The Avenger

My journey through Spokane's small claims court and how I almost ended up on Judge Judy

Jessie Hynes illustration

I was sitting in the parking lot of an organic grocery store on Spokane's South Hill, staring at a house where I thought the man who stole my $125 lived. I had already spent another $100 that day: $14 to file a small claims case, $45 for the process server to find the guy, and around $40 at the store so it didn't seem weird that I was hanging out in the lot. Maybe it was then that I should have just let it go.

I made a tattoo appointment in June of 2016. The artist was reportedly so talented he was booked out six months in advance. Dec. 2 was to be the day I finally got the Voldemort-resembling tattoo on my chest covered up. But five days before my appointment, I hadn't heard from him about the custom design he was supposed to draw.

When I went to the shop, the other artists informed me "he doesn't work here anymore." I called him from the parking lot, and the apologetic tattooist promised to refund the cash I put down as a deposit. He wouldn't be tattooing in Spokane for a while, he said.

A text from him nine days later apologized for the fact that the check he was going to mail me might not arrive before I went on vacation. Texts to him a month later went unreturned. A phone call informed me the number was no longer in service. I commented on his Facebook page, and he deleted his profile. His wife scolded me when I messaged her, and a third message to a woman I thought was his sister turned out to be his ex-wife. She never responded.

All this for $125? The shop offered to absorb the artist's debt and book me an appointment without having to put down an additional deposit. But I was frustrated, and I didn't want him to get away with it. This was no longer about money.

It was about justice.

I filed a police report with the Spokane Police Department, which categorized the incident as "fraud-pretense/swindle." I sent a complaint to the Washington Department of Licensing, but was told the department has no jurisdiction over "contractual disputes." Then I filed a small claims case.

At the Broadway Center Building on Jefferson Street, I spoke to the clerks about how to move forward with my case. The onus, it turns out, was on me. To serve the papers, you have to either hire a process server, pay the sheriff's office, ask a disinterested third party, or send them by registered mail. All of this requires you to know where the defendant is.

I found an address for him online, paid a process server, and then drove to the grocery store near his house, where I sat in the parking lot, snacking on veggie chips across the street, thinking about how he'd finally get what was coming to him.

A couple of weeks later, the process server told me the house was vacant, and that it'd cost another $45 if I wanted to try a different address. Someone who replied to my Reddit post told me, "I showed up to his studio a couple months ago, only to find out that some else lives there now." He had moved out of state. The only other step would have been to pay to hire a skip tracer, who might be able to track him down.

In court on March 29, I asked Judge Gregory Tripp for a continuance. I didn't want to give up yet — especially since I had received a letter from a producer at Judge Judy who wanted to talk to me about featuring my case on the show.

Like the rest of my attempts, it turned out to be a dead end. After reading about the paid trip to Los Angeles for me and a witness, I spoke with the producer on the phone, but when I mentioned I was only suing for $125, I could feel her lose interest.

She asked, "Is there anything else you can sue him for?"

Last week, back at the Broadway Center Building, I sat with a throng of others, waiting to speak to Judge Tripp about my case. This time, there was no point in asking for a continuance. Sitting in the creaky pew that shook every time someone readjusted, I informed the judge that I could not find the defendant and asked that the case just be dismissed. I was over it.

Sometimes there is no justice. A man can take $125 from you, and you can spend your days off hiring process servers and your mornings going to court and your lunch breaks talking to Judge Judy producers on the phone, only to end up sitting in the courthouse parking lot with a pile of papers telling you that you failed.

Justice, in this case, was knowing that I did everything I could. Because my case was dismissed without prejudice, I can refile if I ever do locate him. I think I've made peace with it. For now, that will have to do.♦