System of a Clown

The prison revolving door has led to a flurry of cop-killings. To see how a 25-time felon can still be on the streets, we offer Exhibit Armstead.

In judicial-system time, like dog years, a decade can mean a year, a year can mean a month. The irony of a long criminal sentence is that it is often quite short, results in early prisoner release, and leads to more lawbreaking—a state study shows 50 percent of Washington felons commit new crimes after being sprung. Seattle-area law-enforcement officers, often encountering familiar faces at crime scenes, are intensely aware of the revolving prison door. "You're dealing with the same 5 percent of the population over and over," says Sgt. Rich O'Neill, head of the Seattle Police Officers Guild. "It's an outrage."

It's also sometimes fatal. Since August, three Seattle and King County officers have died at the hands of convicted felons who were out on parole—two of them behind the wheels of speeding cars, the third using a gun. The most recent victim, King County Sheriff's Deputy Steve Cox, 46, was buried on Friday. His alleged shooter was a drug-addicted gang-banger with eight felony drug and gun violations on his record. He'd finished a 33-month sentence in August and was on community release. Though he violated the terms, he had not been returned to custody.

While Cox's story has angered the public, it pales next to what may be the greatest outrage of all, the case of a professional Seattle criminal named Wilford Armstead, 49, who might be a poster boy for the flaws in the state's court, prison, and parole systems. A lanky, graying, and violent break-in artist, Armstead has racked up more than two dozen felonies in his three adult decades. Yet the system allowed him to still be out creating new crimes scenes this year.

His freedom was ended on Friday when he was sentenced to 50 years in prison for trying to kill a cop—again. Armstead, an admitted drug and heroin addict, didn't kill the officer he was aiming at. But he tried, just as he tried repeatedly to kill other officers from 1978 through 2006 as he stretched his record to 26 felonies, according to lengthy King County Superior Court filings.

Armstead used potentially lethal force, including several high-speed police chases, to avoid arrest on six different occasions in his startling criminal crusade. His most recent victim, Renton police officer Larry Strauss, 49, is currently unable to return to duty, and cannot remember Armstead shooting him in the neck in early January. Strauss, who was also wounded in action 16 years ago, is the only living state cop to endure two potentially fatal shootings. He's not giving interviews, according to Renton PD spokesperson Penny Bartley, though he issued a statement after Armstead's October conviction saying, "The verdict will keep Wilford Armstead off the streets so he cannot victimize others."

But that's likely been said before.

King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng's office figures Armstead has been out of custody for only nine of the 31 years since he turned 18. "Stated another way," prosecutors say in court papers, "he has spent over two thirds of his adult life in prison, because of his repeated decisions to violate the law."

But there were also repeated decisions to give Armstead a break. His felony record, not counting the recent attempted murder conviction, includes seven burglaries and a long list of drug, escape, theft, and gun-possession violations since 1975. In one three-week period in 1996, he stole or attempted to steal five ATM machines from stores using a U-Haul truck. He also frequently committed one crime while awaiting trial on another.

To a hurried judge, prosecutor, or parole officer who doesn't look beyond the one-line entries of past violations—break-ins, car thefts, stolen property—his record reflects a mostly nonviolent history. Most of his offenses were also committed before 1993, when the state passed its three-strikes law that focuses on serious crimes such as murder, rape, and sex abuse. For those reasons, Armstead never faced the mandatory life-in-prison charge.

But violence is an undercurrent in many of Armstead's criminal acts, the deeper record shows, especially against cops. He wrestled away an officer's shotgun and refused to surrender after burglarizing a store. He twice fired a gun at a citizen who was trying to stop Armstead from stealing his car. Fleeing nonviolent crimes, he led police on two high-speed chases, in one of them smashing into another car in an intersection. He similarly wrestled for control of an officer's gun while being taken into custody and, in another instance, assaulted an officer and tried to take off with a patrol car.

"When they're out on release," says guild leader O'Neill, "some of them will do whatever it takes to avoid going back."

County prosecutors, though, plea bargained with Armstead several times, charging him with the nonviolent underlying crime, such as burglary, and using any violent acts that occurred while escaping or resisting arrests as aggravating factors to increase his sentence. As his record lengthened, prosecutors sought and got more time, but his history of convictions, superficially, remained comparatively tame.

And though more time was being handed out, it wasn't necessarily being served. A compilation of Armstead's sentencing record shows he has been given more than 100 years of prison time in his 31 years as an adult. Of that, he's served about 22 years. Court records indicate some judges favorably saw him mostly as a drug addict rather than a violent criminal, and he was given sentences that would run concurrently with other prison terms, rather than one after another, turning long-sounding sentences into the reality of much shorter stints.

For example, in that busy year of 1996, Armstead was arrested four times and charged with a total of nine felonies (including burglary, assault, and theft), eight of them committed while he was facing trial for the first. In one of the incidents, according to court records, a gun was found under his car seat. Armstead at that point "became upset; he resisted being handcuffed and he dragged the officers to the driver's door of the officer's patrol car. With [a second suspect] handcuffed in the back seat, the defendant attempted to place the patrol car in gear and drive off." When the cop pulled him back, he head-butted the officer, then was subdued.

For that assault and eight other felonies, he was sentenced, in aggregate, to 44 years in prison. But because the terms were for the most part made concurrent rather than consecutive, he got what amounted to 15 years—a stiff sentence, except he was paroled in 2003, after only six and a half.

In the view of the guild's O'Neill, systemic failures are both "tragic and epidemic." The answer "can't be found in any one piece of the public safety puzzle," he says, "but you should start in the prosecutors' and judges' offices, then the parole board and probation officers."

Corrections officials explain they have to balance public safety against overcrowded prisons, which sometimes requires early release for presumably nonviolent offenders. "Sure," says O'Neill, "a judgment call has to be made on who's violent and who isn't. But we've got four tragic examples here of how those decisions were wrong. The public is always demanding police accountability. How about some for the rest of the system?"

Gov. Christine Gregoire has ordered the Department of Corrections to review its policies in the wake of the three police deaths. Armstead seems ripe for review as well. The record shows that after he left prison the last time, he violated parole in 2004 and 2005, getting arrested for more acts of burglary, drugs, eluding, and hit and run. He was not charged with those crimes, and it's unclear how those allegations were handled by the parole system.

"We prosecute cases aggressively here, and we obtain the best sentences we can," says Dan Donahoe, spokesperson for the King County Prosecutor's Office. "The Legislature sets up specific ranges, and we have to follow them." Armstead might have been prosecuted earlier under three strikes, "but his crimes just didn't qualify," Donahoe adds. He says Maleng's office does not plan any review in response to the police deaths.

On Jan. 8, 2006, still a free man after all these years, Armstead tried one last time to elude an officer, Renton policeman Strauss, who was investigating a suspicious van. There was a struggle, then a shot from Armstead's gun. As Strauss thought he lay dying, he returned fire as Armstead fled. Strauss was able to give a description of the shooter, and Armstead was later arrested, with two bullet holes in his jacket.

As for Donald F. Venefra, the man who fired a round into Strauss' life-saving protective vest during the Renton officer's first brush with death in 1991, he was charged with attempted murder and sentenced to 10 years. He was released in less than seven.

Since then, Venefra's been tried on two new, separate charges of child rape and molestation, and found not guilty. He couldn't be reached for comment, but lists a Maple Valley address. That's a short drive from South Grady Way in Renton, where he shot Strauss—which is just a few blocks from the Renton Airport, where Armstead shot Strauss.

If Strauss returns to duty, a beat in another neighborhood seems in order.

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