Top stories of 2019 | Part I

At the end of the year, the Journal of the San Juans takes a look at the biggest headlines of the past 12 months. We chose the top stories from our most-read online articles and events we feel impacted our communities. See next week’s Journal for Part II.

No. 1 – San Juan Island EMS and Fire merger proceeds

In April, a Citizen’s Advisory Group concluded in a 117-page report that the San Juan Island Fire and Rescue, San Juan Island Emergency Medical Services should integrate into one within the next two years. The five members of the CAG were selected by the fire district, SJI EMS and the Town of Friday Harbor in April 2018 to consider the merger.

Benefits of a merger, according to the CAG recommendation document, include improved response times; enhanced depth of volunteer resources; a unified command structure; simplified levy management; various financial benefits, including a reduction in staff numbers between the two organizations and reduction in duplication in administrative duties; and unified training opportunities.

For more than 20 years, fire and EMS have been two separate agencies on San Juan Island. The districts for both are different. While EMS provides services on San Juan Island, as well as Brown, Henry, Pearl, Spieden, Johns and Stuart islands, the fire department only provides to San Juan, Brown and Pearl Islands. Friday Harbor is contracted with the fire district and therefore it isn’t included in the district’s property tax levy, it is paid for by part of the town’s property taxes. Annexation would require a vote to increase funding mechanisms which will likely be on the ballot in 2020; options include a levy lift for the fire district or starting an EMS levy under the fire district. According to the CAG report, the existing EMS levy could be retired by the public hospital district board. This would have to be done before the fire district could start collecting an EMS levy.

During a special meeting on Nov. 12, three of the five commissioners voted affirmatively to accept the document to unify the administrative services of San Juan County Fire Protection District No. 3 and San Juan Island EMS. The public hospital district currently oversees EMS while the fire district has its own leadership structure.

As part of the two-year interlocal agreement, the hospital district will pay the fire district $30,000 annually to manage and oversee the administration of EMS, which is currently being provided by the hospital district. The agreement will remain in place until the fire district acquires its advanced life support transport license and a voter-approved funding levy is secured. When these two stipulations are completed, the entities will then enter into a new interlocal agreement for EMS to be fully integrated by the fire district.

No. 2 – Camera mishap causes case dismissal

A zooming camera resulted in a case being thrown out in the San Juan County District Court.

On Saturday, Feb. 2, Judge Donald Eaton, acting as a temporary district court judge, dismissed the charges against Dustin Schible of Lopez Island for criminal trespass, assault in the fourth degree and harassment.

During the trial on Jan. 31, a court security camera zoomed in on various locations around the room, including on a closed jury notebook, a prosecution exhibit, the prosecutor and the defense’s paperwork.

Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord said the zoom was quick and the documents were mostly illegible. It was the final zoom action into the defense’s paperwork that Eaton ruled caused prejudice in the case.

The camera was being operated by someone in the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office or the information technology department at the time of the incident, according to San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs. The prosecution did not see the video before it was aired in court, and therefore claimed that it did not cause prejudice against the defendant, Gaylord said.

According to Krebs, the courtroom was expected to be high tension and he was asked by Gaylord to provide extra security to the courthouse. Due to staffing restrictions, Krebs said he was unable to have a deputy at the courthouse and resorted to checking on the security camera, instead.

Unfamiliar with the way the system operates, Krebs said he double-clicked on the live camera stream to make it full screen and inadvertently zoomed in. The video feed is in the dispatch office. He said it was only on the documents for five to 10 seconds, and nothing was legible.

On Feb. 4, the camera system was updated so that the cameras in the courtrooms can no longer be manipulated or zoomed in as it did during the trial. Eaton announced during a hearing on Feb. 19 that courtroom video of the trial would be unsealed for public release. He allowed Krebs to redact portions that could compromise the security of the courtroom.

No. 3 – San Juan Island EMS fined by state

San Juan Island Emergency Medical Services was fined $350,000 for Medicaid fraud in September.

According to the Washington State Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Division, SJI EMS ordered more than 400 medically unnecessary flights from Island Air Ambulance prior to April 2016.

San Juan County Public Hospital District No. 1 held a special meeting on Oct. 4 wherein it disclosed to the public it had received a letter from Washington Assistant Attorney General Nickolas Bohl stating that SJI EMS had committed Medicaid fraud. The letter, dated Sept. 26, is addressed to the public hospital district’s lawyer James Fredman of Foster Pepper, PLLC of Seattle.

A settlement of $350,000 was requested of SJI EMS by the Medicaid Fraud Control Division. That figure was discounted from an estimate of more than $1 million that it could have been fined: triple the damages plus a fine of more than $11,000 per each violation, Bohls wrote.

