As much as we might not want to admit it, the biggest news is always almost bad news. Truly awful news – major crimes, tragic crashes, disturbing abuse – topped the list of The Bellingham Herald’s most-read stories of 2016.
Most of these stories are bleak.
Yet some involve a glimmer of hope. For example, an innocent young woman almost dies in her fiancée’s arms after a horrific car crash, but instead she fights to survive, and does.
The following are the top 10 local crime and public safety stories of the year based on our online readership, in no particular order:
High-speed T-bone crash shears car in half, leaves Lynden woman in critical condition
A high-speed crash in Bellingham sheared a car in half and left a young Lynden woman fighting for her life in January.
Katherine Robins and her fiancé Dakota Buttrey were driving east from Bellingham International Airport in a gray 1990 Volvo. As the Volvo went through the intersection at Northwest Avenue, a Hyundai Azera ran a red light.
The cars collided with such force that the Volvo was ripped in half and exploded. A door came to rest on the roof of the nearby Heritage Bank. A wheel shot through the bank’s window.
Buttrey somehow escaped with no serious injuries. Police found Robins, 20, in a “portion” of the Volvo. She had suffered massive, severe injuries.
“Everyone thought I was going to die, and the doctors were shocked that I lived,” Robins said in a written statement to a judge.
The other driver ran off, leaving blood and hair on the Hyundai’s front windshield. Around midnight John Reinard Owens, 39, emerged from the woods by his mother’s house, about 1 ½ miles from the crash. Police were waiting for him.
“Half an inch one way or the other, and this would have been a vehicular homicide case,” Deputy Prosecutor Christopher Quinn said.
At his sentencing hearing in June his attorney, Jeff Lustick, gave an overview of Owens’ life: abandoned as a child by his father; abused physically and sexually; counseled for mental problems as early as second grade; a witness to the gruesome death of a friend at age 15; addicted to drugs and alcohol; and mentally ill.
Superior Court Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis sentenced Owens to 26 months in prison, as suggested by a plea deal.
Still no leads in October robbery at Meridian Street Peoples Bank, police say
Bellingham police have no new leads after a man robbed the Peoples Bank branch on Meridian Street in late October.
Bank employees at the branch, at 4183 Meridian St., called the police around 2 p.m. on Oct. 27 to report a man had slipped a note to a teller demanding cash, police said at the time. The man did not appear to have a weapon.
After leaving the bank, he ran south toward the Lovers store at 4179 Meridian, police said.
The man was recorded on the bank’s security cameras. He was described by police as white with a scruffy beard, in his mid- to late-20s. The day of the robbery, he wore a long green trench coat, a camouflage baseball cap and blue jeans.
Detectives canvassed the area immediately after the robbery, and have solicited tips ever since. They later issued a statewide bulletin and asked for more information via social media, said Bellingham police spokeswoman Lt. Danette Beckley.
Police had no new leads as of Dec. 16, Beckley said. A few tips have been investigated but have not panned out. The case is still active.
Bellingham parents neglected and starved infant son, police say
Two Bellingham parents pleaded not guilty in February 2016 to charges of neglecting their 3-month-old infant until he starved. The case of Lucian Mykael Shields, who died Dec. 8, 2015, was The Bellingham Herald’s third most-read crime story online.
An autopsy found that Lucian died from malnutrition, dehydration and “neglect of ordinary care of an infant,” according to the county medical examiner’s office.
The case made national headlines when Brittany Shane Daniels, 23, and Cody James Shields, 23, were arrested to face charges of second-degree manslaughter. They are awaiting trial, tentatively scheduled for February.
At the couple’s first court hearing, Deputy Prosecutor Eric Richey alleged Shields stayed up playing video games the night before Lucian was found dead.
Shields often wore headphones while gaming, and he kept the baby’s bedroom door closed, Richey said, so he couldn’t hear the baby crying.
Shields claimed he fed the baby three times in the night and early morning before Lucian died. Twice he propped the child’s 6-ounce bottle of formula on a blanket and left the room, according to charging papers.
Man awaiting trial in connection with October late-night sword fight
A sword fight ensued following an altercation between two men outside the McDonald’s at King Street in Bellingham on the night of Oct. 16.
The fight ended with a cut to one man’s hand, and police found and arrested the other, Brandon Lee C. Gaona, 26, the next day.
