Washington State Patrol Sergeant Dale Lathan was trying not to choke on his teriyaki chicken. "You're kidding me, aren't you?" he asked trooper Tommie Pillow. "I mean, you didn't really say that."
"No, I did," Pillow said sheepishly, sitting across the table at a Highway 99 restaurant in Snohomish County.
"I know you didn't, so I'm not going to believe you," Lathan said.
"No," Pillow responded, "I did. I said it. I shouldn't have. Once the words came out, I couldn't get them back and, uh, and I said it."
"I can't believe it."
"No, no, I did."
According to Lathan's account of the conversation, revealed in documents from an internal investigation by the state patrol obtained last week by Seattle Weekly, the sergeant listened painfully as Pillow, a state motorcycle patrolman, recounted how on March 23, 1999, he had pulled over a speeding driver doing 71 mph in a 60 mph zone on Interstate 5 near Marysville.
The driver, it turned out, was hurrying with his girlfriend due to a medical emergency—an appointment to have an abortion.
Pillow, a Catholic, recalled his conversation with the couple for state patrol investigators: He reprimanded the couple, "At some point in your life you're gonna have to take some responsibility for what you do."
The driver responded: "That's what we're trying to do right now."
Pillow retorted: "Well, in my mind, being a murderer is not taking responsibility for your actions." The woman burst into tears and the driver got angry, Pillow recalled.
It took the whole lunch hour, but Pillow, a trooper more than five years, finally convinced his boss he indeed had said "it." Murderer.
Oh no, Lathan thought. D骠 vu and all that.
Just two years earlier, the patrol had settled an infamous lawsuit involving a West Seattle couple—also on their way to an abortion clinic—who were stopped for speeding by a state trooper and then taken against their will to an antiabortion counseling center. The reaction of the media and the public was immediate after the details of the July 1994 "kidnapping" were revealed in Eastsideweek, former sister publication of Seattle Weekly. The patrol wound up with a black eye and the couple with a $175,000 settlement in 1997 for an abuse-of-power claim against then-trooper Lane Jackstadt.
The patrol called the incident an aberration and fired Jackstadt for cheating on a patrol promotional exam, then reinstated him, then fired him once more directly because of the abortion incident.
Patrol officials hoped the mess would just fade away. And it did. Then Tommie Pillow sat down for lunch.
"Ah, I got to think this one through, Tom," a head-shaking Lathan said afterwards, according to his testimony. "That's, ah, you know, there's a lot of ah, political and civil [legal] implications to that. Not to mention any regulation violations."
Copies of the internal case file released to Seattle Weekly show Pillow thought the young couple would report the incident and told his commander first. But the couple, who demanded Pillow's name and obtained his business card after hearing the comment, not only didn't complain but refused to comment to patrol investigators later.
Once the sergeant heard Pillow's confession, however, Lathan began passing the word up the stunned Marysville command line. Upon informing his lieutenant, Sergeant Lathan recalled, "He asked me if it was true. He couldn't believe it. He said, you know, 'You're kidding me!'"
Within a week, an internal probe was under way. The patrol was concerned about public reaction if word got out about another roadside abortion-counseling session. The public might think "we are a biased group of individuals," Lathan said. "I see that to be a real issue here, if [the murderer comment] did come to light."
Pillow explained his comment to investigators by saying, "I believe in the Catholic doctrine, and according to that doctrine, abortion of any kind is murdering a human life. That thought just popped into my mind. I wished I could have taken it back somehow."
He went easy on the driver, Pillow added, ticketing him for speeding only a few miles over the limit, dropping his potential $90 fine to $43.
The patrol went easy on Pillow, as well. Due in part to the lack of a formal complaint by the couple, Pillow was given just a verbal reprimand for a lack of courtesy. Two other charges, involving ethics and unbecoming conduct, were dismissed.
Pillow nonetheless left investigators with a worrisome warning, "I'm not gonna say that I won't ever do it again 'cause I don't know," he said. "But probably in that particular situation, I'm not gonna ever do it again. But who knows what the next situation is gonna [be]?"