An Eastern State Hospital nurse abused one co-worker he dated. Now he's accused of murdering another

Employees at Eastern State hospital tell the Inlander that management was dismissive when a nurse now accused of murder was previously accused of domestic violence. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Employees at Eastern State hospital tell the Inlander that management was dismissive when a nurse now accused of murder was previously accused of domestic violence.

Jennifer doesn't know why she showed up for work that morning, hours after she was almost killed. In a daze, her neck covered in bruises, her false eyelashes torn off, she checked in for her early morning shift as a psychiatric security attendant at Eastern State Hospital, as if everything were normal.

The night before, her boyfriend Joshua Phillips, a nurse at Eastern State, pinned Jennifer down and began strangling her when she tried to break up with him, she told police. He only let go when she bit his arm and screamed for her son, who rushed in and called 911, records state. She thought Phillips was going to kill her.

"That look — I will never forget that," Jennifer tells the Inlander today. "He said he won't let me go, and no one else can have me. Those were the words."

Phillips was arrested and charged with second-degree assault. At work that day in July 2019, a co-worker found Jennifer, who asked the Inlander to use only her first name in this story, huddled alone in the break room. With encouragement from her co-worker, Jennifer went to the administration at Eastern State and told them what had happened.

That could have been the last time Phillips harmed an employee at Eastern State Hospital, one of Washington's two state-run psychiatric facilities, a place that cares for vulnerable adults with serious or long-term mental illness.

Based on state policies, the hospital could have kept Phillips away from the patients. They could have kept him away from Jennifer. And maybe, they could have kept him away from Kassie Dewey, the Eastern State mental health technician Phillips is now accused of murdering.

"He could have never even targeted another female, at least at that hospital," one employee at Eastern State tells the Inlander, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of losing their job.

Instead, with no internal investigation, Eastern State welcomed Phillips back to work while his felony assault charge was still pending, according to Jennifer and Inlander interviews with six current employees. They put him in a position of authority over Jennifer despite her having a court-approved restraining order against him.

After hearing what had happened, staffers at Eastern State warned upper-level management that Phillips was dangerous and shouldn't be working there, employees say, but the concerns were dismissed. Phillips, who later pleaded guilty to lesser charges, faced few consequences while Jennifer, feeling terrorized by him, quit and left town to escape him.

Now, those who worked with Dewey say she could still be alive if their warnings had been taken seriously. Phillips was charged last month with stabbing Dewey to death and critically injuring her 5-year-old daughter, Lilly.

"We were completely ignored," an employee says. "We were witnesses to what he did. We tried to get him out. And we were shunned."

Like Western State Hospital, its counterpart on the other side of Washington, Eastern State Hospital has had problems in recent years with turnover, staff shortages and a lack of funding. Both hospitals have been plagued by assaults on health care workers, and both have seen dangerous patients escape into the community.

But comparatively, those problems at Eastern State, located about 20 miles west of Spokane, haven't received as much attention from lawmakers. In 2018, Western State lost nearly $53 million in federal funds for failing to meet basic health and safety standards. State Rep. Eileeen Cody, D-West Seattle, and chair of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, says Western "has been a thorn in my side for years." Eastern State, by contrast, has a much better record of keeping employees, she says.

TINA'S LAW

Kim Domitrovich, a former Eastern State employee who knew Kassie Dewey, urges people concerned about domestic violence to support a national push for Congress to enact legislation — referred to as Tina's Law — making domestic violence offenders register in a national database, similar to sex offenders. It's named after Tina Stewart, a Spokane woman beaten to death by her boyfriend in 2017.

Kassie Dewey, 35, was one of those employees. She worked at Eastern State for more than a decade, and co-workers say she was a big part of the hospital. Kim Domitrovich, a former Eastern State employee who was close to Kassie, says she was free-spirited, kind-hearted, the type of person who was happy to show new workers the ropes.

And she wasn't afraid of anyone, Domitrovich says.

"From the time that girl started walking, she was a strong soul," Domitrovich says. "She was a strong woman."