The victim, who had been carrying both swords, told police he and Gaona, who is homeless, had been searching the area for cigarette butts to smoke when Gaona asked to see one of the swords, according to charging papers. When the man drew one from its sheath, Gaona began acting strangely, “wigging out” and demanding to hold the weapon, the man reported.
Gaona then shoved the man to the ground, according to charging papers, and punched him in the face as he tried to get back up. Gaona then picked up the sword, the papers say.
When the man got to his feet, he drew the other sword, and the fight ensued. Both men struck the blades together several times before Gaona hit the man’s hand, leaving a cut, charging papers say. He then ran from the area.
Officers, after taking descriptions from witnesses, tracked down Gaona the next day, and found a black sword in a cart he was pushing. He admitted to being in a sword fight the night before, according to charging papers. He said he was acting in self defense.
Gaona was charged with first-degree robbery on Oct. 20, according to court documents. He is awaiting trial. Proceedings are delayed as he awaited a mental-health evaluation from Western State Hospital.
1 killed, 1 injured in Mount Baker Highway crash
A 23-year-old Deming man is awaiting trial in early 2017 for vehicular homicide in connection with a deadly wreck on Mount Baker Highway in January 2016.
A Washington State Patrol report said that Connor Bloom, driving a 1998 BMW 318, was westbound in the eastbound lanes of Mount Baker Highway, passing a westbound Peterbilt semi near Mission Road.
As he passed, he braked to avoid an oncoming Saturn SL1 driven by Ronald S. Baker, 44, of Maple Falls. Bloom lost control, bounced off the truck and slammed head-on into Baker’s car, killing him.
Bloom, who was injured, admitted he took methamphetamine and marijuana before the crash. Evidence at hearings in 2016 showed that Bloom had been ticketed for speeding three times in 2014 and 2015.
Ferndale chiropractor charged with sexually touching patients
A Ferndale chiropractor was accused in July of sexually touching two of his patients.
One of the women made a deal with Terry Ray Rouse, 55, to trade his chiropractic work for her massage therapy. At one of Rouse’s sessions in spring 2015, he moved his hands from her inner thigh to her genitals and touched her for an extended time, according to charging papers. She told police she “froze, felt dizzy, ashamed, shocked, and overwhelmed,” and she left the room crying.
She figured it was an isolated incident, the charges say, so she did not report it until another woman came forward. In the meantime, she continued going to Rouse for treatment. She later reported he sexually touched her two other times without her consent.
On June 8, a second woman went to police to report Rouse moved his fingers to her genitals as he massaged her. She, too, felt paralyzed. That day she went to St. Joseph hospital for a sex crime examination. It turned out the second woman was a patient of the massage therapist. Days later at an appointment the two women revealed to each other their experiences with Rouse.
Rouse has no criminal record. At a meeting with detectives, he denied that anything inappropriate happened. Any sexual contact with the massage therapist, he said, was consensual. He went on to say he might have accidentally touched the second woman. He recalled apologizing to her.
He was charged with indecent liberties by a health care worker, and he posted $10,000 bond. He is awaiting trial. Rouse’s health care license was suspended by the Department of Health in September. He owns Rouse Chiropractic Clinic at 2068 Vista Drive.
Girlfriend crashes car into Birch Bay building to end kidnapping
A woman intentionally rammed her car into the wall of a Shell station to escape her boyfriend who was threatening to kill her on April 20, 2016.
A clerk at the Bay Center Market in Birch Bay called 911, reporting that the woman – who appeared to have been beaten – mouthed the words: “Help me.” They drove away in a green car, said Chief Criminal Deputy Doug Chadwick of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.
Five minutes later, a dark green Oldsmobile crashed into the wall of a Shell station on Birch Bay-Lynden Road. According to the sheriff’s office, a woman jumped out of the driver’s seat screaming, “He’s going to kill me!”
A man, later identified as Michael Lavon Eisenman, 24, fled from the passenger seat and tried to run, but “a large group of citizens” detained him, according to the sheriff’s office.
He was booked into jail on suspicion of second-degree assault, first-degree kidnapping, and felony harassment.
The woman, 21, had injuries to her face and bruising on her body. They had gotten into an argument, and he pulled out a knife and refused to let her leave the home in Birch Bay.
His trial is tentatively scheduled for February.
