Another year has ended and with it came reports from the somber to the heartening. The San Juan Journal staff looked at the biggest headlines of the past 12 months. We chose the top 10 from our most-read online articles and issues that impacted the communities. Stories include three high-profile crimes, the looming extinction of the area’s resident orcas, the tipping point of an affordable housing shortage and a contentious island election. See next week for part 2.
1) Solutions rev up as orca population dwindles
In the summer of 2018, an orca mother carried her dead calf for 17 days, then a sick, adolescent killer whale went missing and was presumed dead. By September, the Southern resident orca population reached a 30-year low, forcing government authorities to expedite solutions to save the endangered species.
In December, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee proposed $1 billion in the next biennium’s budget to protect the orcas. Most suggestions came from a task force advising the governor on solutions. The task force’s recommendations ranged from the popular – helping Chinook salmon return to the Columbia River to spawn – to the controversial – temporarily suspending viewing the Southern residents by boats. In 2019, whale supporters will look for Inslee and the Legislature to implement suggestions.
In the meantime, orca advocates have relied on volunteer efforts.
Last spring, state fish and wildlife managers called for a voluntary “no-go” zone along San Juan’s west side. In the summer of 2018, San Juan County staff also dispensed 250 whale warning flags. The flags are voluntarily raised by those on land or vessels to signify when orcas are nearby, alerting others to slow down or possibly change course.
The county government helped further by increasing fees to provide cleaner water for both the local people and marine life, like the orcas. Starting in 2019, county landowners will pay more to clean stormwater before it reaches drinking water and the Salish Sea. Other projects supported by the charge include increasing fish spawning and passages. County staff says it is the lowest of such fees in the state.
2) County works to end affordable housing shortage
It’s heard in the county council chambers to the dinner table: there are not enough affordable places to live on the islands. The shortage creates a myriad of problems; locals face unstable living conditions, employers can’t find workers who can afford to live in the area and the socio-economic diversity of the islands lessens.
A San Juan County report found that almost half of islanders cannot afford nearly 80 percent of the houses on the islands. This year, county staff stepped up to help.
Voters approved a Real Estate Excise Tax in the November general election after the county council sent the initiative to the ballots.
The tax is only applied in the sale of a home. It is expected to generate roughly $15 million in the next 12 years to maintain or build local housing for low- or middle-income residents, as well as those with disabilities.
Starting in late December, a 0.5 percent tax will be added to sales, so a home priced at $500,000 will incur a REET of $2,500 that the buyer must pay and the seller will pay $25.
The county staff is also selling land on Lopez Island for long-term permanent rentals and purchasing property on San Juan for an affordable housing project. In addition, the county and the San Juan Family Resource Center teamed up to launch a pilot home share program, matching those in need of housing to live with those with spare room.
3) Shaw Island murder solved, but mystery remains
Eric A. Kulp, 45, received almost 16 years in prison for the murder of his wife Abigail Finney, 38. He was sentenced on Sept. 17. When he is released, the department of corrections staff will supervise him for three years.
Finney was missing for almost four months before her body was located in a minivan last April, on the Shaw Island property she shared with her husband. Kulp’s whereabouts were unknown when the body was found, but eight days later, deputies detained him after a standoff in Skagit County. He stabbed himself repeatedly in the abdomen and neck prior to being apprehended.
According to court documents, Kulp has previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and involuntarily committed several times.
Investigators determined that Finney died on the evening of Nov. 22, 2017, or the following morning. The autopsy could not determine the cause of death because her body was too decomposed, but the investigation showed Finney was murdered.
Kulp pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree murder on Aug. 3 as part of a plea agreement, which dropped an unlawful imprisonment charge. In exchange for the plea, prosecutors requested the sentence he received.
