Crime

Judge triples prison time for firefighter who raped Lynden teen

Attorneys argue over plea deal for former firefighter accused of raping Lynden teen

Whatcom County deputy prosecutor Shannon Connor expresses concerns about a plea deal for former Seattle firefighter Michael Sulak during a court appearance in Bellingham, Wash. on May 17, 2016. Sulak’s defense attorney, Bob Butler, argued the pros
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Whatcom County deputy prosecutor Shannon Connor expresses concerns about a plea deal for former Seattle firefighter Michael Sulak during a court appearance in Bellingham, Wash. on May 17, 2016. Sulak’s defense attorney, Bob Butler, argued the pros

A former Seattle firefighter was sentenced to 3 years and 10 months in prison Wednesday, June 8, for the repeated rapes of a Lynden teenager.

Michael James “Suey” Sulak, 54, met the girl through a theater group. He convinced her they were in love, and she ran away from her home to be with him in late December 2013.

She was under 16.

Over four days, as her family frantically searched for her, Sulak raped the girl: in a trailer outside his Ferndale home and in a pickup in a parking lot near his Queen Anne firehouse, according to charging papers.

He was eventually arrested, and a plea deal suggested Sulak serve a year in jail on a special sex offender sentencing alternative and, upon his release, he’d continue to be monitored and get treatment for sexual deviancy.

At the time the girl and her family supported the deal. That changed, however, and police reports emerged alleging another teenager had been sexually abused by Sulak, when he was a youth pastor in the ’90s.

The Lynden girl came out against the deal at a sentencing hearing in May, and the deputy prosecutor, Shannon Connor, expressed concerns about Sulak’s progress in treatment. Sulak’s defense attorney, Bob Butler, argued the prosecution undermined the deal.

Butler tried to withdraw the guilty plea. Judge Charles Snyder denied that motion Wednesday and handed down a sentence about three times longer than suggested in the deal.

The charges

Sulak worked for the Seattle Fire Department, a firefighter and charismatic chef who showed off his firehouse recipes on KING5’s “Evening Magazine,” and morning news shows.

He lived with his family in Whatcom County. The girl got to know him through a Lynden theater group. She was “awestruck,” she said, that he was a firefighter. Over the months they flirted. Eventually he started calling her Mrs. Sulak. He told her he loved her.

One night they had sex twice on the catwalk of an auditorium at Meridian High School during a play, according to court records. The girl wasn’t performing that night in fall 2013.

Around Christmas that year, the girl ran away from home. She walked miles to Sulak’s house near Ferndale, with directions she’d saved on her iPod. That night, she stayed in a camper on Sulak’s property. Once his wife was at work and his kids were asleep, Sulak went outside to have intercourse with her.

Sulak, meanwhile, called the girl’s parents and told them she’d shown up at his house asking for a ride to a church function. He’d given her the ride not realizing, he lied, that she had run away.

The girl wanted to go to Seattle with Sulak. Reluctantly, the girl reported, he agreed to take her for two nights. She stayed in his truck in the fire station parking lot. They had sex when he was off duty from work. He talked about getting a divorce and moving to Seattle with the girl.

She returned home Dec. 29, 2013.

I was only 15. I didn’t know what love was. I sit and cry a lot about where I could be in life, but it was taken away.

Girl raped by Michael James Sulak

On her birthday he gave her 24 daisies, her favorite flower, to symbolize how many months were left until they would be married. Around that time the girl’s parents discovered text messages on her iPod with a person in her phone she called “lover.”

“I promise you right here and now: I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to leave you. I want to be with you FOREVER!” the person wrote. There were geo-tagged photos on the iPod, too, of the girl within blocks of Sulak’s firehouse, on the dates she’d gone missing.

After that, she told police what had happened when she went missing. A detective spoke with Sulak in February. He seemed shocked about the allegations at first, but eventually he confirmed the girl’s account.

He turned himself in to the jail and resigned from his job.

Second report

Soon after the story reached the media, a 32-year-old woman reported Sulak raped her, too, in the late ’90s when he was a youth pastor. She finally spoke with a detective in 2014.

