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Cop Loses Job After Helping Family Transfer Man’s Guns

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A police officer in Steilacoom, Washington with 33 years on the force was fired earlier this year after helping a dying man and his estranged wife address his condemned home as well as his firearms collection. Sgt. Larry Whelan says he’s being railroaded for lending a helping hand, and based on this report from the Tacoma News Tribune, he has a pretty strong case in his defense. 

A longtime Steilacoom police officer arrived at a dilapidated home last August, finding a pool of blood outside and a cracked door that led to an elderly man in the throes of a medical emergency. 

Sgt. Larry Whelan was summoned to the 600 block of 1st Street for a welfare check after it was reported the sick man’s dog was running loose and a neighbor spotted the blood. Bill Johnston, the 72-year-old homeowner who Whelan knew, had cancer. He was lying inside near the door in filth with an apparent stomach tumor but reportedly able to talk with Whelan.

While Johnston was in the hospital, his house, which didn’t have a lock, was red-tagged by the town, meaning it was condemned and deemed too unsafe for him to return. He died within a month of the welfare check after leaving the hospital and briefly staying in Tacoma with his wife. The couple had been separated for 20 years but still occasionally talked. 

Johnston’s poor health before his death raised immediate questions: Who’d take care of his dog, a Belgian Malinois named Tali? What would happen to his house? Whelan, 58, intervened to help out. 

He took Tali home. He referred Johnston and his wife to a real-estate brokerage. It was a firm where Whelan, as a real estate agent, had planned to hang his license. He also assisted in collecting and moving at least 16 firearms, many in poor condition, to a safe in a neighbor’s house.

Johnston, a Navy veteran, had been a competitive shooter who enjoyed collecting firearms, according to his wife. As Johnston laid in a hospital bed, his guns were escorted out of his home by Whelan and the neighbor using a wheelbarrow. The transfers occurred over at least two trips about a week apart. The sergeant was off duty during the second visit.

Seems like a pretty nice thing for Whelan to do, but no good deed goes unpunished. According to the paper, less than two weeks after that initial welfare check someone anonymously reported the sergeant to the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, alleging that Whelan had committed a crime by taking the guns and supposedly handing them over to an FFL to be sold, with Whelan getting a portion of the proceeds. The anonymous complaint also alleged that Whelan was going to turn a tidy profit on the sale of Johnson’s condemned property by serving as the listing agent. 

According to the paper, those claims were discounted during a criminal investigation. In fact, the findings of the investigation paint Whelan in a positive light. 

The CJTC complaint against Whelan spurred a criminal probe conducted by the Tacoma Police Department, which found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, including that Whelan had attempted to steal or illegally sell the weapons removed from Bill Johnston’s house, according to the department’s report on the case. 

TPD determined that Johnston’s home was listed for sale not by Whelan but by the brokerage that Whelan had referred to Johnston. Tia Johnston was interviewed as part of the criminal investigation.

She told TPD that it was her and her husband’s idea to sell the property and that Whelan declined her husband’s offer to handle the transaction due to “conflict of interest” concerns. He then provided a referral. 

She also said she was grateful that Whelan was able to take care of Tali and appreciative that the neighbor could temporarily store Johnston’s firearms because she couldn’t immediately secure them. It was her understanding that her husband told Whelan about the guns in his residence and asked the sergeant to keep them safe. 

There was a licensed firearms dealer that she believed could help her sell the weapons, but she hadn’t yet reached out to him as of her Nov. 30 interview with TPD, the department’s report shows. Whelan told Thomas that he had contacted the dealer, to whom he had referred business in the past, to give him a heads up because Whelan planned to tell Johnston’s wife about him as an option for getting rid of the guns.

Despite the findings of the investigation, the town’s own internal investigation found that Whelan had violated multiple department policies. 

It determined Whelan failed to follow policy by not filling out an incident report; defied a written order to not discuss the internal review with town employees or others; had been untruthful and inconsistent in his accounts of what occurred; and colluded with other witnesses to the point of likely influencing their accounts. 

Tia Johnston, who was also interviewed for the administrative probe, told The News Tribune that Whelan never tried to influence what she would say to investigators.

On Jan. 4, Public Safety Chief Tom Yabe sent a memo to Whelan, alerting him of the findings. “Review of the investigation determined that you made multiple trips to the residence-in-question, both on-and-off duty, in order to transfer significant quantities of firearms between private parties,” the memo said, adding that he had done so long after the need for safekeeping had elapsed. “Additionally, you neglected to advise an assigned supervisor before, or immediately thereafter, performing substantial actions within a high-liability and low-frequency incident.”

Whelan was dinged for, among othe things, transferring Johnson’s firearms collection to a neighbor without first putting him through a background check, even though Whelan says he knew the man was a concealed carry licensee who was legally eligible to possess a firearm. The town also maintains that Whelan never filed an incident report documenting the initial welfare check, though the investigation by the Tacoma PD found that the officer had “documented key aspects of his response to the welfare check” using the department’s computer-aided dispatch system.  

Whelan wrote “weapons secured by neighbor” and “dog secured,” among a few other notes, and cleared the call with a designation that a Tacoma police investigator understood to indicate that no formal report was required. “In speaking with those involved it can be concluded Sgt. Whelan was acting as a guardian of his community and in a community care taking role when he made an effort to secure the property of a citizen within his community and jurisdiction,” TPD’s report said.

Tia Johnson, who was faced with an overwhelming situation, says it’s “stupid” for the town to fire Whelan over his response to the couple. She maintains that her late husband was concerned about his firearms being stored safely, and Whelan went out of his way to help. 

Now, there are always two sides to every story, but based on the News Tribune report it seems like, at worst, Whelan was guilty of violating a few administrative procedures. After more than 30 years in the department, you’d think that would merit a stern talking-to or maybe a brief administrative suspension from his duties. Getting the axe for essentially not filling out all of the required paperwork on a welfare check, on the other hand, seems excessive. 

Whelan is fighting his termination, and his case is expected to go to arbitration this fall. I hope he’s successful in getting his job back. As Tia Johnson told the News Tribune, “police officers like Larry are few and far between, and we actually need more of them like him.” Granted, I’m 3,000 miles away from where this is playing out, but based on the News Tribune report, it’s hard to disagree with Johnson’s position. 

 

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