The prosecution of a renowned paleontologist for allegedly having sex with a high-school student on Orcas Island turned into an ordeal of deceit, sex and betrayal that left nobody involved unscathed. “This all fell like a ton of bricks on my head,” Gerald Grellet-Tinner says.
FRIDAY HARBOR — A tall man with an imposing head of wavy blond hair, a wide smile and a French accent, Gerald Grellet-Tinner was a sort of rock star among paleontologists.
A one-time scuba trainer for the French Foreign Legion, Grellet-Tinner was a published post-Ph.D.-level researcher credited with discovering how a species of dinosaur incubated eggs in volcanic vents, and a gem expert who had worked with the Department of Homeland Security on terrorist money-laundering issues in the wake of 9/11. He conducted research for the University of Chicago and taught at UCLA before moving to Orcas Island in 2014.
That was before the then-60-year-old decided to teach science at Orcas Island High School in 2015 while caring for his ailing son. And before he met his student lab assistant, 19-year-old Antonia (not her real name), and before his life was taken apart when he was accused of having sex with her. It is a crime in Washington state for a teacher to have sex with any student younger than 21.
Gerald Grellet-Tinner, paleontologist and former science teacher at Orcas High School.
“Antonia,” (not her real name), former student at Orcas High School.
Stephen Parker, former San Juan County sheriff’s deputy.
Ron Krebs, sheriff of San Juan County and Parker’s former boss.
Randall Gaylord, San Juan County prosecutor.
Richard Weyrich, Skagit County prosecutor.
Nick Power, Grellet-Tinner’s civil-rights attorney.
Robert Butler, Grellet-Tinner’s criminal defense attorney.
Christine Miller, San Juan County victim advocate.
Donald Eaton, San Juan County Superior Court judge.
Lori Sigman, Skagit County sheriff’s deputy.
Brent Johnson, San Juan County undersheriff.
Grellet-Tinner was arrested, jailed, convicted by a jury of two felonies and almost sent to prison as a sex offender before a judge threw the case out, citing a miscarriage of justice.
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The reason? While Grellet-Tinner sat in jail, facing possible prison, the San Juan County sheriff’s detective who was trying to put him there was sexually involved with Antonia himself, according to investigators.
The ordeal of sex and deception — which includes allegations of witness tampering, bribery and threats — has doused any spark of justice for anyone involved: Grellet-Tinner, Antonia or the community. Nobody involved was left unscathed, including the detective.
Grellet-Tinner’s life has been left in tatters. He lost custody of his son — whose fragile health was the reason he moved to Orcas Island — and his reputation was sullied, maybe ruined. He was fired from his teaching job and is, he says, unemployable and on food stamps.
Grellet-Tinner denies he ever touched the young woman. He has filed a $10 million claim against San Juan County, its prosecutor and the Sheriff’s Office alleging a variety of civil-rights violations, including wrongful arrest and wrongful prosecution.
“This all fell like a ton of bricks on my head,” Grellet-Tinner said in an interview.
No criminal charges were filed against the detective, Stephen Parker, although investigators believe he committed perjury and probably witness tampering. The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office found he had committed significant misconduct following two investigations, and has sought to have his law-enforcement credentials revoked.
Parker, who has denied wrongdoing, resigned from the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office and moved about as far away from Friday Harbor as possible in the continental United States — Fort Myers, Florida.
He also denies having sex with Antonia and says he’s talking to a lawyer about suing the county sheriff and prosecutor for slander.
A multiagency investigation overseen by Skagit County concluded Parker, a 46-year-old veteran lawman from Montana, and Antonia, a single mother and undocumented immigrant, had carried on a secret relationship for months. The investigation concluded they met for sex at least five times while Grellet-Tinner sat in the San Juan County Jail.
Attempts to contact Antonia were not successful. The Seattle Times generally does not identify alleged victims of abuse.
Nick Power, Grellet-Tinner’s civil-rights attorney, believes Antonia traded sex with the detective in exchange for obtaining a crime victim’s visa so she and her family could stay in the U.S. legally. Prosecutors confirmed they had sought a so-called “U Visa” for Antonia.
Main Street arrest
According to police and court documents, an investigation into Grellet-Tinner was begun after Antonia — who had missed a year of school to have a child — mentioned to another teacher that she had been sexually involved with Grellet-Tinner.
Two weeks later, Parker publicly arrested Grellet-Tinner on Main Street in the Orcas Island town of Eastsound in October 2015 and booked him into jail. He was charged with two counts of sexual misconduct with a minor under a Washington law that prohibits a teacher from having a sexual relationship with any student younger than 21.
Antonia was 19 years old when Grellet-Tinner allegedly had two consensual sexual encounters with her at his house on Orcas Island, according to the charges.
Based on Parker’s investigation, which included DNA evidence provided by the student and her tearful testimony, Grellet-Tinner was convicted after a three-week trial in June 2016. He was facing 17 months in prison when Antonia told a victim advocate in the San Juan County Prosecutor’s Office that she’d been secretly seeing the detective, Parker, for months.
When Parker found out, he approached the victim advocate, Christine Miller, two days later outside her office. Parker denied the relationship and said Antonia was upset because he had stopped paying attention to her after the trial.
“You know,” an angry Parker told Miller, “she seduces people and she set (Grellet-Tinner) up.” Parker called Antonia “hypersexual,” Miller would later recount in an interview with detectives.
