Shorter than average, soft-spoken, 50-year-old Darrion Holiwell could nonetheless have a dominating presence. At 5 feet 7 inches, he weighed in at 200 pounds and looked to be all muscle. In military-style garb and helmet—his buff, elaborately tattooed frame further inflated by an armored vest—he was something of a recruiting poster for SWAT teams everywhere, including the one he belonged to: Tac 30, as the King County Sheriff’s Office called its special weapons and tactics unit. In a skin-tight T-shirt, Holiwell’s arms bulge fiercely in the photos and videos made to promote his moonlighting business, an online gun-gear supply called Praetor Defense (“praetor” being the Roman name for a magistrate who dispenses civil justice). In one video he is impressively frightful, swathed in a commando jacket, wearing headphones and shades, his mustachioed face grim and unforgiving as he raises his weapon to blow away a bad guy.
True, his targets were often stationary, just paper. Among his duties as a King County deputy sheriff of almost 20 years was helping run the department’s shooting range and tactical training center at Ravensdale, in Maple Valley, and he regularly competed in target-shooting competitions with other law-enforcement officers.
Holiwell was also a firearms guru—a master in rifle, shotgun, and handgun instruction—and chief firearms instructor for the sheriff’s department. He was an assistant SWAT team leader and a teacher of tactical methods who would also join Tac 30 teammates in kicking down the doors of drug houses or smoking out wanted felons—helping serve more than 800 high-risk warrants in a little over a decade. With overtime, he earned $100,000 annually from the county. In addition to his online gun-gear sales, he undertook security work for a software company’s executive protection unit. He was also the technical consultant for a bullet-riddled 2013 anti-terrorist film, The Marine 3: Homefront, starring pro wrestler Mike “The Miz” Mizanin. And he consulted on weapon use for a popular video game, Counter Strike, in which the shooter with the highest body count wins.
In 2013, Holiwell was featured in a Q-13 TV news report on the Tac 30 team, in which 21 deputies showed off their gear, guns, and armored vehicle, firing at imagined foes and dropping from choppers. “Bad guys, we’re a gang too,” Holiwell warned viewers. “A well-equipped gang and a well-trained gang. As soon as they unleash us, go hide. Guaranteed, we’re coming to get you.”
It seemed a good life. He was married in 2000 to his third wife, Alicia. They had two small children and owned a handsome $500,000 home in West Seattle plus a condo in Tukwila. His wife worked full-time as an administrative assistant for the City of Seattle.
“Clearly,” says the deputy’s former boss, Sheriff John Urquhart, “he was a good firearms trainer with a prestigious assignment on the SWAT team. He was a long-term police officer,” liked by many. He received a commendation for his service in 2008 from then-sheriff Sue Rahr, and on his 2013 performance appraisal he exceeded standards in five out of seven categories, including leadership and professionalism.
“Yet,” as Urquhart says,
“he had this ‘other life.’ ”
Few if any in the department seemed to know all about it. But Holiwell’s busy schedule turned out to be even more crowded than it appeared.
In the past seven years, besides helping operate the shooting range, serve SWAT warrants, and run his side businesses, Holiwell found time to gather and steal nearly 10 tons of brass—expended cartridges—and sell or trade the hardware for credits at local shooting ranges. He would then buy guns and other supplies for himself or SWAT team members—he, alone, had 69 handguns registered in his name.
The deputy also hauled away at least 67 cases of sheriff’s ammunition during those years, swapping them for credits at the private ranges as well. Some of the ammo was filched while the department was suffering a bullet shortage. But Holiwell, by trading county assets for credits that he could use like cash, obtained thousands of dollars worth of guns and gear at special rates. “From what we learned and were told,” says senior deputy prosecutor Gary Ernsdorff, “Holiwell used his position to get deals on firearms and parts from private vendors. He would then turn around and resell them for a profit.”
