Curtis Tucker, in his full police uniform, rises from his seat when his name is called. At a celebratory breakfast in 2013, the YWCA presents Tucker, an Airway Heights police officer, with a certificate of appreciation thanking him for how he responded to a domestic violence call.
It's officers like him, a presenter says, who improve the lives of domestic violence survivors.
As the room applauds her husband, Heidi Starr watches in disbelief. Surrounded by police officers dedicated to arresting abusers and advocates devoted to helping abused women, Starr wants them to know the truth. She wants to tell them the man they're praising has been abusing her for three years. She wants to report that Tucker has hit her, choked her, raped her and held a loaded gun to her head.
But speaking up, she tells the Inlander today, didn't feel like an option.
"Who was going to believe me?" Starr says.
For two more years after that breakfast, she says the verbal, physical and sexual abuse by Tucker continued until she filed for divorce in May 2016. She never called the police, she says, because Tucker himself was a police officer and she feared they'd take Tucker's side.
Airway Heights Police Department learned of Starr's allegations against Tucker in 2017, when she detailed them in court documents requesting a domestic violence protection order. But the Airway Heights department never conducted its own investigation into the matter. Instead, in 2019 the police department chose him to be its board representative on the Spokane Regional Domestic Violence Coalition.
An Inlander investigation, however, has found a pattern of alleged domestic violence by Tucker. A previous ex-wife, who asked to be referred to by her middle name of Lynn, documented in court records similar allegations of violence, including both physical and sexual abuse. Three other women who've had personal relationships with Tucker in the last decade say he was abusive as well, the Inlander found. Their allegations include instances of choking, threats with his gun or other physical abuse. All of these women, who requested to remain anonymous for this article, say they were afraid to report the violence because Tucker was a police officer.
Airway Heights Police Chief Brad Richmond says 47-year-old Tucker — who's been an Airway Heights officer for 15 years — does an "exemplary job day in and day out." In an interview with the Inlander, he questioned whether the allegations against Tucker are racially motivated, as Tucker is Black.
Tucker, in an interview with the Inlander, denies all allegations of abusive behavior toward women. He says if he truly was a habitual domestic abuser, then surely someone would have reported it.
"I don't think it's true that years and years of abuse can go unwitnessed and unreported," Tucker says. "It just simply didn't happen, and that's why it didn't get reported."
Domestic violence victim advocates and law enforcement experts, however, say statements like that are rooted in a misunderstanding of abuse. Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief and author who's examined systemic issues within police departments, says police officers know the system well enough to know how to get away with domestic violence.
"They know where on the body to hit, they know how to threaten or otherwise intimidate their victims in order to ensure that no report is given to local law enforcement," Stamper says. "Domestic violence offenders who happen to be police officers are in a position to wield enormous power and influence... and domestic violence, we know, is at heart a crime of power and control."
Starr says Tucker used that power dynamic to his advantage.
"It's all a power game, and it's all a mental game. And he was very good at convincing me there was no option, and that my life was in danger [if I report]," she says. "And because he was a cop, I literally had no idea who I would report it to, or what that would look like, or if they could get to me before he killed me."
Tucker married Lynn, his second wife, in 2003. But in 2008, Lynn filed for divorce. In those five years, there'd been "multiple instances of domestic violence and sexual assault" inflicted by Tucker, she would later write in divorce papers.
Lynn declined to be interviewed for this article, but says that what she wrote in the court documents is accurate.
After one incident, she wrote that she had bruises on her neck that her boss noticed when she went to work. In another incident, she wrote Tucker threatened to sexually assault her before he "cornered me in the hallway and began hitting me." She continued: "I fell to the floor at which point he continued to punch me in the back." Tucker denies both of those incidents of alleged abuse described in the court documents.
Tucker and Lynn separated after that. She wrote in divorce papers that she didn't report the violence at that time partly because he was a police officer and could have lost his job.
She recorded a call with Tucker in 2008, however, in which Tucker admits that he beat her. The Inlander has obtained that recording.
On the phone call, Tucker is angry because he fears Lynn might file for a domestic violence protection order. At the time, he'd been an Airway Heights police officer for two years, and he says it would cost him his job and impact their children. He asks if he should just quit his job now so he doesn't have anything on his record.
He urges her not to "play that game," insisting that she no longer has to worry about him.
"When I hit you and stuff like that, that's when I actually cared about you a little bit, but now you f—-ing talk shit to me. So don't worry about me having to touch you, look at you, or anything else like that," Tucker says on the call.
"You beat me up when you love me and don't touch me when you hate me?" Lynn asks.
"Right. Right," Tucker responds. "You're nothing but shit. I don't touch shit. So don't worry about it."
When the Inlander plays the recording for Tucker, he says he doesn't remember that conversation, since it took place years ago. But he doesn't deny he said it. Instead, he says he was likely referring to their sexual relationship.
"We did things sexually," he says. "That's probably what those conversations were about."
The 10-minute recording, however, never discusses sex. It ends with Tucker saying he feels like he's "failed" at life. Lynn responds by saying that he failed when he decided to cheat on her and "put hands on me."
Lynn didn't report the abuse during their marriage but referenced "significant concerns" about Tucker in the 2008 petition for divorce. It'd be several years later, in 2012, before she wrote in court declarations that Tucker was physically abusive toward her.
By that time, he was allegedly abusing his next wife.
Heidi Starr remembers what Tucker told her the night they got married. It was June 2010, and they eloped in Post Falls. Tucker choked her while they were having sex, she says, and he said that she "was his" and "he could do whatever he wanted."
It wasn't the first time he threatened her, Starr says. A month earlier, he held a loaded gun to her head — while on duty — and forced her to perform oral sex, according to allegations in her 2017 petition for a protection order.
That petition details many allegations of abuse or sexual assault over their relationship. She alleged that Tucker choked her multiple times, sometimes during sex. She alleged he slapped her at a party in June 2011, that he came home drunk multiple times and raped her, and that he threatened to hurt her if she did not sleep with other men while he watched.
She writes that on Dec. 5, 2015, Tucker "threw me down after sex and kicked me breaking my ribs." In the court documents, Starr included medical records and a photo showing a dark bruise where her ribs were broken.
Tucker admits he visited Starr while on duty, but he says he doesn't recall any "intercourse." Tucker denies the physical abuse, and when asked about the alleged sexual assault, he tells the Inlander that it was all consensual. But Starr maintains that it wasn't. In fact, she says when she told him she didn't like something, like choking, that would make him do it more. She says at times she feared she would die, and that once Tucker choked her to the point of blowing out blood vessels in her eye.
Other women reached by the Inlander describe similar behavior. One woman says that, in addition to choking her, Tucker tried to pressure her into sleeping with other men despite her repeatedly saying she didn't want to. She called Tucker "diabolical" and added that she feels lucky she got out of the relationship without suffering more abuse.
Another woman says Tucker never hit her, but she describes locking herself in a bedroom during an argument and Tucker threatening to use his gun if she didn't let him in, saying "nobody's going to believe" her if she said anything because he was a police officer.
When Starr wrote the allegations down in her 2017 petition for a protection order — a year after their divorce — Tucker wrote a declaration to the court dismissing them as "gangster like storytelling," noting he has no criminal record.
Today, Tucker points out that the judge denied the domestic violence protection order in 2017. He also adds that no woman has ever filed a police report alleging violence.
But the judge who denied the domestic violence petition — Spokane County Superior Court Commissioner Tami Chavez — said that the petition wasn't being denied because she doubted the claims of domestic violence. In fact, Chavez said she didn't dispute their relationship may have been "volatile to the point of domestic violence," according to audio of the court hearing. But she said the allegations were regarding past events, and with the two divorced, Starr failed to prove an imminent threat was ongoing.
At the same time, Chavez struck down Tucker's argument that the lack of police reports meant no domestic violence took place.
"Domestic violence doesn't need a police report. You can go decades without having a police report. Or you can have 20 police reports, and it doesn't mean there's domestic violence," she said. "A police report isn't conclusive evidence for or against domestic violence being present."
Airway Heights Police Department knew of the allegations that Starr made against Tucker in 2017. According to Tucker, the police department — led at the time by Chief Lee Bennett — placed Tucker on suspension when the petition was filed.
"They advised me that if the protection order was to stay in place that I would be fired," Tucker tells the Inlander.
But when it was dismissed, he was able to keep his job. The department did not conduct its own investigation, both Tucker and his ex-wives say.
The handling of the allegations goes against recommended practices outlined by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which says a model policy would involve "thorough investigations into any allegation of a law enforcement employee involved in domestic violence."