Phillips, 41, had also worked there as a nurse for more than a decade, but in a separate part of the hospital from Dewey. He was known as quiet but someone who worked well with patients. In a hospital newsletter from 2017, he received "kudos" from two different staffers praising him for his positive energy and ability to facilitate a "safe environment."

"He is skilled at diffusing conflict and managing even the most volatile patients on the ward," the newsletter says.

But in his personal life, he had a history of relationships that turned violent, court records indicate.

His then-wife filed for a protection order in February 2001, when, weeks after learning he was using meth, she tried to move her and her daughter away from Phillips. But Phillips found them and took their daughter out of her mother's arms, threatening to keep her unless his wife agreed to stay with him, she alleged in court records. He argued in court that his wife was the aggressor, not him, and later the protection order was dismissed.

In 2007, she found out he had gambled away their money and started hitting him with a broom. He called the police, and she was charged with fourth-degree assault. Years later, in 2015, she filed for divorce.

That same year Phillips started seeing Jennifer, and almost immediately problems arose in their relationship. In October 2015, Phillips' ex-wife got a call from her kids asking to be picked up because Phillips and Jennifer were arguing and "dad was getting physical" with her, court documents say. Police showed up, but Jennifer told them Phillips "never put his hands on me," court records say.

Jennifer says Phillips was manipulative toward both her and law enforcement, faking injuries so that police would believe she was the aggressor. A witness of one of their arguments said in a court declaration that he saw Phillips and Jennifer arguing outside, and Phillips began banging his head against a tree and the fence while yelling that she was the one causing the injuries. Once, Jennifer says, he convinced police that she needed to be committed to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center for a psychiatric evaluation, only for her to be released the next day.

So when Dewey and Phillips started dating in June 2020, Jennifer says she and others tried to warn her about him. Domitrovich also says people close to Dewey expressed concerns to her about Phillips, but Dewey wasn't sure Phillips was as bad as people said.

She wasn't the only one. Domitrovich says Phillips, back at work, started a campaign to persuade co-workers that Jennifer lied about the abuse.

It mostly worked.

"This guy had half the hospital convinced Jennifer was crazy," one employee tells the Inlander. "And the other half didn't know what to think."

"The system failed her. The police got it wrong. The court got it wrong. The state got it wrong. We all got it wrong."

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Before long, Phillips moved in with Dewey. But things were volatile. They regularly got into screaming matches when they drank alcohol, according to multiple co-workers. In a court declaration filed in October 2020, Dewey's ex-husband said he had concerns about Phillips' previous domestic violence charges, adding, "I do not feel safe with my kids being in Kassie's home when he is there."

But in February 2021, it was Dewey, not Phillips, arrested for domestic violence. Phillips told Spokane police that Dewey had strangled him with his hood during an altercation. Dewey told police she only had grabbed his hood and taken him to the ground when he pushed her first.

She was charged with second-degree assault, the same charge Phillips faced in 2019 for strangling Jennifer.

An employee who knew Dewey tells the Inlander that Dewey said she had no recollection whatsoever of choking Phillips. Dewey said she was confused because when the police knocked on the door that night, she had been asleep.

Eastern State Hospital officials reassigned Dewey to the kitchen when they learned of the charge in early March. The case was dismissed on April 6, and she was put back on her regular assignment, an Eastern State spokesperson says.

Jonathan Schwab, Dewey's attorney in that criminal case, tells the Inlander that police "picked the wrong person that night." Dewey, he says, was innocent.

"The system failed her," Schwab says. "The police got it wrong. The court got it wrong. The state got it wrong. We all got it wrong."

On April 9, Dewey ended things with Phillips. She kicked him out of the house and changed the locks on the doors.

Two days later, according to court documents, he parked a block away from Dewey's home, sneaked into her detached garage, and waited.

He attacked when she walked in, stabbing her at least 26 times, court documents say. Dewey's 5-year-old daughter, Lilly, was there, and Phillips stabbed her numerous times as well, authorities say.