Kulp did not provide a confession, but at the Aug. 3 hearing, he presented a statement that read, “On or between Nov. 22-23, 2017. … I did assault and thereby cause the death of Abigail Jane Finney.” Court documents state that Kulp understands there are “unanswered questions” about the case but it is “intensely painful and disturbing” for him to discuss the details.
4) Prosecutor race controversy
San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randall Gaylord was re-elected for his sixth consecutive term against his opponent Nick Power, a local attorney, by about 63 percent of the votes. Gaylord initially won the seat in 1994.
The hotly contested race was fueled by a complex criminal case. A jury found an Orcas High School teacher guilty of misconduct with a student, but then it was discovered that the student had an alleged sexual relationship with the case’s lead detective Stephen Parker. The original misconduct case was thrown out and the teacher, represented by Power, threatened to sue the county for $1 million in damages for violating the teacher’s constitutional rights by not giving him a fair trial. An independent investigation conducted by Skagit County could not prove Parker had sex with the victim but found he showed disrespectful conduct toward her, used aliases to hide communication with her and shared details of other cases with her.
After announcing his candidacy for prosecuting attorney, Power tried to petition “citizen charges” against Parker. Power attempted to show that because the prosecutor’s office failed to charge Parker with a crime, it was his duty to get justice. The San Juan County District Court judge rejected the petition and stated there was no wrongdoing on behalf of the prosecutor’s office. The case went to San Juan County Superior Court, where the motion was also denied.
Gaylord has maintained that he sent the case to Skagit County because it was a conflict of interest for him to try the case in San Juan County. Skagit declined to press charges against Parker.
That spring, Power also filed a motion against San Juan County stating they infringed his First Amendment rights by enforcing a code limiting the posting of political signage except for 45 days within an election. Power claimed the ordinance helped Gaylord win his elected position over the last 15 years because it limited opponents’ campaign signs. The county maintained it never enforced the ordinance. Sparks flew when county auditor Milene F. Henley wrote a guest column calling the ordinance a guideline rather than a rule. Power fired back with a lawsuit claiming that her column admitted that the county had an unconstitutional code in its books.
Power’s lawsuit – seeking a retraction of Henley’s column – went to Federal District Court where the request was denied.
By August, attorneys representing Power and the county mutually agreed to dismiss the case.
5) Crimes involving minors
Two sex crimes involving minors shook the islands this year. One case was settled in court, while the other is pending a trial.
At the sentencing, an advocate read a statement from the victim’s mother, who wrote her son experienced depression and talked of self-harm after the crime. The defendant’s parents, Pat and Stephanie O’Day, stated that drugs and alcohol-impaired O’Day’s judgment. She is now reportedly sober.
The sexual encounters occurred on Oct. 23, 29 and 30, 2017, when the minor’s father was out of town. O’Day was known to the father and son.
Shortly after being charged in 2017, O’Day went to Mexico, even though there was a warrant issued for her arrest. No additional charges were filed against her for leaving the country.
In the other case, a homeless man named Sean Michael Hunter, 24, is facing felonies from three cases of alleged rape involving three victims, two of which were 12 and 14 years old. The alleged assaults took place on Sept. 13, 16 and 17, on San Juan Island. In two of the cases, he allegedly gave the two young girls alcohol and marijuana before assaulting them. Hunter pleaded not guilty to all of his charges on Monday, Oct. 15, in San Juan County Superior Court.
His court date is scheduled for Feb. 5, 2019.
WHAT WAS SAID IN 2018
“The problems faced by orcas and salmon are human-caused, and we as Washingtonians have a duty to protect these species.” — Gov. Jay Inslee, in March, after creating a task force to the endangered Southern resident killer whales and their main food source of Chinook salmon.
“It’s not just those in the service industry [who need affordable housing]. It’s also business owners and teachers.” — OPAL Board President Tim Fuller at an August roundtable discussion on affordable housing.
“I’m very sorry. I will learn from this, and it won’t happen again.” — Kelsey O’Day after she was sentenced 13 months in prison for child rape in August.