Rapes reported in Maritime Heritage Park
A woman reported being raped in June by two strangers in Maritime Heritage Park. Only one suspect has been charged with a crime in the case.
The woman told police she had been walking down Holly Street when a man in cargo pants and a button-down shirt asked for a cigarette. He called himself “Chance.” They were walking on a boardwalk into the park when he shoved her to the ground below. He restrained her and forced her to perform oral sex on a second man who had been nearby, according to charging papers. “Chance” raped her, too, she reported.
Police identified the first suspect as Lance Joseph Rosa, 37, who was staying under a bridge in the park. He bore a “striking resemblance” to a composite sketch released by police, according to the deputy prosecutor, Eric Richey. Rosa had a pierced nipple, as described by the victim, and he gave a DNA sample to police that later turned out to be a match.
He was arrested June 18. At his first court appearance Rosa flipped off the courtroom through a video screen.
A forensic psychologist noted a history of Tourette’s syndrome, a hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse, court records show. In August he was found competent to assist in his legal defense. He awaits a trial date in January.
Police haven’t arrested another suspect. The woman’s description of him was blurrier: white, skinny, perhaps in his 60s.
Two months after that incident, another man was accused of raping another woman in the park. That man, Michael Eugene Huskey, 46, pleaded guilty to assault in the second degree in October, after the victim told law enforcement she didn’t want to pursue the case. Other than the location, Huskey’s case is not connected to the Rosa incident.
Ax attack leaves Bellingham man with skull fractures
An Acme man attacked a couple with an ax in February at a Bellingham apartment.
Charging papers say Patrick Marion Brown, 25, had been having a mental breakdown, fueled by hallucinogens, marijuana, and lack of sleep, before he showed up at an apartment on North Forest Street around 1:50 p.m. Feb. 16, wearing a paintball mask.
He used a single-bit ax with a fiberglass handle to hack at the door and window to get inside to the residents, a man, 32, and a woman, 29, police said.
The couple knew Brown. They fought back, and the 32-year-old man suffered blows to the head from the ax. He suffered a fractured skull and other injuries, the charges say.
Brown ran from the scene but he was in custody minutes later on Garden Street. Officers recovered a meat clever, a steak knife, a roll of duct tape, and the ax.
Brown was charged with first-degree assault, second-degree assault, and first-degree burglary. A few weeks later his girlfriend, 20, reported that Brown had held her at knifepoint in the hours before the North Forest assault. He was charged with second-degree assault in that incident.
He is awaiting trial in both cases.
Elder, child, animal abuse alleged at ‘appalling’ Lynden home
A man was charged in September with neglecting an elderly man, abusing his son, and nearly starving a dog to death at a squalid home near Lynden.
A teenage boy called 911 around 2 p.m. Sept. 18 to report his father, Mitchell Ray O’Donnell, 46, had been beating him daily.
Deputies reached the house at 1520 Birch Bay-Lynden Road minutes later, but instead of seeing the boy or his father, they discovered a confused 77-year-old man lying on a couch on the front porch.
He was coated head-to-toe in feces and urine, according to charging papers. He could not stand, and he could not say his name. An ambulance rushed him to St. Joseph hospital, where staff found – among other signs of extreme neglect – that a disconnected catheter left him with no control over his bladder.
More than an hour later O’Donnell arrived home with his 13-year-old son. He told deputies the 911 call had been a prank. The boy said O’Donnell coached him to give the same story; he was taken into the custody of Child Protective Services.
O’Donnell was arrested. He had power of attorney over the elderly man, his father-in-law, and stated he had been trying to push him toward independence.
Inside the house deputies found the living room floor covered in human feces, charging papers say.
Outside an emaciated dog, a Saint Bernard named Champ, walked around with “ribs and bones grotesquely protruding from his body,” according to charging papers. He was taken by animal control officers. One year earlier O’Donnell had been investigated for starving alpacas and goats, the charges state.
O’Donnell posted bond, but failed to show up for court in December. Deputies went to the home to pick him up on a warrant, and saw him trying to drive away from the house. Pulled over, he identified himself by his dead brother’s name. He was arrested to face new felony charges of criminal impersonation.
O’Donnell still awaits trial on charges of abandonment of a dependent person, criminal mistreatment, felony harassment for threats to kill, and first-degree animal cruelty.