Bellingham man convicted of 19th felony sentenced to prison

A Bellingham man convicted of his 19th felony, for eluding police for the fourth time, must spend the next two decades in prison, a Whatcom County judge ruled Wednesday, Oct. 1.

A jury convicted Adrian Sassen Van Elsloo of nine felonies for leading police on a high-speed car chase on Sept. 7, 2012, along Sunset Drive in Bellingham. Charging papers say he bailed out of the car, a black Hyundai SUV loaded with drugs and guns, and ran from police. He couldn’t be found.

But an officer said the driver looked like Sassen Van Elsloo, and in the back of Hyundai, police found a backpack with papers bearing his name — a name that’s tied, in the minds of local police, to the death of Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Herzog.

Herzog sat in the passenger seat of a police cruiser on Sept. 12, 2001, when the deputy-in-training driving their car got into a pursuit, led by Sassen Van Elsloo. The cruiser crashed. Herzog died the next day. Sassen Van Elsloo was convicted of two felonies, and a Superior Court judge sentenced him to four years in prison.

Following his release, Sassen Van Elsloo spent time in and out of jail. Police hunted for him for about three months after the chase in September 2012, until a Bellingham traffic cop spotted him driving a Lincoln Continental on Chuckanut Drive. A high-speed chase wound through two counties that afternoon, Dec. 11, 2012. Sassen Van Elsloo ran at least five cars off the road, according to court records. The chase ended when spike strips took out the Lincoln’s tires on West Lake Samish Road, and the car crashed into a ditch.

Then there was a police stand-off: Sassen Van Elsloo held a loaded Smith & Wesson revolver to his head and refused to leave the car. Hours later, deputies fired beanbag rounds at him, arrested him, and took him to jail.

The cases went to trial out of chronological order, because one linchpin witness of the September chase — Sassen Van Elsloo’s ex-girlfriend, who was a passenger in the car — went missing. Police couldn’t track her down until this year. By then, a jury had already found Sassen Van Elsloo guilty of three felonies in the December chase. A judge handed down a sentencing enhancement of 18 months because Sassen Van Elsloo had used a firearm while committing the crimes.

This week, at a sentencing hearing for the September case, Chief Deputy Prosecutor Eric Richey argued that the December firearm enhancement should count as a prior conviction: Sassen Van Elsloo had been convicted in that order, even if the crimes hadn’t been committed in that order. If the December enhancement counted as a prior, Sassen Van Elsloo would have faced an extra 12 years in prison.

But Deborra Garrett rejected the argument, citing the legal rule of lenity, meaning when a law is ambiguous the court should rule in favor of the defendant.

All told, for both cases, Sassen Van Elsloo was sentenced to prison for 21 years, 11 months. Richey had asked for about 34 years.

Family speaking on Sassen Van Elsloo’s behalf pointed out all of his past crimes — a robbery, three hit-and-runs, bail jumping, vehicle prowling, possession of stolen property — were linked, in some way, to his drug problem.

Sassen Van Elsloo called himself a drug addict “first and foremost,” in a statement he read aloud this week to Judge Garrett.

However, he said, “I’m not a cop killer. I do not take any sense of glorification when I’m referred to as a cop killer by any local officials and officers. In fact, it wounds and offends me.”

He told Garrett the latest trial had been full of “untruths, careful creations by the prosecution.

“But mostly, Your Honor, from the bottom of my heart, I am thankful no one was hurt.”