Phillips was found at the crime scene laying down by a running car, in an apparent attempt to take his own life, as he'd later tell a nurse at the hospital, police say.

Dewey was found dead. Lilly survived.

The 5-year-old managed to utter a few words to medics on the way to the hospital.

"The man stabbed me."

Dewey's family declined to comment for this story. Lilly was treated for life-threatening injuries and was released from the hospital last week.

Phillips was charged last month by Spokane County prosecutors with first-degree murder and attempted murder. His public defender did not return an Inlander message seeking comment. A judge has ordered Phillips be evaluated for his competency to stand trial, and he's currently being held in Spokane County Jail on $1.5 million bond awaiting his next court date June 4.

Kassie Dewey, 35, was found dead in her garage on April 11. Her 5-year-old daughter, Lilly, survived the attack.
Kassie Dewey, 35, was found dead in her garage on April 11. Her 5-year-old daughter, Lilly, survived the attack.

When Jennifer was told that Dewey was killed, allegedly by Phillips, she was struck with devastation, anger and, perhaps most of all, guilt.

She knew that could have been her.

"That night when he hurt me," Jennifer texted a friend when she found out, "he meant to finish it."

The way Eastern State handled Phillips' assault of her, she says, directly put her and other employees like Dewey in further danger. If things had been different, Jennifer says Dewey may still be alive.

In 2019, after he was charged with strangling Jennifer, Phillips was put on medical leave while he went to rehab at an in-patient drug and alcohol treatment facility, court records say. He returned to work in early 2020. But nobody told her he was back, she says.

They didn't work near each other, but Phillips was put in the central nursing office, where he gave Jennifer her shift assignments. That meant she had to communicate regularly with Phillips over the phone — in violation of the no-contact order.

Eventually, Eastern State moved Phillips out of that position and into her ward, but immediately moved her out of that ward so they wouldn't have contact, Jennifer says. At the time, she says her supervisor didn't tell her why she was transferred out of the forensic services unit.

For Jennifer, that wasn't even close to the worst of what he did to harass her. She says throughout 2020, he stalked her, both at work and outside of it. He knew where she lived and where she went. Her daughter once went out of the house and saw Phillips watching her. When Jennifer would call the police and tell them, they did nothing, she says. (Spokane Police Department says there were six police reports involving Phillips from July 2019 until August 2020, but they refused to say what they were regarding.)

"He was there," she says. "He was always there."

She felt like she couldn't escape. She believed he was intimidating her into dropping the assault charge against him, and she knew he wouldn't stop. In June 2020, Phillips agreed to a plea deal convicting him of domestic violence malicious mischief and disorderly conduct — both misdemeanors. Larry Haskell, Spokane County prosecutor, says his office agreed to the deal in part due to Jennifer's "stated desire to minimize Mr. Phillips' punishment in the matter."

Later that summer, Jennifer quit her job at Eastern State and moved out of town. Her supervisors never asked why she was leaving, she says.

Through a spokesperson, Eastern State declined to grant the Inlander interviews with administration officials and refused to answer basic questions about Phillips' employment. But Domitrovich, who knows Jennifer, and several other current Eastern State employees back up Jennifer's account of where Phillips was assigned when Phillips came back to work and how Jennifer was treated.

"The management knew the situation and — shame on them — they decided to wash their hands of it," Jennifer says.

At no point before Jennifer quit did Eastern State conduct an internal investigation of what Phillips did to her. At no point before she left did they report either the charges against Phillips or his conviction to the state Department of Health, which could have investigated whether Phillips should keep his nursing license.

Two days after Dewey's death, Eastern State Hospital CEO Mark Kettner sent an email to staff.

click to enlarge Eastern State Hospital CEO Mark Kettner
Eastern State Hospital CEO Mark Kettner

"We are all grieving over the tragic death of our valued team member Kassie Dewey. I ask that we respect Kassie's dignity and privacy by not reaching out or releasing information to the media," the email begins.

He then said that they recognize domestic violence is an "ongoing issue in our community," adding that the hospital will "explore system or policy changes that may need to be adopted to assure that future tragedies can be avoided."

