The city of Seattle has settled a civil-rights claim against the Seattle Police Department and one of its detectives in a case where a woman was wrongly charged for stealing $50,000 from a Holocaust survivor.
Mary Celeste Park, a lifetime West Seattle resident, was accused by police in 2012 of being the “lowest of the low,” a caretaker who stole $50,000 from an elderly woman who had survived the Holocaust.
“After it happened, people crossed the street when they saw me,” said Park, choking back a sob. “A friend, someone I’d known for years, ran from me in the grocery store.”
But Park was innocent, pursued by an overzealous Seattle police detective who ignored evidence, made false statements and omitted facts in her rush to solve the case, according to attorneys and court records.
Now, the city will pay Park $100,000 to settle a federal civil-rights claim against the detective and the SPD, along with as-yet-undetermined attorney’s fees.
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“This was a classic case of tunnel vision,” said Park’s Seattle lawyer, Tim Ford. The detective “was so convinced she had solved a major crime, that she repeatedly disregarded obvious indications that Mary Park was innocent.”
Seattle police declined to comment on the case. An attempt to contact the detective involved through the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild was not successful.
Park has also settled a defamation lawsuit against the woman who accused her. The amount of that settlement is secret.
But Park, 57, says no amount of money will ever restore her reputation.
“My family has lived here for three generations,” said Park from her family home just a few blocks from Alki Beach. “I went to school here — Alki Elementary, Madison Junior High, West Seattle High School. I know everybody.
“I don’t know how many ways you can say your life is ruined,” she said. “But mine was.”
Park had been hired by relatives of Hermine and Emanuel Berner to care for the elderly couple in their West Seattle condo.
Hermine had survived the Auschwitz concentration camp and at 93 was spry but suffered from dementia. Emanuel, who was 97 at the time, was frail and spent most of his time sleeping or watching TV.
Park was accused of stealing $50,000 in cash the couple had kept in their condo, a practice Hermine’s family said she had learned from her mother, who helped her family survive the grim days following World War II with gold she had hidden from the Nazis in their backyard in Czechoslovakia.
Park was arrested and went to jail, charged with first-degree felony theft with an aggravating circumstance of preying on a vulnerable adult.
Judy Townsend, the Berners’ daughter, told reporters that the theft had brought back horrible memories for her mother, who had once again been “robbed of her security.”
Meanwhile, the tale of Park’s alleged betrayal played prominently in the media, running in The Seattle Times and in newspapers as far away as Florida. In her 2013 defamation lawsuit against Townsend, Park alleged that such “false and malicious statements … were seen, heard and read by countless persons locally, nationally and world-wide and are still available on the Internet today.”
It was Townsend who had hired Park in February 2012 to cook and clean for her parents for a few hours a day. Park explained that she enjoyed working with the elderly, and volunteered at the Mount St. Vincent retirement home.
Townsend paid her $12 an hour. The money meant little, Park said.
“I received a generous inheritance from my parents, who I took care of,” Park said in a recent interview. “It gave me the freedom to do what I enjoy, which is to be around and take care of the elderly. I’m not a person driven by money. I follow my heart.”
According to court filings, Park quickly came to believe that the Berners needed additional care, and as a result she began spending more time with them.
In July 2012, Park and Townsend had a disagreement over the hours she should work, and Park was fired.
Townsend was also a fixture in the West Seattle community, and she sat on the Seattle Police Department’s Southwest Precinct Advisory Board. According to court documents, on Aug. 8 of that year, she went to the precinct’s lieutenant, Pierre Davis, and accused Park of stealing $50,000 from her parent’s condo.
Davis put Townsend in touch with Detective Elizabeth Litalien of the SPD’s Elder Abuse Unit.
Court documents indicate that Townsend told the detective that her mother had withdrawn the money from a bank account and kept it in a baking dish in the condo’s pantry. Townsend said she had last checked on the money on July 8, and that her mother had told her it was missing on July 18.
But it wasn’t until Aug. 1 — after Park had been fired — that Townsend “suddenly remembered about the $50,000” and confirmed it was missing from the pantry, according to sworn depositions and court documents.
Even so, it took another week before she went to the police, according to the lawsuit. She told Litalien that nobody else had been in the condo or had access to the cash.
“Mrs. Townsend’s claim … was suspicious from the beginning,” wrote Ford, Park’s attorney.
Litalien and another detective, Donna Stangland, conducted an audio and video interview with Hermine Berner on Aug. 13, according to court documents. It lasted 42 minutes.
“Mrs. Berner’s faulty memory was obvious from the beginning,” the lawsuit said. She struggled to remember her birthday, couldn’t recall her age or the street she lived on. She rambled and was confused.
Most significantly, “despite repeated prompting from Detective Litalien, Mrs. Berner never confirmed that she kept $50,000 in her pantry or that she was missing such a large sum of money,” the lawsuit said.
In June 2012, according to court documents, Park was changing the paper lining cupboards in the Berner’s pantry when she came across $1,000 in cash.
Park said she gave the money to Berner, who gave her $100 as a reward and then hid the remaining $900 again — and apparently quickly forgot where she had put it. A few days later, Park said, Hermine Berner asked her where the money was, according to Park’s lawsuit.
Litalien was given access to Townsend’s calendar, which court documents show contained entries that conflicted with Townsend’s statements to the detective on key points. For one, it showed that Park had changed the shelf paper in the pantry before the last time Townsend said she had checked on the $50,000.
And it showed that Berner’s son had stayed in the condo when she had told the detective nobody else had been there.
Litalien obtained a search warrant for Park’s house, and in the document the detective swore that “no one besides Mary had been in the condo” and that Hermine Berner had told her “that a few days before she discovered the $50,000 missing that Mary had insisted” on changing the shelf paper.
The warrant omitted the fact that Berner had failed to confirm even the basic claim that the $50,000 existed or was missing at all. Nor was there any evidence that money had been taken from a bank account, as per Townsend’s previous statements.
The warrant said the Berners “lived independently and were able to take care of themselves,” and made no mention of Hermine’s dementia.
The search of Park’s home turned up no evidence of the theft.
Meantime, Park was questioned on tape.
“Throughout the interview, Ms. Park truthfully denied finding or taking the $50,000, and repeatedly told the officers they could go ahead and search everything she owns, because she didn’t have the money,” the lawsuit said.
The officers responded by telling her she was “too confident,” that they knew she had taken the money, and “that her dead parents were ashamed of her, and that she would lose her house,” the suit alleged.
Detective Eugene Foster told her that she didn’t want the label of stealing from old people, “because those people are the lowest of the low.
“I promise you. You will get that label, and you will go to jail,” Foster said.
Park was arrested and taken to the King County Jail, where she spent the night.
She was charged on Aug. 17, 2012, in a complaint filed by Litalien that repeated many of the statements contained in the search warrant. A week later, detectives conducted a second search of Park’s home and her bank accounts. Again, no evidence of theft was found.
Prosecutors dismissed the charge against her on Oct. 18 after determining no crime could be proven.
Park sued the Berners and Judy Townsend and her husband, Lewis, in 2013 for defamation. The Berners were dismissed as defendants and the Townsends settled for an undisclosed sum. Their attorney, Marc Silverman of Bellevue, said the couple would not talk about the case.
“The last time Judy commented, she was sued for defamation,” he said. “We won’t be having anything to say.”