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King County detective suspended for ‘conduct unbecoming’

(King County Sheriff's Office)

A terrifying night for an Uber driver trying to take a veteran King County Sheriff’s detective home ended in a suspension for that detective.

King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht announced Thursday that veteran sexual assault unit Detective Janette Luitgaarden is suspended without pay for four days for conduct unbecoming. The announcement came after an internal investigation into an off-duty incident in November where — after a day of drinking — Luitgaarden called an Uber to get home.

It was a little after 7 p.m. on Nov. 4 as the Uber driver traveled down I-405 south near SR 522 with a severely intoxicated Luitgaarden in the back seat.

Moments later, the Uber driver called 911.

“Yeah, she was drunk and I take her from one house to her home, and when I’m almost there … she tried to jump from the car on the freeway.”

The Uber driver told dispatchers that Luitgaarden was drunk and talking on the phone, telling someone on the other end she was being kidnapped. She then opened the back door and tried to jump out as the car was traveling at freeway speeds along I-405.

The driver said he kept one hand on the wheel and reached back with his other arm to grab her and keep her from jumping out of the car, but she fought back.

“Beating me from the back, by hand, leg … by phone … everything she has in her hand … And then I pull over and I hold her hands from me … that’s it.”

The driver said they nearly crashed as Luitgaarden punched and kicked him while he tried to keep her from jumping. He pulled over and waited for state patrol to arrive.

When troopers got there, they found both the driver and Luitgaarden had calmed down but said that she appeared “visibly intoxicated based on her poor condition.”

When they asked her what happened, troopers said Luitgaarden was unable to put together a meaningful statement. The Uber driver had scratches on him and Luitgaarden was eventually arrested for assault in the fourth degree.

In interviews during the investigation, Luitgaarden explained she was dealing with a series of stressful issues in her personal life and that friends had taken her out drinking that day to try to take her mind off it. However, after several drinks, she realized she was not in the right head space to continue drinking that night — opting to get an Uber home and call it a night.

“I can’t tell you what happened in the vehicle other than … I … at some point felt that I was in danger and I reacted that,” Luitgaarden explained to internal investigators. She added, “I told the Uber driver that I felt that I was in danger and that I wanted out of the vehicle. I think I told him that more than one time and obviously he wasn’t going to let me out of the vehicle.”

While she didn’t remember what happened she told internal investigators she didn’t believe she would have tried to jump.

Luitgaarden pointed out she realized she had had too much to drink and was trying to take herself out of a bad situation.

“So, really, when I was getting in that Uber to go home, I was trying to put an end to a mood that I knew wasn’t going to be healthy for me. So I was trying to do the right thing,” Luitgaarden explained to internal investigators.

Luitgaarden stressed that she has no history of being disciplined at the department.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before in my life and it certainly hasn’t happened since. It would never happen again. And I … absolutely, I’m embarrassed, I’m ashamed … um … there was a lot going on then,” Luitgaarden said.

She told internal investigators the issues that led to the bad behavior had since resolved, and she sought counseling.

The Uber driver did not press charges. He told investigators he was mostly concerned about getting her out of his vehicle and making sure she was safe so he could go back to work that night.

The state patrol referred the assault case to prosecutors who eventually declined to file charges, essentially saying it would be difficult to prove the required intent for assault in the fourth degree because of how drunk Luitgaarden was and because — even though she was not in any danger — her level of intoxication led her to believe she was leading her to act in what she believed was self-defense.

Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht had similar concerns in being able to prove Luitgaarden’s actions rose to the level of conduct criminal in nature and being under the influence while off duty, internal department violations recommended by the Undersheriff along with a 20-day suspension.

In Luitgaarden’s disciplinary notice, Johanknecht wrote that while she believed there was a strong case for those two violations, Luitgaarden’s “significant intoxication level” may impact the department’s ability to prove those violations. But the sheriff found there was clear and convincing evidence to sustain a Conduct Unbecoming violation and suspended Luitgaarden for four days, or 40 hours, without pay.

In a statement, Johanknecht called Luitgaarden’s actions “embarrassing to the sheriff’s office and our profession.”

“Our employees should never behave in a way that diminishes public trust and respect for law enforcement,” Sheriff Johanknecht said. “While I recognize that law enforcement is a stressful profession and our employees will, from time to time, struggle with personal difficulties, I expect our law enforcement and professional staff members to act lawfully and be good role models.”

Luitgaarden is one of three Detectives in the department’s Special Assault Unit awarded a $1 million settlement in 2013 after filing a lawsuit against the county claiming sexual harassment and verbal abuse at the department. While the county settled the lawsuit, it did not admit any wrongdoing.

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