The stolen brass and bullets were a significant financial loss. “Our best guess is in excess of $50,000,” says Urquhart, elected sheriff in November 2012. “But because of lax controls in place—or not in place—over the years, we will never know.”
Nor can we be sure how many illegal drugs and steroids the deputy used, sold, or doled out to others, including fellow deputies. But he found time for that, too. His need for cocaine, the club drug Molly, the erectile-dysfunction drug Cialis, and testosterone-boosting (and sometimes rage-inducing) anabolic steroids was steady enough that Holiwell had his own drug supplier living rent-free in Holiwell’s Tukwila condo unit.
Then there was the work he did for his wife, whom he met when she was an exotic dancer and after he had just married his second wife. Like Darrion’s, Alicia Holiwell’s government job alone wasn’t paying enough. So in 2013 she began working nights and weekends as an escort, a prostitute. The two of them used to attend partner-swapping swinger parties, and he came to think of her as a sex fiend, she would later tell investigators. What the hell, she recalled him telling her one day, “If you’re going to have sex, you might as well get paid for it.”
And so should he, the deputy figured. He began pimping for his wife, helping her place escort ads on Backpage.com, running computer checks on her customers, and taking as much as 80 percent of her earnings off the top.
“Double life?” says Sheriff Urquhart. “You bet!”
That double life eventually caught up with him. Last June, King County prosecutors charged deputy sheriff Darrion Holiwell with pimping, theft, and drug delivery. Alicia proved to be the accidental informant for sheriff’s investigators, who until early in 2014 had no knowledge of the lawman’s near-decade of lawbreaking.
They learned that Holiwell and Alicia had split up in May 2013, when she moved into an apartment and he and the couple’s two young boys remained at the home, aided by a drop-in nanny. Alicia would tell detectives it was seen as a temporary split so they could work on getting back together. In the meantime, she’d work as an escort, sometimes making $2,000 a weekend, with $1,600 going to her estranged husband. Among his pimping duties was to run records checks on her clients using Sheriff’s Office computers. She would text details of the sessions and sometimes e-mail photos of driver’s licenses. “Essentially I worked all summer,” she told investigators. “I would go to my regular job [as a city worker] and then go home and work the escorting.”
In one text exchange, she alerted Darrion that “I want to spend all day with guys tomorrow so I should book what I can 2night.” He answered “go for it,” and in the same breath added that he’d told their son he could have some friends over for the Fourth of July. In another exchange, she texted, “He’s here,” then later, “He’s gone :).” Darrion asked “What happened?” She responded: “Another happy customer ½ hour $180 Nice guy.” She was going to sleep now, she added. “I’m glad,” texted Darrion. “That’s easy money. Good night babe.”
Alicia often texted Darrion about how tired she was working her two jobs. But the deputy helped her by supplying drugs to keep her alert, including the prescription stimulant Adderall. She told detectives he also provided her with Molly, marijuana, and human growth hormone he obtained from the dealer he was boarding at his Tukwila condo.
Then Darrion made what turned out to be a career-ending mistake: While his 39-year-old wife was having sex with strangers, he began dating a 20-something woman. The estranged Alicia was enraged when she heard. She went to their home while Darrion was gone and slashed several couches with a knife, as she later admitted to police (though she wasn’t charged). Darrion says she also slashed his comforter and several pairs of his shoes. She then began what he called “one of her texting tirades,” sending him such messages as “You lucky you still got two fucking legs to walk with” and “Do you want me to come fuck you up?” She then showed up at his door late at night with a laptop, demanding he give her another one. Screaming, she threw the laptop to the ground, which didn’t hurt it since it had already been submerged in water, Darrion later discovered. He gave Alicia another computer “and she spit in my face,” he said. Afterward, he discovered all four tires on his vehicle had been flattened.
