A legacy of patience. That’s what Sheriff Mike Whelan said he took to heart when he took over for Dennis Morrisette in 1998. And it’s a virtue he thinks he upheld and has passed on to his likely successor Undersheriff Rick Scott.
“It sounds really simple, but it’s very profound,” Whelan said. “There are lots of decisions that you don’t have to make immediately. So, if you don’t have to make a decision immediately, you should ponder it for a while because for every action, there’s a reaction. … You have to think if it’s going to be worthwhile to make that decision if there’s going to be a great outcry about it. So ponder it. And that’s really good advice. Sometimes you have to make a decision as a deputy right now, but, for the most part, as sheriff, you don’t have to make an immediate decision.”
On Oct. 1, Whelan is retiring after 35 years at the Sheriff’s Office, the past 14 or so as Sheriff. Whelan says he’ll spend his retirement relaxing and spending time with his family. He and his wife Jennifer Wieland, a Grays Harbor deputy prosecutor, have two daughters, one a senior at the University of Puget Sound and the other a sophomore at the University of Washington.
Whelan and Scott were hired 11 days apart back in 1977. Actually, Scott has 11 days seniority over Whelan.
“And I don’t let him forget it,” Scott said with a laugh.
Scott says he will seek the appointment to take over the rest of Whelan’s term, which goes until 2014. Both are Democrats and the Grays Harbor Democrats are expected to provide a short list of candidates for the position to the county commissioners, who then will pick Whelan’s successor. The Democrats meet on Thursday. No other contenders for the position have emerged.
Not to disparage any other sheriff, but Whelan and Scott both said they were pupils to the “school of Morrisette” and strongly believe the former sheriff who became a county commissioner ended up changing the culture at the Sheriff’s Office to one of increased transparency and communication.
“Dennis wasn’t afraid to fall on his sword and admit it when he made a mistake,” Whelan said. “I took that to heart and continued that thought. As sheriff, we shouldn’t sugarcoat things or try to hide it.”
“I think he helped us all realize that we needed to embrace our relationship with the community, and especially the media,” Scott said, who has been spokesman for the department since the 1980s.
“You will never see a reporter who says that I ever said ‘no comment’ because that’s not how Dennis taught us to be,” Scott added. “There’s what you can know and what you can print but often times that’s not the same.”
Morrisette says that ethics lessons became one of his main priorities as sheriff, teaching younger deputies.
“It’s fair to say that I watched both Mike and Rick grow for the 19 years I was with them and promoted them and to see both of them become sheriff after me is just amazing,” Morrisette said. “They understand that ethics and professionalism are what’s important and I tried to impart to them that we were in the honesty business and the truth had to come out no matter what.”
Whelan’s father was a firefighter for the Seattle Fire Department and when the sheriff took his first psychological exam, that point was brought up to him.
“The psychologist said I was probably destined to be a public servant because I grew up with a father as a public servant and he was my role model,” Whelan said. “I think that was probably true.”
He rose through the ranks at the Sheriff’s Office, first working in the Corrections Division and then attending the Law Enforcement Academy to become a deputy.
In 1991, he attended he FBI Academy, which he says became a defining moment for him.
“It was at the same time the Gulf War had started and when we weren’t in class, we were just glued to the TV,” Whelan said.
“Attending the FBI Academy, I quickly learned that we were all part of this law enforcement fraternity, a fellowship that really helps you understand that your problems are not always the worst,” Whelan said.
After, Whelan said he also became more involved in lobbying lawmakers to change laws he thought were wrong and target funding for special purposes.
As sheriff, Whelan said he worked particularly well with former Pacific County sheriff John Didion and then-state senator Mark Doumit to help secure funding to fight meth labs in rural areas. The funding went away last year, but served its purpose, with meth labs becoming more rare these days, although there are still issues with the drug being imported from Mexico.
In 2005, Whelan started pushing for a new law that would increase the penalties for felony eluders that endanger the lives of innocents. He found support with state Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview.
