Crime

Lynden man charged with hate crime for racist threats against Democrat candidate for House

Sharlaine LaClair, a Democrat and Lummi tribal member, ran for the Washington State House of Representatives in 2016. She lost to incumbent Luanne Van Werven, a Republican.
Sharlaine LaClair, a Democrat and Lummi tribal member, ran for the Washington State House of Representatives in 2016. She lost to incumbent Luanne Van Werven, a Republican. Courtesy to the Bellingham Herald

A Democrat running for the Washington State House of Representatives was the target of racist death threats in the weeks before Election Day, according to felony charges filed in Whatcom County Superior Court.

Sharlaine LaClair, 35, a member of the Lummi tribe, called police in late October when she started receiving texts messages from a phone number she did not recognize.

“Eat (expletive) and die you inbred piece of (n-word) (expletive),” the first text read. “And vote Hillary Rodham Clinton :-)” (sic).

The writer bombarded LaClair with a stream of racist, homicidal texts.

“I’m voting Hillary: but if Donald (Trump) wins your (n-word) ass is going into an oven!” A follow-up text added, “Legally.”

The phone number had a 360 area code. The author mentioned names of people LaClair knows, and accused them of beating women and engaging in sex acts.

“You people (expletive) little boys in the smokehouse ceremonies,” one text said. “I was in the group with one of your (n-word) relatives.”

Many of the texts were specifically targeted at LaClair. At one point the sender referred to LaClair’s son – to her alarm – as a “dumb piece of (n-word) (expletive).” The texts said she owed Lynden an apology, and that “you people ran your mouths all year and you left your name and number for feedback,” according to the charges. The author threatened to castrate “every (n-word)” if Clinton won the presidential race.

“Legally,” the writer added, “and with a bible in my hand and a smile on my face” (sic).

The unsolicited messages ended, “Saunders out!!!”

LaClair asked who was texting her. The sender said she should check her Twitter. She said she would call the police. She did, telling officers she had been harassed in “the most horrific way possible,” according to charging papers.

The FBI identified the sender by his phone number as Skip Edward Saunders, 33, of Main Street in Lynden. Officers confronted Saunders at the Whatcom County courthouse on Nov. 2. He confirmed the phone number belonged to him, but when he was shown transcripts of the texts, he said, “Not guilty,” according to the charges. He went on to talk about the presidential election and said he already had voted for Clinton.

Saunders was charged with two felonies: cyberstalking and malicious harassment, the state’s hate crime law. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment Thursday, and he remains in jail this week in lieu of $10,000 bail.

Earlier this year Saunders was charged with felony harassment for leaving long voice mails on the phone of a fellow church member, where he threatened to beat him, break his neck, kill him and kill his friend, according to charging papers.

Saunders told police at the time that the messages were “stupid,” that he has a problem with alcohol, and that he did not know why he did it. He pleaded guilty to reduced charges in September.

On his Facebook page Saunders had posted photos of Clinton and state Rep. Luanne Van Werven, the Republican opponent in LaClair’s race for the state’s 42nd legislative district. (LaClair lost to the incumbent Van Werven by a vote of 55-45 percent, according to the latest ballot counts.)

Reached on Monday by phone, LaClair said it seemed Saunders was responding to a Facebook post she wrote, where she expressed disappointment in Donald Trump, and remarks that she considered racist and misogynist.

She had never met Saunders, but her number was posted on a campaign site. LaClair is grateful, she said, that local police and the prosecutor’s office took the threats seriously enough to bring charges.

On a national level many U.S. voters felt the polarizing 2016 presidential race brought out the worst in Americans.

“I think it emboldened people who were already racist,” LaClair said. “It made those people feel like it’s okay to say these things, in public.”

Saunders, she added, appears to be mentally unstable, and she hopes he gets help. LaClair did not personally encounter other incidents of racism during her campaign. Once another opportunity comes up, she said, she plans to run for public office again.

“By far, the positive experiences outweighed the negative,” she said.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

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