Lynden man guilty of hate crime for racial death threats aimed at Lummi candidate

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 Lynden man pleaded guilty to a hate crime for sending racial slurs and death threats to a Lummi woman running for the Washington State House of Representatives.

Skip Edward Saunders, 33, must serve three months in jail for bombarding Sharlaine LaClair with disturbing text messages in the lead-up to the November election, a Superior Court judge ruled Thursday. LaClair, a Democrat and a Lummi tribal leader, was running for the state House.

“Eat (expletive) and die you inbred piece of (n-word) (expletive),” read the first message, sent Oct. 23. The sender said that he’d be voting for Hillary Clinton, but that LaClair would be “going into an oven” if Donald Trump won. The messenger named people the candidate knew, and accused them of beating women, and other disturbing things. To LaClair’s horror he hurled insults about her son, too.

At one point the man identified himself: “Saunders out!!!”

“Who is this?” asked LaClair.

He told her to check her Twitter page, and she told him she’d call the police. The phone belonged to Saunders, according to charging papers. On his Facebook page Saunders posted photos of Clinton and LaClair’s opponent in the race.

Saunders is Native American. His mother, a member of the Quinault tribe, died from complications following a knee surgery in 2012. Like her son, she, too, struggled with mental illness, said Fran Dodson, who has become a surrogate mother to Saunders.

“Skip’s story is a story of a system that has no place for somebody like him,” Dodson said. “What I see in the future is a continual cycling in and out of jail, getting out, and trying to survive until he screws up again.”

Years ago Dodson met Saunders through her daughter, Lori Thompson. Since then Saunders has lost both of his parents, Dodson said, and his mental health has gone “downhill.” So they have offered him housing at times and helped him to get treatment, as much as possible. But it has been a long painful lesson in the inefficiencies of an overburdened system. Saunders was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizo-affective disorder in brief, incomplete evaluations, Dodson said. Without a full diagnosis, however, it’s difficult to get the right medication.

Meanwhile Saunders has gone through many jobs, and never stayed long because he would make bizarre, inappropriate statements to co-workers or customers, or deluded behavior would get him fired. Once at a barista job, Dodson said, Saunders cleaned out a fridge and threw everything away. One of his major delusions is to personify a location or a group of people – Lynden, Lummi, Bellingham – and to make strange generalized comments about how they are full of pedophiles, “inbreds” or, in the case of Lynden, good people.

“It’s almost like someone who has Tourette’s (syndrome), who spews profanities from time to time,” Dodson said. “Yet he’s a really gentle soul.”

His mental problems are compounded by substance abuse, Dodson said: A small amount of alcohol makes him black out, and in the past he smoked marijuana chronically. Earlier this year, in February, Saunders was charged with making repeated threats to kill a member of his church in Lynden. Saunders used a gay slur to describe his friend and another man.

“I will break your (expletive) necks in the middle of that (gay slur) church,” he said, in a voicemail.

Saunders told Whatcom County sheriff’s deputies he left the voicemails when he was drunk, according to charging papers. The messages were stupid, he said, and he did not know why he sent them. He was charged with felony harassment, but pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and applied for mental health court, a program that offers housing, rides and other benefits to severely mentally ill defendants, if they keep a clean record.

On his way to a mental health court hearing in November, Saunders was arrested on charges of harassing LaClair. Once those charges were filed, Saunders was rejected from the mental health court program. To Dodson, it’s a Catch-22. To address his mental illness Saunders needs treatment, but his mental illness prevents him from abiding by the rules of his treatment.

“I kept thinking,” she said, “how does anybody navigate the system, who doesn’t have an advocate? What about someone who’s homeless, mentally ill and out on the street?”

Last month LaClair said she hoped Saunders gets the help he needs. She lost her race in the state’s 42nd Legislative District to incumbent Luanne Van Werven, a Republican, who strongly denounced Saunders’ comments.

Saunders pleaded guilty Thursday to malicious harassment, the state’s hate crime law. At his sentencing hearing he told Superior Court Judge Deborra Garrett he plans to refrain from using social media. On top of a jail sentence Saunders will be on probation for the next two years, through Whatcom County District Court. The probation office has a mental health division that can help him find treatment.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb