Crime

‘You tried to kill who I am, but I am a survivor’ woman says as ex-officer sent to prison

Domestic violence victim addresses ex-Bellingham cop in court

A domestic violence victim addresses former Bellingham Police officer Brooks Laughlin before his sentencing Dec. 12, 2018. Laughlin will spend eight years in prison after being found guilty of five felonies and four misdemeanors in November.
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A domestic violence victim addresses former Bellingham Police officer Brooks Laughlin before his sentencing Dec. 12, 2018. Laughlin will spend eight years in prison after being found guilty of five felonies and four misdemeanors in November.

A former Bellingham Police officer will spend less than a decade in prison after being found guilty of nine charges relating to a pattern of domestic violence abuse of a woman from September 2016 until his arrest this spring.

Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Deborra Garrett sentenced former Cpl. Brooks Owen Laughlin, 33, to eight years in prison Wednesday, with three years probation. Laughlin will be required to complete mental health and domestic violence treatment, and is prohibited from owning firearms. A no-contact order was put in place between Laughlin and the woman for 25 years.

Laughlin was found guilty by a jury on Nov. 13 of three counts of felony second-degree assault, one count of felony stalking, one count of felony harassment, two counts of misdemeanor violation of a no-contact order, one count of misdemeanor harassment and one count of misdemeanor fourth-degree assault.

The jury also determined aggravating factors that stated Laughlin’s conduct was part of an ongoing pattern of abuse manifested by physical incidents over a prolonged period of time, that some of the abuse took place in front of his minor children from a previous marriage and that he acted with deliberate cruelty toward the victim.

The 25-year-old woman told the court Wednesday that she still has physical scars on her arm and above her eye, as well as damage to her left eardrum and memory loss from the physical violence inflicted upon her by Laughlin. She said the emotional scars come in the form of anxiety, waiting to be yelled at over the simplest tasks and over-analyzing texts she receives and the way people speak to and look at her.

The Bellingham Herald does not typically identify victims of domestic violence or sexual assault.

She said she missed milestones with her family and friends, including getting to say goodbye to a loved one, due to the isolation Laughlin caused.

“Brooks tried to take my life … but he also tried to take my life mentally and emotionally. I can’t shake the feeling of his hands around my throat, his fists pummeling my body and him spitting in my face. These scars will remind me of the physical trauma I suffered for the rest of my life,” the woman said. “I have lost so much because of this man, things I can never get back — hopes and dreams that he stole away from me.”

The woman said Laughlin had shown no remorse for his actions and had instead tried to discredit, blame and embarrass her. At the end of her almost five-minute statement, she turned around, directly faced Laughlin and read a portion of her statement.

“I refuse to dwell on the ugliness you created. I survived. You tried to kill who I am, but I am a survivor. I had to hide from myself to protect me from you, but now I can emerge from hiding and flourish again. Through this journey I have seen the true, unconditional love from my family, friends, colleagues, community and perfect strangers. I have chosen to walk forward from this seeing the beauty of their unconditional love and support instead of the pain and trauma you inflicted,” the woman said. “I am strong, I am kind, I am beautiful, I smile often and I laugh loud. I am me. Every cell in our body is destroyed and replaced every seven years — how comforting it is that one day I will have a body that you have never touched.”

Brooks Laughlin sentencing
Former Bellingham Police Cpl. Brooks Owen Laughlin, right, was sentenced to 8 years in prison Wednesday in Whatcom County Superior Court. He was found guilty in November of physically abusing a woman from September 2016 until his arrest last spring. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald


Laughlin resigned from duty effective 5 p.m. April 20, according to Bellingham Police Chief David Doll. Laughlin was previously put on paid administrative leave on Feb. 14, four days after his first arrest on Feb. 10. Laughlin was arrested again a month later on March 27, after the woman disclosed violations of a no-contact order and the abuse to police.

Laughlin had been with the Bellingham Police Department for 13 years and was promoted to corporal on Jan. 9.

The Bellingham Police Department had known about Laughlin’s history of domestic violence since at least January 2017, but some sheriff’s deputies and the woman’s family have had concerns about Laughlin’s conduct since 2015, according to records obtained by The Bellingham Herald.

Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney David McEachran argued that Laughlin’s sentences for the felony crimes should run consecutively to each other, rather than being served at the same time. He also asked the judge to impose an exceptional sentence above the standard range for Laughlin’s convictions, based on the several aggravating factors found by the jury. In total, McEachran recommended a sentence of 15 years.

