A teenage babysitter and two young men were arrested Wednesday, June 18, when the babysitter made up a story about two armed, black men breaking into an apartment east of Ferndale to throw deputies off the track of the real thieves, according to the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office.
The 17-year-old girl had been watching three kids from 1 to 4 years old at the apartment in the 5400 block of Northwest Drive. She reported two black men in their 20s or 30s - one with a gun, one with a knife - had barged in through a back door around 4:20 p.m. and told her she should leave if she didn't want to get hurt. None of the children were hurt as they fled from the apartment with her.
A SWAT team, a U.S. border helicopter and dozens of law enforcement personnel - many of them on call, working overtime - responded to the scene looking for two armed men with backpacks. A manhunt blocked off Northwest Drive.
The babysitter recalled there was a next-door neighbor who matched the robbers' description: 6-foot-4, athletic, and black. They had seen each other before but never really talked.
Cody Oakes, 25, an operations manager for J.P. Morgan, had been ready to walk out the door with a duffel bag in his hand to go to football practice. (He plays quarterback and wide receiver for the Bellingham Bulldogs, a semi-pro team.) He'd noticed heavily armed police in camouflage marching down the road.
One of his roommates got in touch with a detective and found out what was going on. Through her, deputies ordered Oakes to come outside. He did, once the detective agreed to come in and escort him out. A sniper stood about 25 yards away with his sight fixed on Oakes. Deputies handcuffed him, pulled his shirt over his head, and sat him in the back of a patrol car.
"To be honest? I was shaking, I was scared," he said in an interview Thursday. "I knew I was innocent, but they have to go through a whole process to make sure that everyone's safe."
Oakes, a graduate of Western Washington University, doesn't have a mark on his record more serious than a traffic ticket. After about five minutes of talking with him, the detective seemed to realize they had the wrong guy and took the handcuffs off while they waited.
The babysitter's story started to show cracks when detectives interviewed the children: For one thing, the robbers were white, they said.
Eventually, the teen admitted she'd made up the story about an armed home invasion to cover for how she'd let her 16-year-old boyfriend and a young man, Ruben Jerome Benjamin, 18, into the apartment to steal electronics, said Sheriff Bill Elfo.
The burglars briefly got away with a gaming system, laptops and a piggy bank, stuffing a total of $1,500 in stolen goods in their backpacks. All of it was later recovered.
Officers arrested Benjamin, 18, as he drove away from the Shamrock Motel. The other teen was in the passenger seat. He was taken to juvenile detention. They're facing charges of second-degree robbery, second-degree burglary and second-degree theft. Detectives were trying to determine if the young men had any weapons when they went into the apartment full of children.
The babysitter, whose name hasn't been released because she's a minor, was arrested on suspicion of second-degree perjury for the fake report, conspiring to commit robbery and conspiring to commit burglary. She had given the accomplices a list of things she wanted from the apartment, according to the sheriff's office.
The sheriff hopes she'll be required to pay back taxpayers for the immense cost of the law enforcement response.
"It certainly limits our abilities to respond to other, real emergencies," Elfo said. "And at the same time our guys are racing to the scene, putting themselves and others in danger."
Detectives think the babysitter gave the fake description to throw police off the trail of the real robbers.
"I think it was racial profiling," Oakes said, "but I don't think it was racially charged."
About two-and-a-half hours after being detained, Oakes was let go. Deputies apologized profusely.
"My family and friends are more upset about it than I am," he said. "I'm just relieved. But I'm sad about it. Because I don't think she realized what could have happened to me. I don't think she realized the gravity of the situation."
Information about the babysitter's boyfriend was corrected June 20, 2014.