The email was infuriating to several employees who spoke with the Inlander. They say Eastern State knows how the tragedy could have been avoided. They saw the request to not speak to the media as an attempted cover-up of how Phillips was protected after his domestic abuse of Jennifer.

"They could have stopped it, and they know they could have stopped it," one employee says. "It's a scare tactic."

Adolfo Capestany, a spokesperson for DSHS, says the state agency is now conducting an "internal review" of Phillips' employment history and actions, including a "policy and process review." Two weeks ago, with Phillips in jail on murder charges, Eastern State finally fired him.

DSHS policy, however, would have allowed Eastern State to fire Phillips long ago, due to the second-degree assault domestic violence charge in 2019. The policy on workplace and domestic violence says that an employee who has been "arrested, charged, convicted or has a court order issued because of workplace or domestic violence may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal."

But Eastern State didn't conduct any internal investigation of Phillips, despite being aware of the conflict with Jennifer. Capestany says that's because "the charges" — presumably the felony assault charge — were dismissed, so it "did not require an internal investigation."

Eastern State is required to report criminal convictions of staff members to the Department of Health, Capestany says. He refused to say, however, if Eastern State ever did so following Phillips' June 2020 domestic violence conviction on the lesser charges. But the Department of Health tells the Inlander that it did not receive any complaints about Phillips from July 2019 through 2020. It did receive two complaints about Phillips this year — one four days after Dewey's death, and the other in February — but those were long after Jennifer had already left Eastern State because of Phillips.

Regardless of what Eastern State was required to do, Mary Schultz, a Spokane attorney specializing in employment law, says there's plenty Eastern State could have done to prevent Phillips from endangering employees and patients at the hospital. For one, the hospital could have simply fired Phillips before he came back to work, based on the seriousness of the assault charge and the nature of his job.

"That's a serious potential problem, potential threat, and potential instability placing that individual around other employees. And you have very vulnerable people in that facility," Schultz says.

Employers still must be careful before taking disciplinary action against someone who may be falsely accused, she says. That means employers should generally assess the seriousness of the allegation, put the employee on leave and, crucially, protect the victim.

"Obviously, what you can't do is if you've got a restraining order, you can't make them a supervisor [of the victim]," Schultz says.

Cody, the state representative and chair of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, says nurses are part of a union that would guarantee Phillips couldn't have been fired without due process, but she says that's why an internal investigation would be important. She would have expected Eastern State to do an investigation and have grounds for termination. She also would have expected the hospital to make a report to the Department of Health, not only for the assault charge, but because he was in treatment for alcohol abuse.

"It's a little shocking hearing this about Eastern," she says.

"They could have stopped it, and they know they could have stopped it," one employee says. "It's a scare tactic."

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As the sun set on April 14, hundreds of people who knew Dewey gathered at Franklin Park in Spokane. They waved candles to music and read poems in her honor. Surrounded by flowers, in front of news cameras, those who knew Dewey stepped up to the podium and remembered their co-worker, their friend, the mother of three children.

"We are all broken to the core here. We all loved Kassie dearly," Domitrovich said then. "We need to get the word out about domestic violence. It seems like this is happening all too often."

Speakers stressed the importance of making sure domestic violence victims feel safe coming forward. They said if you see someone behaving unusually, reach out to them and listen.

"We need to hold each other accountable," says Mike Yestramski, a social worker at Western State Hospital and president of the Washington Federation of State Employees, which represented Dewey. "Out of this tragedy, make sure something good comes out of it and we all stand together and say, 'no more.'"

Jennifer is more specific. She tells the Inlander that she wants department heads at Eastern State to take accountability, not just share flyers and posters about domestic violence. She wants apologies from the people who could have made a difference. And she wants Eastern State to provide annual education and assign counselors for domestic violence.

Most of all, she wishes they listened to her earlier, before it ended in tragedy.

"I don't want pity from anyone. I just wanted, at least, compassion," Jennifer says. "I mean, we work in this industry to help others. At least try to help your own people." ♦

About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.

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