Crime

Bellingham cop fired; arrested on domestic violence, assault charges

Belleville News-Democrat

A Bellingham police officer terminated last week for misconduct was arrested after he allegedly attacked his ex-wife and threatened to kill her, according to charging documents and police officials.

Jacob C. Esparza, 34, of Lynden, faces charges of domestic violence harassment and fourth-degree assault stemming from a Nov. 5 incident at his Kok Road home. He was arraigned Friday in Whatcom County Superior Court. The harassment charge is a felony; the assault charge is a misdemeanor.

Bellingham police spokeswoman Lt. Danette Beckley said Esparza still was an officer when he was arrested on the charges but was on paid administrative leave because of a separate issue. He was terminated Dec. 2, following a Nov. 28 disciplinary hearing, according to a Bellingham Police Department statement issued Tuesday afternoon.

According to the statement, department officials learned July 26 that Esparza may have violated department policies. He was placed on leave Aug. 8, pending an investigation conducted by an outside agency. The investigation was finished Sept. 13 and a report was submitted Oct. 17.

“A thorough review of the report resulted in sustained violations of the department’s policies regarding employee conduct,” the statement said. “Following a pre-disciplinary meeting (also known as a Loudermill meeting) on Nov. 28, 2016, the chief of police determined that Officer Esparza’s misconduct warranted termination of his employment.”

Beckley said Esparza had been a patrol officer, but she didn’t know how long he had been with the force. City records indicate that he was on the payroll since at least 2011.

Beckley said the police department could not comment further, including the details of department policies that Esparza was accused of violating. It was unknown which agency conducted the internal investigation, and whether Esparza remained eligible for a pension and benefits.

A representative from the Bellingham Police Guild, the officers’ union, could not be immediately reached.

According to court documents, the incident that led to his arrest began as Esparza’s ex-wife arrived at his house to get their four children, all under age 10, after a visitation. Esparza filed for divorce in January 2016 and it was final in June. With the children in the ex-wife’s van, she and Esparza argued.

“At this point Jacob moved very close to her and told her that he was going to kill her,” the charging documents said. “(She) felt very threatened and kneed Jacob Esparza in the groin to move him away from her … Jacob then put his hands around her throat, pushed her against the van, and told her that he would kill her. He wrapped her necklace around his hand and broke it at this time. She was then pinned against her car by Jacob, who had his hands around her throat.”

Lynden Police Chief Jack Foster said Tuesday that authorities learned of the incident Nov. 19, when Esparza’s ex-wife reported the alleged attack, some two weeks after the incident.

“She said she didn’t want to get him into more trouble,” Foster said.

Foster said his officers took the woman’s statement, then contacted the Whatcom County Prosecutor’s Office, and were told to make an immediate arrest. Foster said the felony charge reflected repeated threats against the woman’s life and that the lesser misdemeanor charge was filed because it could not be proven the ex-wife was choked with enough force to cause physical harm.

Foster said the woman did not seek medical treatment after the incident.

Whatcom County Jail records indicate Esparza was booked shortly after midnight Nov. 21. Foster said the delay was because Esparza was away for the weekend, and he was arrested when he returned home. Although Esparza was booked in Whatcom County, he was held at the Skagit County Jail until arrangements were made for his release, Foster said.

“It’s a safety issue.” Foster said. “You can’t put him in with the general population” where he might be recognized as a law enforcement officer.

Foster said a no-contact order was issued before Esparza’s release.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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