Retiring Whatcom County prosecutor reflects on 35 years in the courtroom

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 11, 2013 

SetterRetiring

Whatcom County's chief criminal deputy prosecutor Mac Setter, in his office at the Whatcom County Courthouse Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. Setter is retiring after 36 years on the job. The photo at right was taken in 1981.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - Maybe three purple fibers separated Joe Coker from walking free. After all, the woman never saw her rapist's face.

But when the trial was done, she credited the prosecutor, Mac Setter, who helped give her the strength to tell her story. Setter had taken the victim into the empty courtroom, sat her on the stand, and questioned her, as a kind of dress rehearsal for the trial.

"He put his guts into the case more than he put his heart in," the victim told The Bellingham Herald in 1983. "I wouldn't want to be on the other side of him."

Setter, who has worked in the Whatcom County Prosecutor's Office for the past 35 years, will retire at the end of this week. He has served as the chief criminal deputy prosecutor for most of that time, tackling some of the most heinous crimes in this corner of Washington state.

Of all the cases, State v. Coker sticks in his mind. For weeks, the victim had been getting obscene calls from a stranger who threatened to harm her. Someone wrote the word "rape" on her shower curtain, and again on the sidewalk, in crayon, outside her front door. She called police, who kept an eye on her apartment, swinging by several times each shift. Weeks later Coker crept into the woman's car and waited for her to finish doing laundry on Lakeway. On the drive home, as she reached up to adjust her rearview mirror, Coker jumped up from the back seat and told her he had a gun. He wore a red ski mask; his white gloves left behind no fingerprints. He ordered her to drive to her Orleans Street home, then blindfolded her and raped her in the bathroom. She didn't know who had done it.

Clues pointed detectives to Coker - including his obsessive insistence on "helping" the cops track down the rapist. But with no fingerprints, and other key evidence disallowed from the trial, the case was sealed with three purple fibers. Investigators found them embedded in gloves in the defendant's car.

Setter candidly told the newspaper, after the trial, he thought he had a 50-50 shot at getting the conviction. That's not because he didn't believe the victim, he just wasn't sure the jury would be as receptive. But they were convinced the velour came from the victim's robe, a Kmart bathrobe in her home on the day Coker, a maintenance man, sexually assaulted her. Coker was found guilty of rape, kidnapping and burglary.

Setter still recalls the day the jury found Coker guilty - Feb. 4. Setter skipped court so he could be at the hospital for the birth of his daughter.

He started doing trial work because he wanted to advocate for victims like the woman in the Coker case. He has made it his life's work since he was hired by Prosecutor Dave McEachran, all the way back in '78.

"It was probably one of the better decisions I made," McEachran said.

Criminal cases make up about 70 percent of the work done in the county prosecutor's office. In their time working together, McEachran and Setter have handled the lion's share of the county's most serious felonies. Many of the cases that have fallen to Setter over the years involve sexual assault, with victims ranging from toddlers to elderly women. Those cases are the most difficult to prove, he said, and difficult to stomach. Setter has seen some of the worst things people can possibly do to each other.

"That can wear on a prosecutor, but it depends on how you look at it. I kind of see the resilience people have in the face of things," Setter said. "To be a part of seeing people get through that, it's an amazing thing. I'm kind of on the sidelines. I've seen kids take the stand, and talk about what's happened to somebody close to them. I've seen them all of a sudden being empowered, in a safe environment, to take control of things.

"As a prosecutor, you stand up for the victim," he added. "And at trial, there's nobody there but you."

Glenn Hutchings, a former Bellingham police detective, remembered how back in the '80s, Setter started hosting meetings for law enforcement, therapists, Child Protective Services workers and other key players in the judicial process - so they could figure out how to better work together.

"When he started, there was none of that formal communication in place," Hutchings said. "He recognized how important those connections are."

From a young detective's perspective, Setter could be demanding and meticulous. If a major crime occurred overnight, Setter would have dozens of questions for investigators in the morning, Hutchings said.

Back then there was a running joke: Oh, no, Mac's going to want satellite photos.

But looking back it was for the best, Hutchings said, because over time it made him a much better detective.

"There are people who do great work, and then there are people who make the people around them better," said Hutchings, who is now the deputy chief of the Swinomish Police Department.

Setter doesn't keep score of wins and losses. (If he did, he would have a good record, McEachran said.) But a handful of sex crime cases he lost weigh on his mind.

"Those are all failures on my part, that's why it's painful. ... I mean, if you don't do your job well enough, to take it over the top of the hill, (the) bad guy hits the street," Setter said. "You may have to share the win. But the loss is purely yours. That's a hard thing to deal with."

Perhaps his most public loss, however, came at the ballot box in 2004, when he ran for Superior Court judge. Charles Snyder, who is still on the bench, won the race with 53.3 percent of the vote.

"That was a humbling experience. Of course, you learn more from losing than you do from winning," Setter said. "As I look back on it, I was lucky not to have won. It's a natural thing to want to keep moving ahead in your legal career. But I was happy with what I was doing. And I still am."

Still, he won't miss getting awakened in the middle of night by police asking for a search warrant.

By this time next week he'll be blue-water sailing along the coast with his wife, Wendy, on their 36-footer, Kookaburra, a trip they've been planning for the past seven years.

He's earned a chance to chase that dream, McEachran said.

"I'm sorry to seem him leave. But jeez, 35 years is a long time, to say the least," the prosecutor said. "He'll always be viewed in our community - and our community is a very tight community, in law enforcement, here - as a leader, and a very capable attorney, and someone officers could go to day and night for answers."

Reach Caleb Hutton at 360-715-2276 or caleb.hutton@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Dispatcher Blog at bellinghamherald.com/dispatcher-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamcrime.

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