For comparison, Spokane Police Department has investigated allegations of domestic violence among officers even when the courts didn't find them guilty. In July 2017, SPD Officer John "Jay" Scott was arrested for domestic violence and had his charges dismissed. But SPD conducted its own investigation and fired him in March 2018. Similarly, when Officer Nicholas Spolski was accused of domestic violence in December 2017, he was fired following an internal investigation despite a jury finding him not guilty in the criminal case. In contrast to the allegations against Tucker, however, both of those cases involved the officers being arrested.
Today, Richmond says that when he took over the Airway Heights Police Department in December 2019, he was told the allegations of domestic violence against Tucker were "unsubstantiated." He defends that position now, based on the fact that the judge denied Starr's domestic violence protection order.
"It was unsubstantiated by a court of law," Richmond says. "I'm not a judge, and there's a judge for that."
Kevin Richey, who was the Airway Heights mayor from 2015 until December 2020, says he heard of some issue involving Tucker around 2017 but wasn't fully briefed. Richey has worked as a Spokane County Sheriff's Office detective specializing in domestic violence and sexual assault investigations, and now is a precinct commander and assistant police chief of the Spokane Valley Police Department. He says there should have been some investigation by law enforcement into the allegations, preferably by an outside agency.
"I think allegations of domestic violence should always be investigated fully," Richey says.
And that can work both ways, he says. If the allegations are found to be true, then the victims can get some of the justice they may be seeking. If an investigation proves the allegations false, then it's not hanging over the officer's head.
Stamper, the former Seattle police chief, agrees that a full investigation should be conducted when a department learns of any allegations. Holding individual officers accountable, he says, can help build trust in the police department.
Any department policy should mandate that "you never turn your back on an allegation of police misconduct, or alleged criminal behavior," he says. "The institution's standing in the community demands it."
Yet without an investigation, Tucker was chosen by Airway Heights Police Department to represent the agency on the Spokane Regional Domestic Violence Coalition, which aims to "eradicate domestic violence."
"I thought there was some kind of process where that police officer was at least investigated, or something would happen, where they would at least interview the victims to see what happened," Starr says. "And none of that was ever done, even though [Lynn] and I both detailed out that there was domestic abuse."
"You never turn your back on an allegation of police misconduct, or alleged criminal behavior. The institution's standing in the community demands it."
Annie Murphey, the executive director of the Spokane Regional Domestic Violence Coalition, says that if the coalition heard any sort of allegation against one of its agency representatives, a member would notify that agency — in this case, Airway Heights PD.
But in an interview with the Inlander, Murphey declined to answer whether she knew of any allegations against Tucker. She would only say that the allegations presented by the Inlander were the first she heard of a "pattern of behavior." She also wouldn't say whether she or anyone else who was part of the coalition had notified Airway Heights of any allegations.
A week following the interview with the Inlander, however, Tucker was removed as an agency representative for the coalition. A statement issued by the coalition says it's "been made aware of allegations of violence" regarding the representative from Airway Heights.
"We requested the agency remove this individual from their role on the SRDVC board and this request has been granted," the statement says.
Tucker tells the Inlander he hopes to continue to do his job as a police officer. As he denies all of the allegations against him, he says he's always responded to domestic violence calls with professionalism. He argues that this article is dangerous and will amplify racist stereotypes of a Black man "terrorizing White women."
"This article isn't being done, and [Starr's] statements aren't being done because of a threat to the community," he says. "This article's being done as a way of getting revenge on me."
Starr, meanwhile, says that since she and Tucker split up, she sought counseling and battled feelings of shame. She still remembers when she got dressed up and sat next to Tucker as he received the award from the YWCA, wanting to tell someone the truth but feeling stuck. To this day, she doesn't trust that anyone would have taken her seriously. After all, she says, nobody took it seriously when the allegations were written in court documents.
Bryonna Figueroa, a former YWCA criminal advocate, presented Tucker his certificate that day in 2013. Today, she stresses that women in abusive relationships shouldn't feel like nobody can help. Advocacy organizations like the YWCA would sit down with victims and do safety planning, for example.
But she understands how discouraging it may feel to see your abuser held up as an ally of domestic violence survivors.
"I understand how it could be discouraging," she says. "These situations do pop up, and they make us question our systems and what is there to protect us." ♦