News

Officers may do jail time

By ERICA HALL

Staff writer

King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng has filed charges against three police officers arrested Oct. 25 on suspicion of beating an informant near Pacific Highway South and then driving him to the Green River, where they threatened to kill him.

King County Sheriff deputies James Keller, 31, and George Alvarez, 30, and Des Moines Police officer Barron Todd Baldwin, 36, each is charged with fourth-degree assault, a gross misdemeanor, and unlawful imprisonment, a class C felony.

If convicted, the officers could spend one to three months in jail. Also, it’s unlikely they’d be able to serve as police again in Washington. State law prohibits felons from carrying firearms.

Arraignment on the charges has been scheduled for Nov. 24.

The officers posted bail, set at $20,000 each, and remain free on their own recognizance.

Alvarez, Baldwin and Keller, a former deputy of the year, were assigned to a special interagency drug enforcement team based out of the Sheriff Department’s precinct in Burien. They worked together to combat south King County street crimes, like drug dealing, auto theft and gang activity, as well as to pick up offenders with outstanding warrants.

On Oct. 15, Alvarez and Keller and sheriff detective Benjamin Wheeler recognized Michael Anthony Winchester, 23, who was walking near the 11600 block of Des Moines Way South, according to officials. Winchester had two outstanding felony warrants — a no-bail warrant for a second-degree burglary probation violation and a $2,500 warrant for failing to appear at a drug arraignment.

The deputies stopped and arrested Wheeler. According to charging papers against the officers, Wheeler took Winchester to the ground and handcuffed him. The deputies then offered to release him if he agreed to give them information about drug dealers and manufacturers.

Winchester agreed, going so far as to unsuccessfully try to buy methamphetamine near Broadway Avenue in Seattle. The deputies let Winchester go, but they gave him their cell phone numbers and told him to call every day, authorities said.

Winchester never called, according to charging papers, so the deputies went looking for him. They called the homes of people he knew and left messages for Winchester to call them back.

According to charging papers, Winchester became upset because their attempts to locate him were giving his friends the impression he was working as an informant. By Oct. 22, Winchester called back and agreed to meet the officers at a diner in the 25200 block of Pacific Highway South.

Winchester met with Alvarez and Baldwin at about 9:30 p.m. Oct. 22 and was told to get into their vehicle, according to authorities. They drove him to a parking lot at 27400 Pacific Highway, parking behind a building, where Keller, Wheeler and Des Moines Police officer Victor Celis were waiting.

Winchester and the five officers exited the vehicles when, without provocation, Keller pepper-sprayed Winchester in the eyes, according to prosecutors.

The officers began slapping and punching him, demanding to know why he hadn’t called them. According to charging papers, “One blow to his stomach area caused him to double over in response to the force. Another blow to his head caused him pain.”

Detectives Celis and Wheeler didn’t participate, according to charging papers.

Shortly after the officers struck Winchester, Keller allegedly told the others they should take Winchester to the river. They told Winchester to get back in the vehicle and the five officers, in two separate cars, drove to the Green River.

The officers talked on the way about killing Winchester and throwing him into the river, according to charging papers. Winchester told investigators he contemplated jumping out of the moving car, but he didn’t think he’d be able to get away from the five detectives.

The officers stopped about a third of a mile north of Meeker Street on Frager Road in Kent and got out of the cars. According to charging papers, Winchester pleaded with the officers not to kill him and “was visibly upset, crying as he pled with the defendants for his life.”

Baldwin and Alvarez allegedly took Winchester by the arms and began to walk him toward the river. Winchester went limp to slow them down, so they dragged him. They said they were sorry they had to do it, and wondered aloud where his body would float up, whether they should cut his throat to make it look like an accident and whether they should leave his ID to make it easier to identify his body.

As they reached the trail to the river, the officers asked Winchester again if he would call them and he said he would. They let go, drove him to a location of his choosing and released him.

At no point during the incident was Winchester told he was under arrest, advised of his right to an attorney or placed in handcuffs, according to charging papers.

Winchester called Alvarez on Oct. 23, but the same day, Celis called Des Moines Police Department’s interim chief, Kevin Tucker, to tell him what had happened. Tucker forwarded the information to the Sheriff’ Department, and the two departments launched an investigation into the alleged assault.

Alvarez, Baldwin and Keller were arrested and booked into the King County Jail Oct. 25.

Now that the criminal investigation is finished, Sheriff Department spokesman John Urquhart said, the department will begin its own investigation into whether the deputies violated department policies.

Even if the deputies are ultimately acquitted, they could still be disciplined if they violated department policy. “Conviction or lack of conviction is pretty irrelevant,” Urquhart said.

Des Moines Police officials said in a prepared statement they have faith the legal process will reach a fair conclusion. They said the incident “has been very uncomfortable and sad for the officers” of the Des Moines department.

Reached in Anaheim, Calif., where he is concluding his time as that city’s police chief before coming north to run the Des Moines department, Roger Baker declined commenting on the specifics of the case involving one of his new officers. But he said that in philosophically, if officers “exceed their legal authority on anything. there should be some imposition, some discipline.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

Staff writer Elizabeth Ciepiela contributed to this report.

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