“In this case the defendant created an ongoing culture of physical force, extreme control and constant surveillance that permeated the entire life of (the woman), and made her the ultimate domestic violence victim. Her freedom of choice was taken over by the defendant and she was threatened, coerced and beat on nearly a daily basis. The facts of this case show a man who was out of control and posed an extreme threat to (the woman),” McEachran wrote in a sentencing recommendation to the court. “This is truly one of the most serious domestic violence cases that I have seen, short of a homicide, in my career in this office.”

Laughlin’s defense attorney, Doug Hyldahl, also asked for an exceptional sentence, but one below the standard range. He argued that Laughlin was a good police officer while he worked for the department, tried to be a good father and man and that he was not a danger to the community. Hyldahl said Laughlin had several opportunities, including during both of his arrests, to act out violently, but didn’t do so.

“We aren’t very good at predicting dangers, but one of the best predictors of it is what has happened in the past. Brooks had the opportunity and he did not try to take it at all,” Hyldahl said. “Brooks is not a psycho, he is not a monster. He is a man who had a problem and a man who made a lot of wrong choices.”

As part of his argument in asking for a shorter prison sentence, Hyldahl had Dr. Roland Maiuro testify about Laughlin’s mental health. Maiuro, who is a clinical and forensic psychologist and has studied domestic violence, said Laughlin had been diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder as early as his first arrest and had since been receiving an aggressive medication regimen.

Maiuro said people who have bipolar disorder can oftentimes be successful and the disorder won’t be recognized until something happens and they have an inability to regulate their mood, which causes them to become self-destructive and lose their judgment. Maiuro said that people with bipolar disorders can be effectively treated.

Maiuro said Laughlin’s disorder had been brewing for a long time and that it added an extremity to his behavior. Maiuro said he classified Laughlin’s case of domestic violence in the moderate-to-severe range, and said that he believed Laughlin could function without violence toward others if he complied with treatment.

Hyldahl said while Laughlin’s mental illness was not an excuse for his actions, it did help explain them. Hyldahl asked for three years, saying the sentence should be a chance at redemption and give Laughlin the opportunity to put his life back together.

Laughlin 1
A frame grab of Bellingham Police Cpl. Brooks Laughlin pulled from police body camera footage filmed on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. Bellingham Police Department Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Laughlin told the court he was sorry for his actions, and apologized to the woman, her family and other local law enforcement officers. He said he was sorry his actions had pulled him away from his children and said he tried to be the best father he could.

Laughlin explained that at the time of his second arrest in late March, the Bellingham Police Department and the Everson Police Department had tried to use a ruse to get him to turn himself in. He lived near an elementary school and they wanted to make the situation safe, according to officers who testified during the sentencing hearing. Laughlin said he was aware he was going to be arrested on new charges and turned himself in without incident.

He also said he had no disciplinary issues while in jail and gave several other examples of good behavior. Laughlin said he planned to continue seeking mental health treatment and hoped he could use his experience to show others in law enforcement the warning signs and to promote self-care.

“I am not the person I was back then. I am not a danger to anyone. I will actively seek counseling in addition to medication, I will continue down my spiritual walk. All I want is to be with my daughters,” Laughlin said.

Judge Garrett declined to sentence Laughlin to an exceptional sentence or run his sentences consecutively, which she said was reserved for only the most extreme and unique cases.

Garrett said she could see the effects of the psychological aspects of the domestic violence on the woman, but was optimistic for her. Garrett said she had faith that the woman was strong and had survived and would continue to heal with support from friends and family.

Garrett also said she was glad to see Laughlin have support from family and friends and that he was no longer isolating himself. Garrett did say she had concerns about a similar pattern of domestic violence occurring in the future.

“This case was tragic and in so many of its aspects and it has hugely damaged virtually everyone who was involved in this relationship and no one more seriously than (the victim), although it has very much damaged Brooks Laughlin as well,” Garrett said. “If we could turn back time, there are so many things that we might suggest to prevent events like this from occurring. But that’s not what we can do, so that’s why we look at redemption and where we can go from here.”

Laughlin was the third Bellingham Police officer to be arrested in as many years for assaultive behavior. Former officer Sukhdev Singh Dhaliwal, 32, was sentenced Monday to 240 hours of community service for a fight that occurred with his brother outside a Blaine business in mid-October 2017.

In fall 2016, officer Jacob Esparza was fired after he was arrested on domestic violence charges. Esparza pleaded guilty in June 2017 to one count of harassment (domestic violence) and was sentenced to serve 364 days in jail, with 362 suspended.

Whether someone has asked you for help or you sense someone is in distress, here are some general guidelines to help support possible victims of abuse, be it physical, emotional, sexual, psychological or financial.

Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County:

24 Hour Help Line 360-715-1563

Administrative Line — 360-671-5714

Email: info@dvsas.org

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.
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