In October 2013, Alicia filed for divorce. The next month, Darrion strategically sought a restraining order against her, recalling in his petition that theirs had been a rocky marriage from the start. The year the Holiwells were married, he claimed, was when she “first displayed violence toward me,” upset that he came home late. “She reacted very violently, thrashing at me wildly with a very animalistic look in her eyes.” He claimed she was “very jealous and untrusting . . . which led to her accusing me of irrational things throughout our marriage.”
Alicia Holiwell, in her divorce action, sought a favorable split of the property, including possession of their home. Darrion fought over both the house and possession of the kids. The 20-something girlfriend also chimed in with a declaration supporting Darrion, calling him “a good man” and saying she was frightened of his wife, who’d been texting her such messages as “If I see you have tried to contact Darrion I will hunt you down wherever you may be.” Alicia, the girlfriend said, needs therapy.
In a way, she got it. Seeking evidence that the physical abuse she was suffering at the fists of Holiwell was part of a pattern, she contacted his second wife to ask if their brief marriage in 1997 had included any acts of domestic violence. The ex-wife confirmed he’d hit her. But unbeknownst to the Holiwells, the ex-wife later spoke about Alicia’s domestic experiences to a friend who works at the sheriff’s office. The friend told a manager, and the word went up to the sheriff’s office. The department began to quietly investigate Holiwell’s family conflicts.
Neither of the Holiwells, with much to hide, had gone to the police. But their secret lives were about to be revealed to the world.
In mid-April last year, sheriff’s officers and detectives served search warrants at their own gun range and at Darrion’s West Seattle home. Their investigation had ballooned from a domestic-violence probe into a headline-rattling corruption story about a fellow officer suspected of at least three felonies including pimping for his wife. The detectives grilled Alicia, who confessed all—her escort work, their mad marriage, and Darrion’s other life. (She did not wish to discuss the case further, last week telling Seattle Weekly, “I’m not interested in commenting.” She was not charged with any crime.)
At the deputy’s home, investigators found illegal drugs and receipts for the sale of brass and ammo. They also found evidence of drug customers on his iPhone, including a link to Jason, his live-in dealer. Holiwell’s gun safe was empty, however, and other hoped-for evidence wasn’t found. Detectives suspected Holiwell had been tipped off.
Another warrant, served at Holiwell’s condo—which had gone into foreclosure—produced more drug evidence and a cooperative witness, Jason. He told investigators he was a supplier of drugs to both Holiwells and some of their friends—and, apparently, other officers. Jason, who was armed, said Holiwell was teaching him how to shoot more accurately, allowing him to bring a date to the restricted county range after hours and providing them with county weapons and ammo. (No charging decision has yet been made regarding Jason, the prosecutor’s office says.)
But most of the detectives’ initial leads came from the cooperative soon-to-be-ex-wife, who detailed the thefts and drug dealing. King County detective Christina Bartlett said in a probable-cause statement that the discovery of sales receipts at the home led investigators “to believe that Holiwell was involved in the theft of King County Sheriff’s property.” Records obtained from gun ranges and suppliers turned up $7,420 worth of brass sold or traded for credits by Holiwell at Rainier Arms; $8,598 worth at Wade’s Eastside Gunshop; and $12,489 at West Coast Armory over a seven-year period. The biggest cache of unspent ammo, 63 cases worth $13,240, was sold/swapped at Wade’s.
Investigators determined that the money or credits went into an off-the-books slush fund that Holiwell used to buy items for him or the Tac 30 team. “This is consistent with information provided [earlier] by Alicia Holiwell,” Bartlett revealed in her affidavit. “She explained to investigators that Holiwell sold the brass and used the proceeds to fund a ‘petty account’ to use ‘pretty much any way’ including purchases for himself or his team. This was also confirmed by his partner, deputy Chris Kahrs, who worked with Holiwell at the range, and who was aware of the practice.”