The student recanted that story within days — under pressure from the detective, according to her later statements — and an initial investigation by a Skagit County sheriff’s deputy concluded the allegations were “not sustained” since both the student and Parker denied anything had happened between them. Parker went so far as to sign a denial under threat of perjury.
However, the Skagit County sheriff’s deputy, Lori Sigman, had doubts. Her report to the San Juan County prosecutor’s and sheriff’s offices concluded with a section titled “Curious Things,” including the fact that Parker and Antonia seemed to be particularly aware of the other’s activities. Sigman found it “astonishing” that Parker and the student had exchanged 69 emails.
San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs now says he wishes he’d opened a wider investigation at that point.
Later, Sigman would join a more thorough investigation conducted by a multiagency team of Skagit County detectives, which would find that Parker and the student “used aliases and alternative means of communications” to stay in touch. Moreover, they exchanged more than 137 telephone calls on Parker’s county-issued phone.
Sigman completed her initial investigation — the one with the “Curious Things” section — on Aug. 23, 2016, just two days before Grellet-Tinner’s initial sentencing date, according to records.
However, San Juan County Prosecutor Randall Gaylord didn’t provide the report to the court and Grellet-Tinner’s criminal defense attorney, Robert Butler, until Sept. 14, two days before the revised sentencing date.
“The state is clinging to an unfair conviction, based almost entirely on a witness they know is a liar,” said Butler, referring to the student.
San Juan County Superior Court Judge Donald Eaton agreed, and granted Grellet-Tinner a new trial based on Parker’s statement that Antonia “seduces people” and “set Tinner up.” In the interim, Grellet-Tinner was released from jail.
Three days after the judge ordered a new trial, the state appealed.
The following day, Gaylord, Sigman and another prosecutor met with Antonia, who changed her story again. Over the next four hours, she detailed a relationship with the detective that began days after Grellet-Tinner’s arrest and involved at least five sexual encounters, including trysts at the Sheriff’s Office, at an Orcas Island resort and in the back seat of Parker’s patrol car.
She had recanted the first time, she told them, because Parker had found out about her conversation with the victim advocate through his boss, Sheriff Krebs.
Investigative documents showed Parker called the student a dozen times that day. She told the investigators that Parker told her she had to “fix it,” and offered money to help with bills, but she took the offer to be attempts to pay her hush money.
San Juan County Undersheriff Brent Johnson told Sheriff Krebs he thought those calls “looked like a crime,” according to an interview he gave to detectives.
Parker was placed on administrative leave with pay on Sept. 26, 2016, and would never return to work.
However, the prosecution of Grellet-Tinner — now minus its investigator and with a tainted key witness — would drag out seven more months — a delay Grellet-Tinner’s attorneys said was nothing more than punishment for a crime prosecutors could not prove.
In March, the judge concluded the violations to Grellet-Tinner’s rights were insurmountable and he dismissed the case as a “miscarriage of justice.”
Gaylord, the San Juan County prosecutor, asked his counterpart in Skagit County, Richard Weyrich, to look at possible charges against Parker.
“We considered a few criminal charges,” Weyrich wrote in a letter dated Dec. 23, 2017. “We first looked at a sex crime” based on evidence “that a few portions of the sexual encounters were not completely consensual … We also looked at witness tampering.”
The investigation raised disturbing questions about whether all of their sexual encounters were consensual, considering Parker’s status and position of authority.
But Weyrich concluded none of the charges could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. He said his office did not look at perhaps the easiest charge to prove: perjury, since Parker signed a sworn statement saying he had not had a relationship with the student. Weyrich said Gaylord, the San Juan County prosecutor, should have at least reviewed that charge and believes it should have been filed.
Gaylord said his office had a conflict — the reason Weyrich was called in the first place — and could not review any of the case against Parker. Gaylord said several people in his office, including himself, were interviewed during the investigation and were potential witnesses, precluding him from being involved.
“This is disappointing news,” Gaylord said earlier this month of the decision not to charge Parker with perjury. “If there was a crime Parker could have been charged with, he should have been charged with it.”
Parker, reached by phone in the Gulf of Mexico where he is working on an oil rig, said he was targeted by Gaylord and the sheriff.
“I did not have sex with (the student),” he said in an interview. “Did I get too close to their family? There were six people in a one-bedroom apartment. I tried to help.”
He reiterated his claim that he believes Antonia “trapped” Grellet-Tinner and then retaliated against Parker after he stopped paying attention to her after the trial.
Power, Grellet-Tinner’s civil-rights attorney, also believes his client was trapped by Antonia — with Parker’s help.
He says that during Grellet-Tinner’s prosecution, Parker and Gaylord, the prosecutor, were helping Antonia obtain a special “U Visa” from the Department of Homeland Security. The visa is intended to allow undocumented crime victims and their immediate families to stay in the country legally if they’re willing to assist in the investigation or prosecution of a crime.
“Basically [Antonia] slept with Parker in exchange for a U Visa,” Power said. “And the two of them manufactured these allegations against Grellet-Tinner so she was eligible.”
Parker denied that was what happened.
Gaylord said he signed the paperwork for the visa but does not know if it ever was issued.
“I don’t think anybody feels good about any part of what happened here,” Gaylord said.
Grellet-Tinner, meantime, continues to live on Orcas Island in the home he bought in 2012 near Eastsound. People whisper, he said. One woman called him a pedophile while he was waiting in line at the store. He’s involved in a custody battle over his son, attempting to undo the damage done.
“But that’s the problem,” he said. “You can’t.”