Days before the deadline to file charges in a Ferndale murder-for-hire case from 2014, state lawmakers passed a bill that will give Bellingham police more time to investigate the horrific, unsolved case.
Senate Bill 5810, signed into law Tuesday, extends the statute of limitations for attempted murder to 10 years. Until now, if a suspect tried and failed to kill someone in Washington state, the deadline to file an attempted murder charge was 3 years. There’s no time limit to press charges in a murder.
Whatcom County Prosecutor Dave McEachran, the state’s longest-serving prosecutor, discovered the “oversight” in state law as police spent 3 years struggling to solve a home-invasion and throat-slashing case in Ferndale.
At public hearings about the bill, McEachran recounted gory details of the case to state lawmakers: Chad C. Horne, 34, showed up dressed in all black at a front doorstep of a home on Patriot Place on the morning of May 2, 2014. He forced his way inside armed with a .45-caliber pistol and a hunting knife. He told a woman, 39, that he only wanted to steal her car. She gave him the keys.
Horne made the woman’s young children leave the room. He bound her hands with zip ties. Then he slashed her throat from ear-to-ear, McEachran said, and fired one gunshot at her from close range. But the bullet missed and lodged in the wall. Horne fled in the woman’s black Chevrolet Tahoe. The victim ran outside, unable to speak and bleeding from the throat. She passed out in a neighbor’s yard. She lost about half of her blood volume, but survived. Horne died when he shot himself in the head at the end of a police pursuit on Smith Road.
A jury convicted Horne’s girlfriend, Lesley Alexandra Villatoro, of complicity to the attempted murder, for buying things – bleach, a duffel bag, a gas can – to carry out and cover up the crime. Villatoro dropped off her boyfriend that morning on Patriot Place. She did not testify at a trial in 2015. A judge sentenced her to 43 years in prison.
Police carried out more than 70 warrants and compiled over 6,000 pages of reports in their search for a person who hired Horne to kill the woman, McEachran told state lawmakers. On the witness stand a detective said police had strong suspicions about who wanted to kill the woman: a man whose wife had started dating the victim. But at that point police had found no hard evidence to support their suspicions. Apparently, police still haven’t found enough to file charges.
This week McEachran declined to elaborate on why no charges have been filed.
Over the past two months McEachran has testified in front of state Senate and House committees in Olympia, making his case for the bill. At first he asked for the deadline to be treated the same as an actual murder, with no time limit. Legislators suggested a decade-long time limit.
An opponent of the bill, Elisabeth Smith of the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that it’s a “very slippery slope” to extend the statute of limitations for attempted crimes: The passage of time makes it more difficult for a defendant to mount an adequate defense, and that poses the risk of violating a person’s rights.
Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, paused before responding with a question for the ACLU lobbyist.
“I’m just trying to get the right words,” Klippert said. “I know what I want to say, but I shouldn’t say that, on this microphone, or in front of the cameras. … Obviously this person meant to kill that person, and they just didn’t die. So we should give leniency in these cases, is what you’re suggesting?”
“If we allow the evidence to go colder and colder and colder, we don’t know that we can actually meet the constitutional requirements” and protections for the defendant, Smith replied.
The House Public Safety committee recommended passage of the bill in late March. Yet, as of last week, McEachran feared his efforts had “gone down in flames,” as the bill seemed to stall in the House. He called police to say they had two weeks to wrap up the investigation, because the window for charges would close May 1. Bellingham police put out a news release asking for tips in the case.
“I thought we were doomed,” McEachran said. “I didn’t want everyone involved in the case to get their hopes up.”
Instead, the House passed the bill with a unanimous vote of 96-0 on Friday, with an emergency clause to send it to the governor’s desk. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill Tuesday morning, making it effective immediately.
The Ferndale case will be grandfathered in, so that charges of attempted murder can be brought anytime before May 2024. Police continue to investigate.
Tips about the case can still be directed to Bellingham police at cob.org/tips.