Holiwell’s secret life wasn’t a total secret, it turned out. Besides his partner, other officers knew of the range thefts; some knew of the drug sales; and at least one may have tipped off Holiwell to the probe. Detectives would later learn from a Holiwell text message—sent to un unidentified recipient—that he was on to them prior to the arrest, and was angry about it: “Shit storm is coming,” he stated. “Alicia reached out to Dana, stirring shit up. Dana’s best friend unbeknownst to me works for KCSO, does her hair. Alicia convinced Dana that I was beating her in the past. Dana told Carrie and this stupid ho believed her and told the fucking SHERIFF!!! The storm is coming, but I got something for their asses. Hang on, it’s about to get real.”
Was Holiwell capable of creating such a storm? In the past, he reportedly had threatened his wife with a loaded gun, though no charges were filed. Prosecutor Ernsdorff, in court papers, expressed “significant concerns for the safety of the community and the many witnesses.” Firearms, he stated, “are not just a routine part of [the deputy’s] day-to-day life, they are a central part of his existence.” Though Holiwell had been relieved of his gun and badge in May, he had subsequently bought an assault rifle that, like all his other guns, was nowhere to be found, Ernsdorff added. The judge approved bail of $150,000, and the deputy was booked without incident.
In July, still in custody, Holiwell was officially fired by Urquhart for criminal conduct. Others also fell. Gun-range partner Chris Kahrs resigned in lieu of termination for being untruthful during the investigation and for buying/using steroids, according to department records. Detective Robin Cleary, suspected of tipping off Holiwell, was fired for being untruthful during the investigation (a respected detective, she is currently attempting to get her job back). In addition, a shooting-range sergeant was not disciplined but did retire, and a Seattle police officer, Kevin McDaniel, who admitted to buying testosterone from Holiwell, was suspended 20 days without pay.
A fifth figure, longtime deputy sheriff Frank Stasiak, was given 30 days without pay for using steroids. Urquhart notes that “Frank manned-up right from the get-go. He told the truth as soon as he was questioned, didn’t equivocate or make excuses. He said he was feeling the pressure of getting older and wanted to keep his edge while working the street.” He has agreed to talk to others in the office about misuse of steroids, and is subject to drug testing.
Urquhart doesn’t believe steroid use is rampant in his department, but it “is occurring in every police agency,” he says. “I wasn’t able to find any more folks using than the ones named. But I believe there were others.”
In August, after plea-bargain meetings between Holiwell’s attorney and prosecutors, the fired deputy who’d been irate about his arrest suddenly opted to change his plea to guilty. For promoting prostitution in the second degree, theft in the first, and delivery of drugs, Holiwell faced a standard sentencing range of more than 30 months. But he’d reached an agreement to accept 12 months and one day—the extra day meant he would have to serve the term in prison rather than jail.
He also faced a $3,000 fine and other costs, but as Kris Costello, his attorney, told the court, he was broke. “He took full responsibility right away,” she said in open court before King County Superior Judge Bruce Heller on August 4, 2014. “He caused a lot of problems for the department. He’s caused a lot of problems for people he cares very much about. He was a well-liked officer. He loved his job and he really, really made many, many mistakes. And he’s here to take a prison sentence. He’s got a new normal. He’s lost his job, he lost everything.”
Ex-deputy Darrion Holliwell, seeming small and deflated from being held in protective isolation for two months, stepped forward. “I apologize to this court,” he said, reading from a statement. “I have embarrassed myself, my family, and my department. I am truly sorry for my actions. I love my job.”
Judge Heller mulled over the recommended 366-day sentence. He complained that it seemed “quite lenient, given the fact that as a police officer you committed these offenses.” Still, Heller noted, Holiwell had no other criminal record and had lost his job and couldn’t serve again. The fact “that you’re going to have to start life all over with a sense of shame going forward—I think is as significant as the jail time.”
Holiwell was grateful. “Upon completion of my sentence,” he said, “I intend to rejoin the community as a law-abiding citizen.”