The lobbying effort came shortly after his deputies were chasing a suspect one night on Highway 12. The driver reversed course and went the wrong way on a pitch black Highway 12. Deputy Dan Wells got ahead of the car and cleared all of the cars away as the speeding suspect came barreling through at 90 mph.
“There is no doubt in my mind that if Deputy Dan Wells had not cleared me out of that lane, I would have collided head-on … at a rate of speed that surely would have meant my sudden death,” wrote a kindergarten teacher who was driving at the time.
The suspect eventually pleaded guilty to felony eluding, but only got a couple months in jail.
It took a couple years — and the deaths of two young men in Yakima after the car they were riding in was struck during a high-speed police chase involving a stolen car — but the legislation became law.
“The original law was too lenient,” Whelan said. “It took a few years, but a lot of people have been sentenced under that provision now. It’s something I’m proud of.”
Whelan has overseen a department that has gone from 88 officers in 1998 to 74 today, with a scaled-back budget and cuts in services. During the past four years, in particular, he notes that the “three unions at the Sheriff’s Office have voluntarily taken benefit cuts, reductions in time off, have taken multi-year wage freezes, and have suffered furloughs in order to save the jobs of those with less seniority.”
The county commissioners recently negotiated a wage increase for his deputies, though Whelan notes their pay still lags behind officers in other parts of the county.
Pay is a big deal for Whelan, who says he’s become frustrated with the county commissioners because they have arbitrarily chosen not to give wage increases to his exempt staff over the past several years while awarding raises to other exempt staff across the county. He’s asking for a 5 percent raise for those positions, including undersheriff and the chief criminal deputy position, as well as for the next sheriff.
“I look and see there are other positions at the county who are getting raises because the county commissioners awarded them contracts,” Whelan said. “Well, my employees don’t have contracts that guarantee them raises. To me, it becomes a question of what is an essential service in the budget. Is the fair, (human resources), risk management — are those essential services? Or is an essential service a law enforcement officer who gets no overtime and responds to a call 24 hours a day like my administrative staff?”
As an investigator, Whelan said the thing that sticks out the most in his mind are three murder investigations of children in 1980, 1985 and 1995.
“It’s horrible to talk about, but during my time I was either in investigations or an appointee of investigations and I worked on the murders of three children,” Whelan said. “I’m happy to say the suspects of those either died in prison or are still in prison. A lot about those cases I still remember like it was yesterday. Those are the kind of cases we go the extra mile for.”
Whelan also remembers a cruel murder of an older couple in the Copalis Crossing area back in the 1980s, where the suspects came into a house because they thought there was money to be found.
“Yes, they had a safe in the back room, but it was a coin collection not with a whole lot of money at all,” Whelan said. “And they were killed for that.”
Detective Lane Youman was able to lift a a footprint from the linoleum. Later, investigators found shoes in a dumpster that matched the footprint.
“Shoes are unique,” Whelan said. “They each have their own scars and markings and scuff marks and no two are exactly alike. The challenge was to put the suspect’s foot in the shoe.”
Whelan said that it took a while, but detectives were able to convince a King County podiatrist to help out. A rubber casting was made of the suspect’s feet.
“And the podiatrist was able to use more than 40 identifying points — this toe was here, this nail rubbed here — to link the shoe to the suspect,” Whelan said. “By the time he was done, everybody was convinced the suspect had worn those shoes. It made news because a suspect’s foot had never been used for identification other than for casual prints before.”
Whelan also recalled a time when he and Detective Doug Smythe were working a double murder and were tracking down the bullet shell casings.
“We had literally searched for one bullet for two hours,” Whelan said. “We knew it had to be somewhere. But it was just this annoying mystery.”
Eventually, they looked inside a pill bottle and there it was. “This bullet had gone through the body of a victim, ricocheted off the floor and went through the top of this pill bottle and spent all of its energy without breaking the bottle and there it was inside,” Whelan said. “It was the oddest thing in the world.”