Trial begins on theft of Bellingham police patrol car


A prosecutor said a shoeprint, a cigarette butt and DNA evidence link a Bremerton man to the theft of a Bellingham police car that had its keys in the ignition in November 2008.

Joshua R. Willette, 26, is charged with theft of a motor vehicle and first-degree malicious mischief. His trial began Thursday, Jan. 21, in Judge Ira Uhrig's courtroom in Whatcom County Superior Court.

Willette's attorney, Andrea Robertson, said the police department's investigation was flawed and that the evidence is unconnected to him or was improperly processed.

"You'll hear about shoeprints and you'll hear about cigarette butts," Robertson told the jury. "There are no eyewitnesses to this. This case is about finding a scapegoat."

On the night of Nov. 30, 2008, Willette was downtown drinking at Bob's Burgers & Brew with friends while Officer Matthew Allen was patrolling in his car, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Eric Richey said.

At about 11 p.m., Allen was dispatched to deal with a disorderly person. He parked his car in the alley next to the Royal Inn, left the keys in the ignition and went to assist his sergeant in dealing with the person. When he returned about 15 minutes later, the car was gone.

Video surveillance outside the Royal shows the car turning onto Holly Street but doesn't identify who took the car, Richey said.

At one point, the thief spoke on the car's radio, and Richey said that recording will be played to the jury so they can compare it with a recording of Willette speaking.

An officer found the damaged car a half-hour later on some rocks at the end of C Street near Bellingham Bay. Its keys and two microphones to police radios were missing and it had a flat tire.

Outside the car, the officer found a cigarette butt that he believed was recently smoked.

As other officers fanned out to search the area for a suspect, one saw Willette walking on C Street at Girard Street. After a patrol car passed, Willette jumped into a bush, which aroused the officer's suspicions enough to stop and question him.

Robertson said Willette walked into the bush because of his level of intoxication.

When questioned, Willette had a pack of cigarettes on him that was the same brand as the butt found at the car, Richey said.

The officer checked the soles of Willette's shoes and later found a matching print 30 feet from where the car was.

Robertson said that shoeprint is from a common brand of shoe and has been linked to investigations of other crimes unrelated to Willette.

The cigarette butt was sent to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab in Marysville for DNA testing.

Richey said DNA found on the butt matched with DNA Willette voluntarily provided.

Robertson said evidence and testimony to be presented at trial will raise concerns about how that cigarette butt was processed and tested to cast doubts on the test's validity.

Robertson said that neither the stolen microphone or car keys were found on Willette when the officer stopped him. Police used a dog to try to track the scent of the thief from the car; the dog couldn't match Willette as having been near the car, she said.

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