BELLINGHAM - Last year, while the city was in the midst of a massive search effort for a college freshman who had been missing for several days, Western Washington University Police Chief Randy Stegmeier packed his bags, boarded an airplane and went on vacation.
The student, Dwight Clark, 18, was later found dead in Bellingham Bay; police immediately ruled out foul play. An impromptu vigil was held in Red Square that afternoon, and hundreds of students gathered to mourn the death.
Stegmeier, who had attended another vigil for Clark the week before, was absent.
His vacation also came during the first two weeks of classes, among the busiest times of the year for police dealing with student-related issues, Bellingham Police and Stegmeier acknowledged.
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His 72 hours off work that month, equal to nine workdays, was the longest vacation Stegmeier had taken in a 30-day period since coming to Western, according to public records obtained by The Bellingham Herald. He has been the university's police chief for about three years.
Several days after Clark went missing - those involved suggested it was four to seven days into the search effort, and records don't provide a detailed account - Stegmeier approached his boss, Rich Van Den Hul.
With his airfare already paid for, and the vacation time approved weeks in advance, Stegmeier offered to forgo the trip, in light of Clark's disappearance.
But Van Den Hul, Western's vice president for Business and Financial Affairs, gave him the go-ahead because by that point, Bellingham Police had taken over the lead in the investigation.
"However," Stegmeier said, "I did tell him that if, during the course of this investigation, it is found that (Clark), in fact, was the victim of foul play, and we have that type of concern to deal with on campus, I'll take the first flight back and be back here immediately."
Some students felt unnerved to learn the police chief was on vacation when a student was missing.
"Bellingham scared me after that," said Stephanie Simone, a WWU senior who moved to the city about the same time as Clark. "My parents freaked out for a while, and they would've been really upset to know the police chief was on vacation at the time."
In Stegmeier's absence, University Police continued to serve as a support agency in the investigation. His duties were performed by Assistant Chief Dave Doughty, a 30-year-veteran of the university's police force who has served as acting chief for months at a time.
Because of his faith in his second-in-command, Stegmeier felt confident that taking a vacation would not be a problem, even while the search was ongoing.
"I certainly don't feel that my being gone at that time had any detrimental effect on the case whatsoever," Stegmeier said. "And I certainly don't feel that it was irresponsible of me to be gone at that time."
Bellingham Police echoed that sentiment.
"It certainly didn't have any impact on our investigation," said Bellingham Police spokesman Mark Young.
When asked why he left at the start of classes, among the busiest times for university police, Stegmeier maintained that the vacation was not ill-timed.
"Also, it wasn't the first week (of school)," he said. "It was like the second week."
With regard to what message that might send to parents, Van Den Hul said the situation was under control.
"What (parents) need to know is, do we have good coverage," he said. "And we absolutely do."
Stegmeier and Van Den Hul said the police chief has not scheduled a vacation for the same time this year. Public records officials at WWU declined to release documents to confirm that, because vacation time that has not been taken is not subject to disclosure.
But Van Den Hul said if the same tragedy were to happen this year, he still would allow Stegmeier to take a vacation, under the same conditions.
"In hindsight, I do think we made the right decision," Van Den Hul said. "We thought we had it pretty well covered. We were all in constant contact."
While he was gone, the police chief called daily, "almost hourly," Stegmeier said.
"And at the time of the discovery of his body," he said, "I was notified almost within the hour."
University spokesman Paul Cocke defended the police chief, too, saying it's really the weeks just before school starts that are busiest for public safety officers, as they're training resident advisers and making other preparations.
"We're getting ready for fall quarter and seeing if there's any hiccups in the first week or so, and then it just sort of evens out, smooths out," Cocke said. "Also, (Clark) had been missing. He could've been missing for however long." made through Chase Bank.