Local News

Sheriff angry with treatment center's response in suspect search

SPOKANE, Wash. - When the Spokane County Sheriff's Department comes knocking at your door looking for a criminal you'd likely comply. But that's now the case for substance abuse treatment centers in Spokane.

Treatment centers can turn away a deputy at the door even if a suspected criminal is inside. This exact scenario happened last weekend in Spokane Valley at American Behavioral Health Services (ABHS) and it has the sheriff fired up.

"We were told that they couldn't confirm or deny anyone was there, they were shown a photograph and they said 'well yeah we do recognize that individual'," Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said.

Sheriff angry at ABHS

Last Saturday, a clerk at Divine's gas station at Mission and Pines was allegedly robbed by 31-year-old Joshua Wippert. The clerk helped deputies locate and identify Wippert's bike at ABHS, just a few blocks away, and K-9 officers followed his scent to the front doors of the treatment facility.

Deputies were never allowed to look inside for Wippert and were asked instead to get a search warrant. Knezovich doesn't understand why staff at ABHS wouldn't help them find a robbery suspect.

"They said 'Step away from the door' and they closed the door in the officer's face," Knezovich said.

John Taylor, Director of Operations with ABHS, says they are not allowed by federal law to identify patients seeking treatment at their facility. The law is there to protect the identity of those seeking drug and alcohol treatment. One way to get around this law is the obtain a search warrant.

"Our standard procedure that our legal department has advised us to say is that we cannot confirm or deny that individual's presence in our building," Taylor said.

We know Wippert was staying at ABHS for treatment at the time of the robbery because since the encounter with deputies, ABHS has reported him missing to Crime Check. Their policy is to report patients' leaving the program if they have an active warrant out for their arrest.

"They know this individual has a history and they basically aided in his, in this issue by not reporting and not helping us with this investigation," Knezovich said.

The sheriff is dually concerned because ABHS is where Charlie Wallace was staying last summer before leaving the facility, shooting two deputies in North Spokane and then killing himself.

Taylor says the violent encounter with deputies happened three weeks after Wallace left ABHS and that his leaving was reported to the Department of Corrections. Knezovich says they waited too long.

And despite the federal law that ABHS claims protects them, the sheriff remains adamant that they should have helped his deputies catch Wippert.

"They have a responsibility to the community that they live in to make sure that they are reporting when these people walk away from the facility," Knezovich said.

The sheriff is now asking prosecutors to look into whether ABHS should be charged with obstructing justice or hindering an investigation. Wippert has not been caught.