Preliminary motions are settled. Jury selection, after a bumpy start, was expected to be over Wednesday. Next up is an expected two weeks of testimony in the trial of Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer on charges he falsely reported to 911 operators that his Tacoma neighborhood’s newspaper carrier threatened to kill him.
Attorneys hoped to give their opening statements Wednesday afternoon, barring any delays due to weather or additional jury questioning. At that point, the public will be able to enter the courtroom for the first time to watch trial proceedings in person. Court officials have planned for a packed house.
Cases in Pierce County District Court, which doesn’t handle felonies, don’t typically garner such a high profile. But the criminal prosecution of a sitting sheriff is a rarity. Troyer previously was the longtime spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department. His former role put him at the center of criticism about how local law enforcement handled the March 2020 killing of Manuel Ellis, who died while in the custody of Tacoma police.
Former newspaper carrier Sedrick Altheimer filed a $5 million tort claim against Pierce County as a precursor to a federal lawsuit alleging Troyer exhibited “racial animus” and “reckless disregard” for his civil rights. He received an anti-harassment protection order against Troyer this summer, alleging the sheriff continued to follow him on his paper route. After that ruling, the judge in Troyer’s criminal case imposed bail on the sheriff.
None of those details – nor a County Council-commissioned probe of the incident that determined Troyer violated department policies – will go before the case’s jurors. Only Altheimer may testify about his perceptions of racial profiling by Troyer.
The jury of six, rather than 12 as in felony trials, was expected to be finalized Wednesday. Four alternates also will be selected.
The jury’s inquiry will center on Troyer’s call to a law enforcement-only dispatch line and what the responding 14 officers were told by the sheriff and Altheimer, the then-24-year-old Black man Troyer reported. Only Altheimer’s interactions with police were recorded because the Tacoma officers present for Troyer’s interview did not activate their body-worn cameras. Some of Troyer’s neighbors might also be called as witnesses.
Troyer’s attorneys plan to make the case that he is innocent through a general denial of the charges against him, according to court papers. The sheriff has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and racial bias amid calls for his resignation. He’s referred to inquiries against him as anti-police and politically motivated.
Pierce County will live stream court proceedings each day on the District Court website. Officials are planning for a packed courtroom and said space will be limited. Tacoma police officers are providing security outside the courtroom doors. Masks are optional in the County-City Building.
Who’s on the jury?
Attorneys had hoped to wrap up jury selection in one day on Monday, but their extensive questioning of jurors during more than a dozen hours of proceedings stretched into Wednesday.
As of Tuesday evening, the initial jury pool of 75 had been whittled down to 36. About a dozen women and several people of color appeared to remain among the potential jurors, who are predominately white men of middle age and older. Several of them have previously been selected as jurors in other trials.
Prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office and Troyer’s defense attorneys questioned more than two dozen individually about their views of law enforcement in general and their opinions on Troyer’s high-profile case. Ten were dismissed for their potential to give a biased verdict, while 29 were excused due to hardships around medical conditions and familial conflicts or because they did not show up to court.
During group questioning of the remaining 36 jurors on Tuesday afternoon, the prosecution asked the pool about their views on the importance of 911 services, the pitfalls of lying and the qualities law enforcement officers should have. The defense raised concerns after the jurors left the room about the prosecution talking at length about “swatting,” where a prank phone call is made in an attempt to send a large law enforcement response at an address.
The defense ended Tuesday’s proceedings by criticizing the prosecution’s line of questioning, decrying so-called trial by media and asking about the pool’s views on jury and law enforcement service. The final question was whether Troyer has a reason to not want any of them on his jury.
No one raised their hand.
Who are the attorneys?
Troyer is defended by a team from the Seattle-based law firm Frey Buck led by celebrity attorney Anne Bremner and co-counsel Nick Gross. Bremner also represents one of the Tacoma police officers accused of killing Ellis, Timothy Rankine.
The defense attorney who initially handled Troyer’s case, John Sheeran, withdrew after he was hired by Puget Law Group, the firm representing the Tacoma lieutenant who witnessed the incident with Altheimer.
The prosecutors on the case are Melanie Tratnik and Barbara Serrano, both state assistant attorneys general. Gov. Jay Inslee called on Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office to investigate the incident last year after local law enforcement did not pursue the case.
What do prosecutors allege?
At about 2:05 a.m. on Jan. 27, 2021, Troyer called a special direct line to the South Sound 911 regional dispatch center, according to court documents filed by prosecutors.
Troyer identified himself to the dispatcher who answered and said four times during a nearly 5-minute call that a suspicious motorist threatened to kill, according to court documents.
