz Lovelett, a former Anacortes city council member, was selected to fill the Legislative District 40 vacancy on Feb. 5. Democratic Precinct Committee officers selected three candidates: Lovelett; former District 40 state representative Kris Lytton; and Trevor Smith, a member of the labor council. That list of three names from which Lovelett was selected was submitted to Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan county councils, which held a joint meeting in Skagit County to make the selection. In August, Lovelett won a special state senate primary election for the seat. In the November general election, voters elected her to the four-year position.

No. 6

Community rallies to buy Olga Store

In March, after learning property owners of the Olga Post Office would soon list the building for sale and publicized they would terminate their lease with the U.S. Postal Service starting October 2019, community members rallied in an attempt to purchase the property and preserve their hamlet’s mailing tradition. When a change in ownership occurred before the community effort had come to fruition, locals turned to the U.S. Postal Service with questions. Would the Olga Post Office be moved to Eastsound?

In July, hundreds of Olga community members turned out for a public meeting with a U.S. Postal Service real estate specialist regarding the relocation of the Olga Post Office. Friends of the Olga Store Building, a committee of eager citizens, formally announced their plans to purchase the Olga Store building as a community. They would manage the location as a 501(c)3 nonprofit and lease space to the U.S. Postal Service, as well as to a food co-op. In letters, the community at large and the U.S. Postal Service officially complied with this desire.

Immediately, a FOSB website was created, indicating business plans and sharing historical facts including that the first Olga Post Office, established in 1890, was initially housed in a log cabin at Buck Bay, then later moved to the current Olga Store building. Today, the Olga Store and rear apartment sit vacant.

In a span of four months, a collective dream had expanded. By the end of November 2019, FOSB had collected $650,000 in pledges from on and off-island residents and officially made an offer on the Olga Store. Their 501(c)3 status was approved by the IRS, and the Orcas Food Co-Op had signed on and drafted their initial floorplan of a south-facing sun porch cafe. FOSB is currently in escrow, actualizing pledges with plans to close on the sale in early January 2020.

No. 7

Former Lopez Island principal accused of sexual harassment

Eight Lopez residents filed a tort claim and a complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission against former Lopez Island High School Principal David Sather in mid-September. They claim that Sather propositioned female staff and said sexually inappropriate things to and about several women, both of whom were employees and parents, among other accusations.

Lara Hruska and Shannon McMinimee work for Cedar Law PLLC, a Seattle-based education firm. The duo represents the six women and two men who approached the firm in June, a month after attempting to resolve their complaints with the school board, McMinimee said.

Sather was accused of propositioning female staff; making sexual gestures; making sexual comments; sending sexually explicit messages, texts or emails; engaging in stalking behavior; rifling through individuals’ personal effects; and preventing the claimants from being able to do their jobs or advancing in their employment, claimant attorneys wrote in a Sept. 6, press release. McMinimee added that her firm has heard from approximately 60 people about Sather’s alleged misconduct.

In February, Sather applied for a teaching position in the school district and voluntarily vacated his principal position at the end of the school year, according to school board chairperson John Helding. Sather was set to teach high school social studies and history but is now on administrative leave, according to Lopez Island School District’s school board.

Sather is being represented by Tyler Firkins of Van Siclen Stocks Firkins of Auburn, Washington.

Sather began working for the Lopez Island School District in 2013 after he was let go from a school in Mosier, Oregon, where the superintendent said that his leaving was “what is best for Mosier School,” according to a story published in The Dalles Chronicle.

On Lopez, he was assistant principal and was then promoted to principal of the secondary school. In 2017, Sather was investigated by the school district on claims of sexual harassment after he began a relationship with an employee.

In a letter to Lopez Island School parents dated Sept. 3, 2017, the school board wrote it had concluded an investigation into potential sexual harassment by Sather. The board added that it had commissioned a third-party investigation that concluded Sather had partaken in inappropriate “conversation, bantering, and joking that included sexual conduct.” Because conversations of an explicit nature are not allowed in the workplace per school district policy, the board said that it was taking formal action.

As of Dec. 17, the school’s third-party investigation into the latest allegations against Sather has yet to conclude, McMinimee said. The board hopes to have it completed in January.

No. 8

First drowning in Mountain Lake

The body of a 34-year-old Atlanta, Georgia, man was recovered by Whatcom County Search and Rescue divers from Mountain Lake in Moran State Park on Aug. 6. The previous evening, at approximately 6:30 p.m., a call came into the San Juan County sheriff’s office about a man who fell off his stand-up paddleboard. Cresundo Dupri Whitaker was last seen struggling 150 feet offshore for around 15 minutes before rescuers arrived on the scene. Friends of the victim attempted to locate him while crews were en route.

After an extensive interagency search, including Orcas Island Fire and Rescue, Moran State Park Rangers, the Sheriff’s Office, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and a diving team, the search was suspended on Aug. 5 when it became too dark to continue and resumed in daylight until Whitaker’s body was discovered at 1:12 p.m.

At its deepest, Mountain Lake is 100 feet. Whitaker, who could not swim, was not wearing a life vest. His body was found in 65 feet of water. According to San Juan County Coroner Randy Gaylord, this is the first drowning in the lake.

Nationally, paddleboard fatalities are on the rise. In 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard classified paddleboards as a vessel and issued regulations regarding life jacket requirements. According to the World Paddle Association, adult stand-up paddlers are required to have a USCG-approved life jacket (also known as personal floatation device) for each person, a sound signaling device such as a whistle, a visual distress signal and flashlight. Wearing a PFD isn’t required unless the occupant is 12 years or younger. Paddlers 13 years and older, however, must have a PFD on board with them. For more information on the requirements, visit https://worldpaddleassociation.com/pfd-laws-sup-or-paddleboards-now-classified-as-vessels/.

 

Senator, D-Anacortes, Liz Lovelett as the Washington State Senate convenes for a floor debate on April 12th, 2019.

Senator, D-Anacortes, Liz Lovelett as the Washington State Senate convenes for a floor debate on April 12th, 2019.

Cresundo Whitaker

Cresundo Whitaker