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Ferndale man accused of sex crimes against vulnerable adults at Skagit rehab center

What is sexual violence?

Sexual violence is a social and public health problem in the U.S. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey says nearly 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men experienced sexual violence victimization other than rape at some point in their lives.
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Sexual violence is a social and public health problem in the U.S. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey says nearly 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men experienced sexual violence victimization other than rape at some point in their lives.

A Ferndale man arrested Sunday night at the U.S.-Canada border near Lynden is suspected of sexually assaulting more than a dozen elderly men and women who were patients at a Skagit County rehabilitation center where he worked, court records show.

In a Skagit County Superior Court document dated April 24, Anacortes police detective Sgt. Chad Pruiett said his investigation began in early 2018 when Adult Protective Services told him that a patient at San Juan Rehab Center in Anacortes had said she was inappropriately kissed by a nurse.

The nurse was identified later as Willie Orlando Lawton III, Pruiett said in a probable cause statement seeking a warrant for Lawton’s arrest.

Lawton, 55, was detained Sunday night as he returned from Canada by U.S. authorities who saw the warrant for his arrest in a national crime database.

The investigation revealed that Lawton had assaulted more than a dozen men and women in various ways, ranging from unwanted kissing and fondling to forced sexual intercourse, court documents state.

Some victims were described as vulnerable adults suffering from dementia. Others claimed their sexual contact was consensual, according to court documents.

Lawton remains in Skagit County Jail in lieu of $250,0000 bail, after he was arrested on suspicion of second-degree rape of a frail elder or vulnerable adult, indecent liberties with a frail elder or vulnerable adult and two counts of fourth-degree assault with special allegations for sexual motivation.

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.
David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.
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