The dispatcher entered an “officer-needs-help call,” which is a higher priority incident than a violent crime in progress, according to court documents. The call dispatched more than 40 officers and deputies to Troyer’s North Tacoma neighborhood; 14 ultimately responded to the scene.
Tacoma police officers Corey Ventura and Chad Lawless were the first to arrive and told dispatchers to downgrade the call after seeing Altheimer wasn’t a threat, according to court documents. Police approached Altheimer with their guns drawn and frisked him for weapons after he got out of the car; he was not armed and his car was full of newspapers.
Altheimer said he never threatened the sheriff, according to court documents.
Troyer reportedly told Lawless, who did not have his body-worn camera with him, that he was asleep when he heard a noise outside and saw a car going in and out of driveways, according to court documents. Troyer got in his personal car to confront the motorist.
Lawless wrote in a report that Troyer said Altheimer never threatened him, according to court documents. The sheriff said police should let the newspaper carrier go if he was just doing his job.
What do defense attorneys say happened?
When Troyer stopped behind Altheimer’s car, Altheimer immediately got out and “aggressively” approached Troyer, cursed at him and said, “I will take you out!” according to court documents filed by defense attorneys.
Troyer interpreted that as a threat to kill him, according to court documents. The sheriff then called a direct line to dispatchers to ask for one or two patrol cars to respond, but the dispatcher input the highest call priority despite Troyer’s request.
Troyer said he reiterated to police at the scene that Altheimer threatened him but asked police not to take further action after learning for the first time that Altheimer was a newspaper carrier, according to court documents. Lawless, the officer who interviewed him, “either misheard, misinterpreted, or misremembered” Troyer’s statements while writing a report the next day.
Who is the judge?
Jahns was appointed to the Kitsap County District Court bench in 2009. He was a private criminal defense attorney for 14 years, then a Kitsap County chief deputy prosecutor for another 14 years. He wrote a book about prosecutorial ethics and professionalism in 2008.
Kitsap County officials have praised Jahns as a jurist and mentor to young legal professionals, the Kitsap Sun reported.
While overseeing Troyer’s case, Jahns has repeatedly referred to his approach as “old school” in court and advocated for public access to court proceedings. Jahns nearly had the sheriff detained pending bail in July after finding Troyer violated a no-contact order with Altheimer.
Who are the witnesses that might testify?
The 14 Tacoma officers and Pierce County deputies, including three sergeants and a lieutenant, who responded to Troyer’s distress call are listed to be called as witnesses, as are South Sound 911 officials and state Attorney General’s Office investigators. Prosecutors also listed additional Tacoma police officers who might be called as witnesses.
Ventura, the first Tacoma officer at the scene, who has since left the department, flew into Sea-Tac Airport this week, according to prosecutors.
Altheimer is listed as a witness for the state. Defense attorneys did not include him on an amended list of primary witnesses.
Defense attorneys listed a Colorado-based computer visualization specialist, Toby Terpstra, as an expert witness.
Troyer’s attorneys also listed a number of Troyer’s neighbors and former County Council candidate Josh Harris, who the Seattle Times reported came forward about a similar encounter with Altheimer during the Council-sponsored investigation.
Harris made headlines when he bailed out the Tacoma police officers charged with killing Ellis and in May when he shot a man outside a homeless encampment. Harris has a prior criminal record related to altering checks and insurance fraud.
The state and defense both listed Altheimer’s former employer, Steiner Distribution owner Darren Steiner, as a witness. The company called Altheimer “a reliable and hard worker” in his tort claim. He started delivering newspapers for the company in 2015 but said in court this summer that he left the job due to distress from continued contact with Troyer.
What happens if Troyer is convicted?
Troyer faces one count of false reporting and one count of making a false or misleading statement to a public servant, both misdemeanors. With no criminal history, a conviction on each charge would carry penalties of up to a year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.
Only a felony conviction automatically removes an elected official from office under state law.
Who’s in charge while Troyer’s in trial?
With Troyer stuck behind the defense table, the Sheriff’s Department’s second-in-command, Undersheriff Brent Bomkamp, is filling in for the sheriff’s day-to-day duties. A spokesperson for the department said Troyer would still be consulted for any decision making needed during the trial.
Bomkamp has overseen the internal operations of the Sheriff’s Department for more than five years, and he was appointed interim sheriff for about a month and a half after Paul Pastor retired in 2020. Bomkamp has been with the department since 1989. According to his bio, he has previously led the Administrative Services Bureau and the Criminal Investigations Division.
In March, a detective sergeant sued the Sheriff’s Department and named Bomkamp and another department leader in the suit, alleging discrimination and retaliation against women in the workplace. The lawsuit is pending.
Staff writer Peter Talbot contributed to this report.