But at that moment he’d already broken the law again. The next day, prosecutor Ernsdorff learned that the man who had “lost everything” and had been declared indigent by the court had, three weeks earlier, applied to cash out his $181,685 law-enforcement retirement account. He had not told the court he had such an asset, and not even his wife was aware of it during their divorce proceedings. A niece had been quietly helping Holiwell attempt to liquidate the account.
Ernsdorff quickly filed to vacate the ex-deputy’s sentence, claiming he committed a fraud upon the court. The motion was granted. A few weeks later, in September, Holiwell was back. This time, in a perfunctory proceeding, Holiwell was sentenced to 17 months.
The next month, on October 2, 2014, the Holiwells’ 14-year marriage was officially ended by court decree. Alicia got kitchen appliances, power tools, a lawn mower, cook books, a diary collection, a car, and the kids. This past February, the state concluded she was eligible for $92,000 from Darrion’s retirement fund. The deputy-turned-felon got the big-ticket item, the house—encumbered by two mortgages—along with a vehicle. But he owes about $45,000 in restitution—equal to about half of his remaining retirement fund.
On the up side, the Holiwell case spurred changes at the sheriff’s department. Ammunition is now inventoried every 30 days and stored more securely, with only a limited number of officers allowed access. “Spent brass is harder to control,” Sheriff Urquhart says. “But it is collected on a regular basis and stored until it can be resold to a scrap dealer.” The SWAT team is also no longer in charge at the Ravensdale range—now under the supervision of a new sergeant and a new team of range officers. The department also ended a so-called new-product “evaluation” program at the range in which guns or equipment were provided freely by manufacturers.
“My biggest disappointment was that no one discovered what was going on earlier,” says the sheriff. “Over the last 10 years there was one range sergeant [now gone] but several captains, majors, and chiefs that at one time or another had the Ravensdale Range under their command. Virtually all were interviewed as part of the investigation, though not as witnesses. All were shocked—shocked!—to find out that outright theft, misappropriation of property, and inappropriate use of the shooting range was occurring right on their watch. I consider that a failure of leadership.”
Urquhart—who has fired or forced out 35 officers from his force since taking office almost three years ago—describes the post-Holiwell affect as something of a culture shift within the department. “Suddenly,” he says, “ammo started appearing at the range that had been stocked in deputy’s trunks. Nobody wanted to get caught with ammunition that hadn’t been officially checked out to them. I don’t think they were selling it on the side, just hoarding perhaps.”
Still, did Holiwell get a cop’s break from the prosecutor? For his long crime spree behind a badge, he could, with good time off and credit for time served, be back on the streets by the end of this year.
Ensdorff concedes that Prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s office did not file all the charges it could have against Holiwell, who also was not required to publicly detail other crimes he may have committed. The reason? “It has long been the policy of the King County Prosecutor’s Office to file cases conservatively,” Ensdorff says, explaining that Satterberg’s predecessor, the late Norm Maleng, penned a Discussion Paper in 1987 that has become the office bible on such issues. In part, it states that under national and state standards, “prosecutors should not file all charges, rather they should file those charges which adequately label the gravamen of the defendant’s conduct”—no matter who the defendant is.
Says Ensdorff in an e-mail: “After reviewing Holiwell’s conduct and the evidence against him, the King County Prosecutor’s Office decided the charges initially filed, including one count of first-degree theft, complied with the above-stated policy and law. They were also sufficient to meet our goals of ensuring Holiwell went to prison as a convicted felon, will no longer be able to work in law enforcement, and is held responsible for full restitution for the changed and uncharged conduct.”
How’s that sit with Sheriff John? “Was I satisfied?” says Urquhart. “Of course not. But you rarely ever find a cop satisfied with the judge’s punishment. What Holiwell did was extremely egregious. His actions disgraced the sheriff’s office, and they disgraced the badge he wore each and every day. The bad news is that he’ll soon be released far earlier than he should. The good news is he’ll never wear a sheriff’s uniform or badge again.”