Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories looking at issues and topics that surround the Polk County public safety levy that will appear on the May 19 vote-by-mail ballot.
POLK COUNTY — The night of Oct. 5, 2014, two men broke into several cars, including a truck, parked on Northwest Denton Avenue in Dallas and grabbed a safe containing a 45 mm pistol.
With their action, the suspects — we will call them “Smash” and “Grab” — started a law enforcement investigation that led to prosecution involving two police agencies, the Polk County Jail, the Polk County District Attorney’s Office, Polk County Drug Court and Polk County Community Corrections.
While this was no blockbuster case — in fact District Attorney Aaron Felton described it as “bread and butter” — it is an example of how the public safety departments in Polk County have to work as a team to hold criminals accountable.
“It’s very much a system. People don’t quite fully get that,” said Marty Silbernagel, community corrections director. “If you have more deputies on the road, that is only one piece. We need (deputy) DAs to prosecute and PO (parole officers) to supervise. If one of those is not there, it’s out of whack.”
In an effort to keep that system in balance, the Polk County Board of Commissioners has placed a five-year, 45 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value tax levy on the May 19 ballot for voters to consider.
Here’s a look at how that system works.
Dallas police, who took the victim’s report, was the first member of that team to work the case. Officers lifted fingerprints off the victims’ cars and sent them to the Salem Police Department Crime Lab for analysis.
On Nov. 24, officers were given their first lead when the prints came back as those of Smash. Officers found and questioned him about the gun theft and other car break-ins. He admitted his involvement and also told police about his partner in crime, Grab.
Further interviews revealed the two had taken the pistol and sold it for methamphetamine and cash, with the help of a third suspect we will call “Middleman.”
After taking the gun, Smash and Grab hitchhiked to Salem to find Middleman.
They agreed to sell the pistol for $100 and methamphetamine. Middleman’s services in finding a buyer ended up being expensive, $40 and half the methamphetamine.
Dallas police asked for Salem PD’s assistance in finding Middleman.
Following interviews with each of the suspects, police arrested Smash on Nov. 24, Middleman on Nov. 26 and Grab on Nov. 27.
Dallas police took the suspects to Polk County Jail to await arraignment in Polk County Circuit Court. Regardless of jurisdiction — Dallas, Independence, Monmouth, West Salem, Oregon State Police — each arrestee is taken to the county jail in Dallas and the case placed in the hands of the Polk County District Attorney’s Office. Both agencies — in particular the DA — struggle against reduced staffing levels to finish the job officers begin.
With the exception of charging the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde for holding suspects until they are charged in Polk County Circuit Court, the jail holds inmates at no charge.
Even suspects charged in city courts are held for free. Sheriff Bob Wolfe said someday that may have to change.
“I really do not want to go there,” Wolfe said. “The cities help pass the bond and the commissioners said they won’t charge them. But times have changed, costs have gone up. I’m trying to keep from passing on that cost.”
Police also hand over evidence and reports to the DA for prosecution.
District Attorney Aaron Felton said that begins with reviewing the case and determining appropriate charges.
That has to happen fast. Charges have to be filed with the court by 10:30 a.m. the next business day or suspects may be released. With a staff of four prosecutors — including Felton — and a full schedule of court hearings, trials and other cases coming in, that puts the office under the gun.
Initially, Smash was charged with two counts of first-degree theft and unlawful entry into a motor vehicle; Grab with one count of first-degree theft and unlawful entry into a motor vehicle; and Middleman with first-degree theft for his role in selling the gun.
On Dec. 3, a grand jury indicted them on those charges.
These cases did not go to trial, but still had several court hearings before each suspect agreed to plea bargains.
Smash pleaded guilty to first-degree theft on Feb. 10 and was recommended for the drug court, given his criminal history and issues with drugs.
Grab pleaded guilty to first-degree theft in December and was sentenced to 18 months of probation, given his lack of criminal history and cooperation.
Middleman pleaded guilty to first-degree theft and sentenced to 18 months of probation, though that may be in danger as he’s been accused of not reporting to his parole officer.
“This is a bread-and-butter case,” Felton said. “That was really good police work. … We were able to work out plea agreements with all of them. We convicted them all.”
But just to get there — charging them, attending court hearings, negotiating and preparing for a potential trial — takes weeks or months of work and money.
“All that is in the context of doing the same thing with other cases,” Felton said.
Now convicted of crimes, the trio is in the hands of Polk County’s drug court and community corrections office.
While this case involved felony charges, many plea deals end in misdemeanor convictions, Silbernagel said. His office is allocated funding from the state to supervise offenders based on felony convictions, so fewer deputies on the road and fewer prosecutors to work on felony cases means his office will suffer.
Silbernagel is already seeing a downward trend in the number of cases under supervision due to a declining number of arrests with fewer deputies on duty and says without the levy that will continue.
“It’s big circle, how we work together,” he said.
Timeline of a Case
Example of a Polk County criminal case and the agencies involved:
• Oct. 5, 2014 — Two thieves break into a truck on Northwest Denton Avenue in Dallas, stealing a safe with a 45 mm pistol inside. They decide to sell the pistol for drugs and cash.
• Oct. 6, 2014 — The owner of the truck reports the theft to Dallas police, who start an investigation into that and similar incidents in the area. Officers lift fingerprints off vehicles and send them to Salem Police Department’s Crime Lab.
• Nov. 24, 2014 — Fingerprint analysis identifies one of the suspects. Police interview that suspect, who admits breaking into cars and eventually to stealing the gun. The first suspect also tells police about his partner in the break-ins. Police interview the second suspect as well, who describes the theft and identifies yet another person involved in selling the gun.
• Nov. 24, 2014 — First suspect is taken to Polk County jail.
• Nov. 25, 2014 — Polk County District Attorney’s Office charges are filed on first suspect.
• Nov. 26, 2014 — Officers located the third suspect, who helped the first two sell the pistol for drugs and money. He admits to his involvement and is taken to jail.
• Nov. 27, 2014 — Second suspect is arrested and taken to jail.
• Nov. 28, 2014 — DA files initial charges on second and third suspects.
• Dec. 3, 2014 — Polk County Grand Jury indicts all three suspects.
• Dec. 23-24, 2014 — Second and third suspects plead guilty to first-degree theft charges and are sentenced to 18 months of probation.
• Feb. 10, 2015 — First suspect pleads guilty to first-degree theft and is assigned to Polk County Drug Court, with the stipulation that if he fails in the program, he will serve prison time.
• March 13, 2015 — Third suspect is due back in court on a possible probation violation.