A King County District Court judge on Tuesday set bail at $250,000 for a former King County sheriff’s deputy who was arrested on Monday for allegedly stealing drugs seized during undercover investigations while he was assigned to a federal narcotics task force.
Mitchell Wright, 33, of Bothell, resigned from the Sheriff’s Office on July 9 after he became the subject of an ongoing internal investigation into his unauthorized use of federal criminal-justice databases, Sheriff John Urquhart said during an interview Tuesday. Though that investigation is still open, Urquhart said that if the policy violation were sustained, it would have led to Wright’s firing.
Wright was placed on administrative leave on July 3, and two deputies went to his house that day to retrieve the patrol car that had been assigned to him, according to the probable-cause statement outlining the police case against him.
The deputies found three plastic bags of heroin in the trunk with evidence tags indicating the drugs had been seized during two federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigations, the statement says. Wright was assigned to a DEA narcotics task force from 2009 to February of this year.
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The discovery of the heroin prompted a second internal investigation that uncovered Wright’s alleged criminal conduct, the statement says. Drugs seized during investigations that don’t result in federal prosecutions are turned over to individual officers, who are then required to enter the drugs into their own agency’s evidence system, the statement says.
Wright, who was working undercover, is accused of failing to enter drugs released to him by the DEA into evidence with the Sheriff’s Office, the statement says. The street value of the drugs Wright allegedly stole is estimated at between $36,500 and $52,490.
During Wright’s first court appearance Tuesday, Judge Pro Tem Lisa Napoli-O’Toole found probable cause to hold Wright on investigation of first-degree theft, first-degree possession of stolen property, tampering with evidence and possession of controlled substances.
She ordered the media not to photograph Wright’s face because of concerns that identifying him could endanger other undercover agents he worked with who still are involved in investigations that Wright participated in before his resignation.
Napoli-O’Toole also said she considered Wright a flight risk, citing a statement he allegedly made to his landlord indicating he planned to move to Australia in two weeks. She ordered Wright to surrender his passport and any documents associated with his undercover identity.
Wright’s defense attorney, Jeff Kradel, had requested that Wright be released on personal recognizance, saying his client’s passport is expired and he has no means to leave the country. Kradel also said Wright had already turned over his undercover documents to law enforcement.
Wright’s father, Michael Wright Sr., also asked for his son’s release. The elder Wright, who identified himself as a retired, 24-year veteran DEA agent, said his son was “always very respectful of authority,” was a “hard worker” and “did an outstanding job” while employed with the Sheriff’s Office.
However, Napoli-O’Toole agreed with the state’s bail request, saying Wright’s “incentive to flee in this case is high” and that his possible access to “federally created” alternative identification documents was concerning to her.
The investigation into Wright’s conduct began after a Bothell police officer contacted a woman inside a pickup parked outside a McDonald’s restaurant at 2 a.m. on May 25, according to the probable-cause statement. The officer peered through a window and saw that the woman had a needle stuck in her arm, and believed she was shooting heroin, it says.
The 25-year-old woman told the officer the truck belonged to Wright and said she was his live-in girlfriend who also worked as an informant for Wright, the statement says.
Court records show the woman has been charged with several drug- and alcohol-related crimes and has been charged twice this year with driving with a suspended license and failing to install a court-ordered ignition-interlock device on her vehicle.
As a result of the woman’s arrest in Bothell, “We just started looking at (Wright’s) laptop,” Urquhart said.
Sheriff’s officials determined he was “accessing government computers for nongovernment purposes,” Urquhart said.
“We expected termination to be coming down the pike and I have to assume that he knew it was coming,” Urquhart said of Wright’s July 9 resignation. “We can’t keep somebody from resigning, and if our investigation isn’t completed yet, we can’t fire you.”
Urquhart said there is no information suggesting Wright was selling drugs.
Most of the drugs Wright kept instead of booking into evidence were oxycodone pills, according to the probable-cause statement.
King County sheriff’s Detective Timothy Gillette wrote that Wright told of “keeping the drugs that he knew were for an investigation and burying them in the woods behind his home,” the statement says. Wright used a FedEx box to transport the drugs, and the box was found in his recycling bin, it says.
The statement notes that no drugs were found inside the box, but does not say whether any drugs were recovered from the woods.
In response to a public-disclosure request, the Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday released portions of Wright’s personnel file, which show that he has never before been disciplined for misconduct. Instead, his file is filled with letters of commendation, recognizing him for pro-active police work, compassionate dealings with crime victims and investigative skills.
Wright was named the 2006 Deputy of the Year for helping reduce auto thefts in Shoreline and for “exposing several drug houses,”
according to a May 2007 letter signed by then-Sheriff Sue Rahr that is included in his file.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org