The Spokane County sheriff says Geiger officials tainted a rape investigation into one of their own

The Spokane County sheriff says Geiger officials tainted a rape investigation into one of their own
Young Kwak
The alleged victim says she had sex about 15 times with an officer in the Geiger Corrections Center.

A criminal investigation into whether an officer at Geiger Corrections Center raped an inmate has been "compromised" by the officer's own colleagues, the Spokane County sheriff says.

Rather than immediately reporting the alleged crime to detectives, jail officials first conducted their own internal probe — an alleged break from practice that left the case "compromised beyond the point where [detectives] could salvage it," Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich tells the Inlander.

Geiger administrators notified the Sheriff's Office nearly two weeks after the initial allegation, making it difficult to gather evidence and interview potential witnesses, Knezovich says.

"They knew going in that this was a rape accusation," he says. "The criminal investigation always comes first. I've never seen it done like this before."

Spokane County Jail Sgt. Steve Long, in a previous interview, has said the jail's normal protocol is to determine whether accusations of sexual abuse in the jail have merit before forwarding them on for a criminal investigation.

"That way we can find out if an inmate is trying to manipulate an officer," he says. "A lot of times they try to get an officer in trouble and ruin their career."

Spokane County spokesman Jared Webley says "there's no reason we think we did anything wrong as far as following investigative protocols," but declined to comment further citing a separate internal affairs case involving the accused corrections officer. (Knezovich oversaw the jail until 2013 when the County Commission assumed oversight duties.)

When jail investigators initially asked the woman in June whether she had been having sex with a corrections officer, she answers in a flat tone: "No," according to the jail's initial report. Jail officers note that they believe the woman was not completely forthcoming.

About a week after that initial interview, the woman, whose name is redacted from reports, meets with investigators again.

Her voice shakes, her eyes fill with tears and she covers her face as she describes how an officer inside Geiger Corrections Center singled her out during her work in the laundry room, how he complimented her looks and hair and instructed her to get onto his desk to clean the windows in his office, reports state.

And then she describes how things progressed: touching her arm and back, asking her to go alone with him to a supply warehouse and, while there, asking her whether she was married or had any kids.

After being contacted by the woman's public defender, jail investigators ask a second time in July whether the woman had been having sex with a corrections officer. She answers: "Not of my own free will."

The woman explains to investigators that she was too "scared" and "embarrassed" to come forward initially because the officer told her she would be held in jail longer if she spoke out.

Soon after the woman's second interview, jail staff passed the information on to Spokane County Sheriff's Detective Nathan Bohanek to begin a criminal investigation. In Washington state, it's a felony for corrections officers to have sex with inmates, even if it's consensual.

In an interview with Bohanek, the corrections officer denies having sex with any inmates. Ultimately, without forensic evidence or video footage, the detective determines there is not enough to support probable cause. Prosecutors are still deciding whether to file charges.

In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) that explicitly prohibits sexual misconduct in jails, prisons and other detention facilities. The federal law also called for research and a set of national standards.

click to enlarge The Spokane County sheriff says Geiger officials tainted a rape investigation into one of their own
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich

By 2012, the Department of Justice approved a set of standards that require every allegation to be investigated, that facilities provide inmates with multiple ways to report sexual abuse and that they provide inmates who are victims with medical and mental health care.

Those standards are unclear about whether an administrative or criminal investigation should come first. However, they emphasize that investigators should have specialized sexual abuse training.

For an allegation of sexual abuse involving an inmate and a staff member, Capt. Lisaye Manning with the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention says their standard procedure is to send the inmate to a hospital and immediately notify outside law enforcement.

The most recent data on sexual abuse in U.S. detention facilities, released in July from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), show that accusations of sexual victimization ballooned in 2012 after those standards were approved.

In 2015 alone, the most recent year for which data is available, corrections administrators recorded 24,661 allegations, nearly triple the amount in 2011. However, only 6 percent of investigated allegations were substantiated in 2015. The overwhelming majority of accusations are either determined untrue or investigators did not find sufficient evidence.

"We consider these findings a clear sign that prisoners are starting to trust the system, rather than an indication that sexual abuse in detention is skyrocketing," says Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, an advocacy organization, in a July news release. "That's a good thing. At the same time, today's report exposes an appalling failure of corrections investigators to protect survivors and hold perpetrators of prisoner rape accountable."

According to the BJS report, accusations of staff-on-inmate abuse increased by 191 percent, from 2,800 reported incidents in 2011 to 8,151 in 2015.

In Spokane County, Sgt. Long has served as the designated PREA coordinator for about the past seven years and in that role has investigated a number of allegations. They range from inmates grabbing or flashing one another to inmates trading sexual favors for protection or food to inmates getting caught and claiming the encounter was consensual.

There's a fine line between being a snitch and being a victim, Long says, emphasizing the necessity that each allegation is investigated. And there are consequences if an inmate lies, he adds. They can be charged with making a false statement to an officer.

Long says there are multiple ways inmates can report sexual abuse to jail staff, including through a chaplain or a member of the medical staff, by phone through the PREA hotline or with a written note known as a "kite."

"We hit this topic hard in our in-house academy on the code of conduct and how officers are supposed to behave," Long says. "PREA is designed to bring a new voice for the inmates so we don't ignore it."

Sheriff's Detective Bohanek's report gives details of interviews with inmates, Geiger employees and the accused officer. It's often difficult to separate fact from speculation.

For example, one female inmate complains that the alleged victim has been using her relationship with the officer to bully other laundry room workers and that she referred to him as "her man."

Other inmates corroborate that story. Even the accused corrections officer acknowledges that the woman was "problematic" as a laundry room employee and had "personality conflicts" with other workers. The woman denies those descriptions.

Inmates also tell investigators that the woman was shown favoritism by the accused officer, which the officer denies.

One inmate says she saw the two walking to the warehouse alone to get supplies, but they would come back empty handed. Two Geiger employees say they've never seen the accused officer alone with female inmates. The officer says he tries to avoid being alone with inmates, though acknowledges he doesn't know the jail's official policy.

None of the inmates could say they saw the woman and the accused officer have sex, though one inmate says to Bohanek: "I don't know if like he had a crush on her, whatever. But you could tell he got like, a little giddy whenever she was around, and he would smile. And I did see him wink a few times, but never any touching or anything like that."

The officer, who has worked as a jail officer for 26 years, according to the report, calls the accusations of misconduct "erroneous" and "completely false." And investigators for the jail note that surveillance camera coverage of the laundry facility makes it "virtually impossible" to substantiate the allegations.

As prosecutors decide whether to file charges, the officer is back on duty and the woman has said she's willing to testify in court. ♦

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About The Author

Mitch Ryals

Mitch covers cops, crime and courts for the Inlander. He moved to Spokane in 2015 from his hometown of St. Louis, and is a graduate of the University of Missouri. He likes bikes, beer and baseball. And coffee. He dislikes lemon candy, close-mindedness and liars. And temperatures below 40 degrees.