According to the account she gave police:

As a teenager she was troubled and using drugs. Her parents asked Sulak, then a youth pastor at Bellingham Covenant Church, to counsel her. They met at McDonald’s or Dairy Queen about once a week. Over time he started asking about her sex life.

One day, when she around 16, she was strung out on “speed” and hadn’t eaten in days, she reported. She biked to Sulak’s house, and he let her in and gave her a sandwich and a Gatorade.

They went to his basement, and she told him she’d sold drugs that day. He knelt in front of her, as if he were going to pray for her. Then he said something to the effect of, “I can’t do this anymore.” He picked her up, set her on a couch, and raped her as she laid there frozen in shock.

She continued to have a sexual relationship with Sulak after that, until he left to become a firefighter, she reported.

Sulak, in a psychosexual exam, admitted to having oral sex with a 17-year-old girl around the year 2000 — which could be considered sexual misconduct with a minor under Washington state law. But no charges were filed. The statute of limitations had passed. A sheriff’s detective filed a report nonetheless, because “Michael’s M.O. appears to be similar.”

The first sentencing hearing

Sulak pleaded guilty as charged in February 2016, to unlawful harboring of a minor and three counts of child rape in the third degree.

Since the charges came to light, and his face was broadcast in the media, Sulak has shaved off his distinctive handlebar mustache. He looked thinner, like a different man, as he delivered a statement to the judge at a sentencing hearing May 4.

“I take full responsibility for the choices that I made, and for the pain, heartache and brokenness that I caused,” he began. “I was the adult. I blame no one but myself for what happened. I was living a two-faced lie, filled with pride and selfishness.”

In the letter he apologized to the girl and each of her parents.

“I’m sorry beyond words,” Sulak said. “No excuses, no justification. Just tears, for they are often the only words a heart can speak.”

The girl from Lynden read a five-minute written statement of her own, at a breathless pace, about how Sulak manipulated her and her parents into trusting him.

“My parents were driving all over the county looking for me,” she said, “while I was just sitting in a trailer in his backyard, where he told me to stay hidden, until his kids went to bed and his wife left for work, when he continued to rape me.”

Her entire family has suffered, she said. To cope, she self-medicated with drugs and she has gone through rehab. Her bright future, she said, seems to have “disappeared.”

“I was only 15,” she said. “I didn’t know what love was. I sit and cry a lot about where I could be in life, but it was taken away. I will never get it back, and I will never be the same.”

The judge asked her if she still supported a sentence of one year.

“No,” she said. “I want more.”

Legal battles

A Superior Court judge is not bound by a plea bargain. A judge can impose as much jail time as state law allows. Yet it’s rare for a judge to deviate from the suggested sentence.

State sentencing guidelines suggest a range of 46 to 60 months in prison for third-degree child rape for someone like Sulak, who had no felony history.

The deputy prosecutor, Shannon Connor, has stood behind the deal suggesting 12 months. To the judge she expressed some second thoughts, however, last month.

“I struggle,” she said, “in that I made an agreement. But I also review all the facts, and I am more concerned about community safety, and the fact that he hasn’t seemed to have progressed as far as I had expected in the treatment.”

By the end of that hearing Sulak’s attorney, Butler, said he wanted to withdraw the plea. Butler said the prosecutor shifted positions and undermined the deal.

This week Butler gave the court a letter from Sulak’s therapist, who stated the defendant still needs to work on his destructive emotional patterns, but that overall he has demonstrated “a sincere commitment to change.”

Butler also argued in court that taking the other woman’s report into consideration could taint the case.

“It becomes a trial within a trial, after a plea, but before sentencing,” Butler said at a hearing this week. “That’s an impossible bell to un-ring.”

Judge Snyder denied his motion to take back the plea. Snyder noted the prosecutor does not have to enthusiastically support the deal.

Minutes later, the judge sentenced Sulak to 46 months, within the standard range The more he’d thought about the case and Sulak’s history, he said, the less he felt that the sentence of one year seemed appropriate.

“I think this is a case where the collateral consequences are greater than many others,” Snyder said. “The number of people who have been harmed and the way that has occurred, the extent that has occurred, and the things it has taken from the victim and her family — is very, very significant.”

Butler plans to appeal.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

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