Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966


Mayor digs into harbor assault case


A mayor’s report found differing explanations for why a charge was reduced by plea bargain in a case involving an alleged assault on the Haines harbormaster.

According to a report presented by Haines Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott at Tuesday’s assembly meeting, Assistant District Attorney Amy Williams said she would have preferred to take the case to trial, but could not because of “significant omissions in the local investigation of the offense.”

Police Chief Gary Lowe told Scott that, based on previous experience, he didn’t expect the case to go to trial because of the district attorney’s high caseload and history of assessing cases on a cost-benefit ratio, the report says.

In an interview this week, Lowe denied he assumed the district attorney would not pursue the case, but when he explained why he thought the case would not go to trial, his account did not differ significantly from Scott’s characterization.

“Just because (trials) always get postponed (and charges reduced). That’s the point that cases historically get adjudicated. They have a pre-trial hearing, like three days before the trial is ready to start. That’s the point that the attorneys actually decide what’s going to happen with it. And, you know, I shouldn’t have made that assumption,” Lowe said.

Because he didn’t expect the case to go to trial, Lowe was unconcerned when the trial date conflicted with the arresting officer’s schedule, Scott’s report said. Lowe also thought the district attorney’s office would reschedule if it thought pursuing the trial was the most beneficial path to take, Scott reported.

The court case was resolved through a change of plea entered on Sept. 27. Cody Taylor of Haines pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct, a class B misdemeanor. Taylor originally faced a charge of assault in the fourth degree, a class A misdemeanor, after an altercation with harbormaster Phillip Benner.

According to court documents, Benner told Haines Police officer Jason Rettinger that Taylor pushed him, “causing Benner to lose his balance and almost fall into the water.” Benner told Rettinger he was fearful he could have been seriously hurt. Three witnesses told Rettinger they saw Taylor push Benner.

The July 26 incident started when Taylor parked his boat by the harbor’s fuel dock. Benner left a message telling Taylor he needed to move his boat, but after not hearing from Taylor for 30 minutes, Benner started to move the boat himself, documents said.

To secure a conviction of assault in the fourth degree, prosecutors must prove the victim was placed in fear of danger. Because local police failed to obtain enough evidence in the form of photographs and witness statements, the prosecution could not prove Benner was close enough to the dock’s edge to be in “fear of danger,” Williams told Scott.

Williams clarified to Scott that she “in no way faults the Haines Borough Police Department for the omissions in the investigation.”

“(Williams) stated that part of her responsibility is to provide training in investigative techniques for local police,” the mayor’s report said. “Though she conducted training in Haines in May 2010, she believes that the only officer still on staff since that training is Chief Lowe himself. In fact, she liberally praised the recent investigations conducted by Sergeant Simon Ford.”

Scott said while mistakes were made in the case, ensuring those mistakes do not happen again is more important than dwelling on the past.

“My conclusion is that, yes, we could have done more,” Scott said. “But I also believe with equal conviction that the thing to do now is correct course with training and advocacy.”

To that end, Scott has tentatively scheduled a pre-training meeting for Nov. 7 which Scott, Lowe, and borough manager Mark Earnest will attend.

The court ultimately sentenced Taylor to one year of probation, 48 hours of community service, and $250 in fees. It suspended all of a 10-day jail sentence.

The court also compelled Taylor to write a letter of apology to Benner. The first letter Taylor wrote was one sentence long and read, “Sorry things got carried away,” but was returned to him by the court. Taylor wrote a second, more elaborate letter several days later.