SJI EMS was tasked with supplying written assurance that it will abide by Medicaid regulations and must develop and follow protocols for making independent judgments about whether air transportation is medically necessary.

SJI EMS’ responded to the fraud division via letter in November.

“SJI EMS believes that the air ambulance flights it billed to the Washington Medicaid program were appropriate,” Fredman’s letter concluded. “We look forward to beginning a dialogue so that your office and SJI EMS can put this time consuming and unnecessary process behind us.”

The investigation began in September 2015, when SJI EMS and the public hospital district were asked for their compliance in a Civil Investigative Demand wherein the attorney general’s office looked into concerns of Medicaid fraud. In the 25-page document, the attorney’s office requested billing documents, reimbursement claims, forms and “all communication” between Dr. Michael Sullivan, who was the medical director at the time; Jim Cole, who was EMS chief at the time; Dr. Michael Edwards, who was the chairman of the public hospital district; and Larry Wall, who was director of critical care transport, regarding air ambulance service, medical billing or medical reimbursement.

No. 4 – Kaiser denies airlift claims then leaves islands

Since June 2018, Kaiser Permanente was the only insurance provider available in San Juan County outside of through an employer or with Medicaid. In September 2018, islanders began receiving air ambulance denials from Kaiser resulting in bills of thousands of dollars.

In January, a pattern started to emerge with several Kaiser customers receiving a payment denial for their emergency medical air ambulance evacuations off island. Kaiser began denying the flights from patients in the San Juan Islands in September 2018, according to an Island Air representative. There are two emergency air evacuation providers in the islands: AirLift Northwest and Island Air Ambulance.

The Office of the Insurance Commissioner for Washington State released the results of its investigation into the company’s emergency air ambulance denials for San Juan County residents, and the board of health was not satisfied.

San Juan County Director of Health and Human Services Mark Tompkins said at the board’s June 19 meeting that 14 claims denied by Kaiser remain unpaid because the commissioner’s office concluded Kaiser’s denials were valid. The commissioner’s staff has decided to take no further action on the complaints.

Tompkins said that the report wasn’t a complete disappointment; of the 24 total claims denied by Kaiser, six were overturned and Kaiser ultimately paid the provider because of the investigation.

In June, Kaiser announced it would cease providing insurance coverage to residents of San Juan County effective January 2020. LifeWise, an insurance company owned by Premera Blue Cross, moved into the county to fill the vacancy.

No. 5 – San Juan man found guilty of murdering his wife

Editor’s note: The following article contains graphic descriptions.

In July, Kevin Patrick Taylor, a 56-year-old San Juan Island man, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murder of his wife Julie Taylor in September 2016. Julie Taylor was 56.

“This has been a gut-wrenching case,” Island County Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock, who presided over the trial, told the courtroom.

In May, Kevin Taylor was found guilty of felony murder (a death that resulted from felony assault) for the bludgeoning death of his wife as well as arson for starting a fire in Julie Taylor’s car the same night as her murder. The jury also returned special determinations that it was a crime of domestic violence and that the death occurred with a firearm.

Sentencing was originally set for Monday, July 8, however, defense attorney Jason Schwarz filed a motion for a continuance claiming that the state had added new information while calculating restitution.

According to court documents, San Juan County dispatch received a call from someone in the Taylors’ Friday Harbor residence at 1 a.m. on Sept. 3, 2016. A deputy arrived on scene 20 minutes later and found Julie Taylor lying near an open doorway, not moving and with a large pool of blood around her head.

A motorcycle helmet and cat food cans partially covered her face. A .22 rifle broken into pieces lay scattered around her head along with a broken potted plant. Blood spatter covered the adjoining cabinet, walls and ceiling. Kevin Taylor was sitting nearby on a couch, and stated to the deputy, “I got her.” He was placed under arrest. After claiming that his wife had poisoned him, Kevin Taylor was transported to Peace Island Medical Center to be evaluated by emergency room staff. He was medically cleared and booked into San Juan County Jail. The Washington State Patrol Crime Scene Response Team assisted San Juan County in its investigation, collected blood samples and used a 3D imaging camera to photograph the scene. Officers discovered notes on the kitchen counter that said: “I don’t feel a heartbeat, I win!! Bitch,” “I hope she died,” “She forgot to kiss me goodbye,” “She told me too soon,” and “I win.”

The Taylors had been married for 25 years.

No. 6 – Mullis Senior Center faces opposition

Mullis Senior Center’s Operations Committee decided in April that it was going to cease its pre-lunch prayer and the recitation of the “Pledge of Allegiance” at its senior meals.

After the announcement was made, a petition began circulating to bring back the pledge. Petitioners claimed that the discontinuation of the pledge was an affront to veterans.

