A feud among Seattle cops that spilled over into King County police ranks had officials on both sides of James Street last week issuing sharp denials of departmental misconduct. Seattle Detective Gene McNaughton claims city and county cops told him not to investigate an informant's tips of potential crimes, then drummed up false charges of disobeying orders against him when the detective persisted.
In one instance, McNaughton says, police ignored his informant's tip that an officer's life may have been at risk. Another tip, passed over by fellow Seattle cops, was turned into a multimillion-dollar drug bust by federal agents, McNaughton claims.
Eventually exonerated of the disobeying-orders charge, McNaughton says, he has now gone to court attempting to further clear his name. McNaughton, 43, currently a detective in the SPD auto-theft detail, comments, "Let's say it feels a little uncomfortable around here."
Leo Poort, legal adviser to Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, referred inquiries about McNaughton to the city attorney's office, where a spokesperson says the city will fight the detective's claims in court.
The dispute is one of a number of grudge matches and alleged cop crimes now swirling out of the Seattle Police Department. Reports of internal strife began to surface after a controversial probe was launched over an alleged $10,000 theft by Seattle Police Detective Sonny Davis. (See "Cops vs. Cops," SW, 4/1.)
Some officers think bitter personal differences are behind the accusation, leveled just days before Davis' retirement, and say—despite the headlines—the theft case is not the department's most serious. At worst, officers say, Davis is alleged to have taken money from a crime scene then quickly returned it with the supposed help of fellow veteran Detective Don Cameron.
In contrast, department critics point to recent accusations of felony assault, burglary, and rape committed by police officers, which raise potentially graver issues of officer conduct and public safety.
In one case, a Seattle woman, Mary Lynn Bigley, says she was burglarized and stalked by a police warrants officer (who also allegedly sent her phony notices from municipal court), but was unable to get the department's help.
And in a lawsuit filed against the department last month, Seattle artist Don Hennick alleges that at least one police officer fabricated evidence to wrongly indict him for theft. (Though he passed two lie detector tests, Hennick was charged with purse snatching based on an officer's "revised" report.) Charges were dropped after a new witness came forward upon seeing a story and Hennick's picture in Seattle Weekly.
"It's time we aired all our dirty laundry," says one longtime cop, citing the McNaughton case as a prime example of ongoing turmoil.
A Seattle cop since 1980, McNaughton blames a vendetta dating back seven years for causing police officers on either side of James Street to look the other way when he tried to pass along crime tips.
According to interviews and public and internal documents, the dispute began in 1992 when McNaughton worked undercover with the SPD's anti-fencing squad. After Seattle narcotics officers snubbed an informant's drug tip, McNaughton says, he forwarded details to federal agents. They subsequently confiscated 32 kilos of cocaine worth millions on the street.
That embarrassment was "the origin of a private grudge" against him by an assistant police chief (since retired), McNaughton alleges.
In 1995, McNaughton says, a new informant gave him reliable information on a crystal meth operation. The informant also provided information "that appeared to indicate an undercover officer or a confidential informant's life was in danger. Given the magnitude of the allegations and the potential harm that could occur against private citizens," he tried to introduce the tipster to SPD narcs, who "again showed no interest," McNaughton says in his lawsuit.
The same assistant chief dismissed the information as well, instead reminding McNaughton of the 32-kilo embarrassment and noting he still carried "unfavorable 'baggage' over the matter," the detective claims.
Feeling the department was trying to discredit him, McNaughton says, he introduced that informant to Drug Enforcement Administration officers too, filling in the feds on the background dispute.
That's when he heard from King County Police Department narcotics Detective Katie Larson, who was building a drug case against the informant—now identified by King County Sheriff Dave Reichert's office as Kevin Paul Talbott, 31, of Seattle.
McNaughton says Larson told him in a July 1995 conversation not to use the informant further "even if it meant ignoring information that a crime was going to occur. She stated that . . . SPD should just allow it to occur and not check it out because she did not want the informant to be eligible for any leniency."
According to court records, Larson was working undercover when she sold Talbott a kilo of cocaine, then busted him, in May 1993. He wasn't charged until 1995 and after two trials was convicted and given a 26-month term.
Larson says she can't comment on her talk with McNaughton due to litigation.
Sheriff Reichert denies McNaughton's allegations, calling them "patently ridiculous."
Department spokesman John Urquhart, responding for Larson and Reichert, says McNaughton's version is wrong.
Urquhart says it is "to suggest that one of our detectives would tell another police agency to 'allow a crime to occur and not check it out.'" He continues, "That was never said." Talbott was trying to avoid prosecution by offering "unreliable" information, says Urquhart. "It appeared Detective McNaughton was pushing the respective agencies to use this man as an informant and to get the sheriff's office to drop its case," he says.
McNaughton says it was more important to continue using an informant he felt was reliable. Only months later, McNaughton says, Talbott on his own offered a tip that led to the arrest of several suspects with stolen goods and even a bomb.
Again, McNaughton was told not to use the informant—and again, he did, recovering a stolen car and computer from another tip, he says.
Fed up, an SPD supervisor filed an internal investigation complaint against McNaughton for disobeying orders. KCPD's Larson also weighed in with a complaint for interference. The complaints were sustained —in part by the assistant chief who held the original grudge, McNaughton says. He was given a 10-day suspension and skipped over for promotion.
On appeal, however, McNaughton was cleared and the complaints ruled "completely unfounded," he says. Still, Seattle Chief Stamper refused to restore his promotion, McNaughton adds, provoking the lawsuit.
"Everyone around here [in auto theft] understands," he said last week. "But higher up, it's the same old story."