The first thing Ian Simmers did when he was released from prison was go shopping for clothes. It was a relief, he said, after spending his entire adult life wearing state-issued attire.
Simmers was a teenager when he was convicted of stabbing 35-year-old Rodney Gochanour to death in March 1995. He was exonerated and released from custody two years ago after new DNA test results raised further doubts about the case against him.
Now, the 42-year-old Kent man is suing King County, the city of Bothell and several Bothell police officers and King County sheriff’s deputies for allegedly violating 13 counts of state and federal law during their 1995 investigation, which he says led to a wrongful conviction.
According to the complaint, Bothell police officers and county sheriff’s deputies kept Simmers, who was 16 at the time, in custody for 10 hours overnight, refused to let him speak to his mother or an attorney, used “manipulative and coercive interrogation tactics” and “fed Ian details about the crime in an effort to force and fabricate a confession.”
“For more than 50 years, we’ve established that there are special rules to abide by when you’re questioning children because they’re more vulnerable,” said David Owens, who’s representing Simmers in the lawsuit with Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law. “You cannot treat teenagers like they’re adults.”
The complaint also accuses law-enforcement officials of pinning the killing on Simmers even though “no forensic evidence whatsoever tied Ian to the crime and no witnesses identified him as the culprit.”
The Bothell Police Department referred questions about the lawsuit to the Bothell City Attorney’s Office and the King County Sheriff’s Office referred questions to the county’s Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (KCPAO). Both declined to comment.
Simmers was sentenced to 46 years and eight months in prison — and served about 23 years of that sentence — after a King County Superior Court jury convicted him of first-degree murder in March 1996.
During his trial, prosecutors alleged Simmers was hanging out with a friend on the Burke-Gilman Trail, which loops around North Seattle and into Bothell, when Gochanour was walking home from a tavern, according to court documents.
Prosecutors said that when Simmers encountered Gochanour, the teenager cut the 35-year-old on the face with a knife after Gochanour hit him in the ribs. When Gochanour turned away, Simmers was accused of stabbing him at least six times in the back.
They never offered a motive for the stabbing, however, except to say, “He did it for the thrill,” the Times reported.
Prosecutors’ main piece of evidence was a taped confession Simmers made to police, though Simmers’ attorney noted several discrepancies in the statement, including the size of the knife and the day of the killing, and alleged detectives fed details to the teen to push him to confess. In addition, Simmers’ mother, stepfather and stepbrother testified that he had been at home in bed when Gochanour was stabbed to death, according to Times reporting.
There was also some confusion after two of Simmers’ fellow inmates gave conflicting testimonies, with one saying Simmers admitted to the stabbing while the other said he always denied he was guilty, the Times reported.
Simmers spent about 15 years at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla and eight more at Airway Heights Corrections Center in Spokane County, he said. He was also held at King County Jail for about a year.
In 2017, Simmers’ attorney at the time requested the KCPAO reinvestigate the case, according to court documents. She included a report from an expert on false confessions.
The following year, Simmers filed a motion to vacate his conviction based in part on the results of new DNA testing on the knife and Gochanour’s fingernail clippings, neither of which had Simmers’ DNA, the recent complaint says.
In early 2019, the state joined the motion, though it said it “has not and does not agree that the defendant is innocent of the crime or that he was wrongly convicted.” Because prosecutors said it would be difficult to retry Simmers’ case after almost 24 years, however, they moved to vacate his conviction.
A week later, the motion was granted, the charge was dropped and Simmers was released. But even though he had yearned for freedom his entire adult life, he had mixed feelings about readjusting to life outside prison.
“That was a very stressful time for me because I knew I wanted to get out of prison, but prison was all I knew,” Simmers said. “It was my safety net. … I was terrified.”
Simmers is now living with his mother and cousin in Kent and works as a forklift driver in a nearby Amazon fulfillment center. He likes to go hiking and try new restaurants. And he recently bought his first car, a 2011 Toyota RAV4.
“One of the biggest (challenges) is a disconnect from community. The community that I grew up in was much tighter. … But work has made that easier,” he said, adding that he’s been making friends through his job.
Neither the Bothell Police Department nor the King County Sheriff’s Office had responded to the lawsuit as of Friday.