“Our decision to eliminate this practice was made to better fulfill our mission to serve ALL seniors on San Juan Island without regard to race, color, creed, religion or national origin, gender, sexual orientation or disability,” former operations committee chairperson Rita Weisbrod wrote. “The decision does not have anything to do with religion or patriotism. We certainly do not intend to disrespect veterans or the flag.”

In response to the petition, the operations committee adopted a policy that the center would continue the pledge on patriotic holidays and any other day the pledge seemed appropriate. This did not resolve the issue.

Some community members were ultimately banned from the property for reasons that vary depending on who you ask. According to the people banned, it was because they opposed the policy and were in turn given trespass warning notices and threatened with fines and imprisonment. According to Mullis Center officials, it’s because the removed were the ones making threats.

The American Legion began a “Bring Back the Pledge” campaign.

Weisbrod ultimately resigned from her position as president of the 12-person Mullis Center Operations Committee on June 30 for health reasons brought on by being “a punching bag” for the movement. She remains on the Senior Services Council of San Juan County board.

In July, the senior center reinstated the pledge prior to meal service, however, a half-hour in advance of it.

At the end of July, a new petition arose to remove three individuals from the operations committee — acting chair Stephen Shubert, secretary Nancy Geist and treasurer Carolyn Adler.

Petitioner Minnie Knych wrote in a recall letter that the committee’s bylaws say that the group is meant to represent the needs and interests of its membership and to manage the senior center’s facilities.

On Dec. 13, a lawsuit against Alder, Geist, Schubert, Weinbold and 12 other members of the Senior Services Council of San Juan County by four fellow members for not conducting a recall requested by the petition; for improperly amending and violating bylaws; for improperly amending the Articles of Incorporation.

No. 7 – Senator Ranker resigns; Liz Lovelett elected

State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, resigned from his position on Jan. 11.

His announcement came after an investigation into sexual harassment allegations from a former employee and news of a serious family illness.

“What matters most is that the critical policies I have been working on advance — not that I advance them,” Ranker stated to the Sounder at the time.

In late December 2018, an Associated Press journalist reported that Ranker is being investigated by the state for improper conduct after Ann Larson, a state employee, made allegations of sexual harassment. According to a story published in The Seattle Times, Larson met Ranker while she was a clerk for the San Juan County Council and he was a county councilman (then called a commissioner). He was elected to that seat – his first political position – in 2004.

According to the AP report, Larson said she had a consensual sexual relationship with Ranker but once she started to work in his Senate district office in 2009, she wanted only a professional one. After she rejected his advances, she said Ranker became hostile and she eventually left the position, according to the story.

Ranker wrote in a Jan. 12 press release, “I am deeply sorry for any stress I caused her, and I sincerely apologize. I wish her peace.”

Liz Lovelett, a former Anacortes city council member, was selected to fill the Legislative District 40 vacancy on Feb. 5. Democratic Precinct Committee officers selected three candidates: Lovelett; former District 40 state representative Kris Lytton; and Trevor Smith, a member of the labor council. That list of three names from which Lovelett was selected was submitted to Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan county councils, which held a joint meeting in Skagit County to make the selection. In August, Lovelett won a special state senate primary election for the seat. In the November general election, voters elected her to the four-year position.

No. 8 – County initiates marijuana moratorium

On April 2, council members voted to temporarily enact a six-month pause on permitting marijuana production and processing operations in the county while they worked to establish rules and regulations. The first six-month moratorium lasted until Oct. 2; the extension is in effect until April 2, 2020.

The topic of prohibiting permits to new marijuana grow operations arose from the controversy surrounding three proposed farms on Lopez. The applicant for all three permits through the state’s marijuana licensing board was Laurent Bentitou, who owns waterfront property on Lopez Sound Road and Ceres Garden — a marijuana grow operation — in Bellevue, Washington.

The first proposed tier 3 site was on Ferry Road and is owned by Michael and Vicky Terra of Paducah, Kentucky. This application was withdrawn by the applicant. Then, the second and third requests were made for Bentitou’s waterfront property, a smaller location, but were also for both a tier 3 permit as well as a tier 2.

Tier 1 allows for up to 2,000 square feet of plant production space; tier 2 is between 2,000 and 10,000 square feet; and tier 3 is for 10,000–30,000 square feet.

More than 350 Lopez residents created a coalition named Say No Lopez which spearheaded the movement toward creating county regulations. Opponents of marijuana farms on Lopez cite a high demand for freshwater, adding strain to island groundwater resources, which are already experiencing saltwater intrusion in some locations; the need for a set-back from property lines to buffer sights and smells; intense security measures — such as lights and tall fences — being a nuisance to neighbors; increased need for law enforcement; and decreased property values.

On Dec. 3, Community Development Planning Manager Linda Kuller presented two options to the council for consideration — neither received endorsement by the council. Discussions will continue in January when the county council returns from its winter break.