More than 50 cases faced sentencing in King County last week

Nov 16, 2021, 7:01 AM
King County Courthouse...
The King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle. (Evan Didier, Flickr Creative Commons)
(Evan Didier, Flickr Creative Commons)

Feel like King County and Seattle are soft on crime? There’s much more to the story, especially when you start talking about crimes committed by someone with significant behavioral issues or involuntary treatment — and places like Western State Hospital or agencies like the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHA) are part of the equation.

Dozens of violent criminals that don’t make headlines sentenced weekly in King County

But, with jury trials back on the calendar after being on hold for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, King County prosecutors are working their way through the massive backlog of cases.

In fact, Casey McNerthney with the prosecutor’s office says, on average, they have about 60 or so cases where a conviction has been secured that go to a superior court judge for sentencing each week.

KIRO Radio will be highlighting some of those sentences every week.

This past week, there were 53 total scheduled cases on Friday, Nov. 12. Thirty of those cases were scheduled for sentencing in Seattle at the King County Courthouse, and 23 in Kent at the Maleng Regional Justice Center.

Among the cases up for sentencing last week, 35-year old Aaron Medina who was convicted of attempted commercial sex abuse of a minor. The charge stemmed from an incident in March of 2020 when prosecutors say Medina arranged to meet a 15-year old girl and pay her $140 for a “car date,” and promised to bring a condom. But, as it turned out, Medina was not actually talking to a teenage girl, he was talking to a Renton detective posing as the 15-year-old. When Medina showed up to the hotel parking lot eager to meet the girl, with $140 and a condom, he was met by investigators and promptly arrested.

“This is one of those priority cases,” said Casey McNerthney, director of communications at the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

“It was noted in the sentencing — the judge mentioned that his actions represent the demand for minor sex trafficking victims, and even though he didn’t have the clear intent to go online and target a 15-year-old, he didn’t differentiate between the age of the person and he went there to pay for sex,” according to Renton police and a jury of his peers, McNerthney said.

“It is this behavior from sex buyers who don’t care or don’t know whether they are meeting a 16-year-old or a 26-year-old for a commercial sex transaction that creates the demand for minor sex trafficking victims. These preventative policing operations target the demand; this is why police conduct them,” McNerthney explained.

Medina was sentenced to just under 16 months, and he must register as a sex offender when he gets out, serve 36 months on community custody, and is barred from contact with minors. He will also have to complete a 10-week program called “Stopping Sexual Exploitation” that’s run by Seattle Against Slavery.

The prosecutor agreed with the 16-month sentence, which is not the ceiling on the range for his crime — attempted commercial sex abuse of a minor — because it was important he attend the 10-week program and also have the no contact with minors order.

“It was important to get those elements to get that program for sex buyers, so people who are attempting to buy children for sex can see the repercussions of that and what victims have to go through in that lifelong trauma,” he explained.

The King County Prosecutor’s Office traditionally charges 30-40 of these cases a year – typically men who are sex buyers, arrested trying to pay a minor for sex.

“This is the way our office is confronting the demand for sex trafficking victims,” McNerthney said.

Just over half of those cases involve real victims and the remainder are detectives posing as minors. All cases in 2020 referred to the office involved men as defendants.

Prostitution cases, involving Johns who try to pickup of-age prostitutes, go to the City Attorney’s Office, which is a separate office.

“The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office prosecutes sex buyers of children. Over the last five years, 73.2% of our trafficking cases focus on buyers, whereas the national average for federal cases is 22.6%,” McNerthney said.

While the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision in February, and subsequent “Blake fix” bill passed by the Legislature in April, severely limited the ability of any prosecutor to do much more than divert minor drug possession cases, something the prosecutor has long favored with the help of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, King County is still going after drug dealers aggressively, including Joseph Crist, who was sentenced last Friday to six months in lock up after being convicted on charges of Violating the Uniform Controlled Substance Act, and Conspiracy to Commit a Violation of the Uniform Controlled Substance Act.

In Crist’s case, Redmond police in July 2020 were doing a sweep of a house following a domestic violence call and found what they described as a pill making room with several pill presses. With a search warrant they found meth, heroin, and fentanyl.

“He admitted to illegally having meth and a pill making device and pleaded guilty,” McNerthney said.

But a whopper of a drug case was being arraigned Monday, involving Homeland Security, a cartel, and a massive amount of drugs.

It started Oct. 27 when cops caught up with Jovany Cota-Valenzuela off Yesler Way in Seattle, where he showed up to deliver blue pills. He told Homeland Security he had powder fentanyl and that he had a loaded gun in the car he was driving.

Cota-Valenzuela is a Mexican citizen and had only been in the United States for about two weeks when he was picked up. He told investigators he was from Mexico and made a deal with a cartel: They smuggle him into the United States, and in exchange he heads to Seattle to sell their drugs. That’s exactly what he did, according to Homeland Security, who say they found the Cota-Valenzuela with just over 322 grams of heroin, 144 grams of meth, 48 grams of cocaine and fentanyl mixture, 26 grams of fentanyl and cocaine mixture, 110 grams of blue M30 pills containing fentanyl, 152 grams of blue M30 pills containing fentanyl, XDS 9MM firearm, and scales from the vehicle the defendant was driving in Pioneer Square.

Those drugs are now in evidence and can’t get on the streets where fentanyl and meth have caused a record number of overdose deaths so far this year.

“We know from Public Health data that overdose deaths, particularly from fentanyl, are an epidemic. There were three in 2015 and 175 from fentanyl last year in King County. More than 90% of ‘oxycodone’ pills recovered by Seattle police are bogus and contain fentanyl,” McNerthney said.

Meth was involved in 18 overdose deaths in 2010, and that jumped to 236 overdose death cases in King County in 2020, according to Public Health. The numbers are already worse this year.

The final case involved the murder of two homeless people in Kent in 2016, in shocking executions that took place over two days.

“Kent police say there was an argument at a gas station and the shooter was drunk, he cut in line and somebody confronted him and said, ‘hey, you know’ — in other words — ‘that’s not cool. You can’t do that.’ And what police say was that he followed them back to the homeless encampment and shot this woman in the head and then came back the next day, looking for witnesses, and shot the second victim there,” McNerthney said.

“These were vulnerable victims. And what’s really disturbing about this case, in addition to how they were killed and just the trauma of that, the second victim in this case, is that he came back to see if there was any witnesses and went to the camp. The person was there trying to defend himself with a baseball bat and it wasn’t enough. He was shot execution style in the head and killed,” McNerthney reflected.

He says it was tough on those handling the case to see the complete lack of regard for the two people killed by Bradley Shaw, who was sentenced to more than 50 years in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder for each killing, along with a firearm enhancement.

“Even if you’re experiencing homelessness, you should be treated as a victim of homicide the same way as if he lived in Medina or Clyde Hill,” McNerthney said.

“One of the prosecutors who handled the case argued in court that he really thought he could get away with it. He thought that nobody would care (because they were homeless). But people do. The police cared — who interviewed roughly 70 people to solve this case. The prosecutors who handled this case cared, who got the conviction before a jury. And now, he has a conviction for two first-degree murder counts and the firearm enhancement he’ll be going to jail for. He was sentenced to more than 50 years, and that’s a pretty significant sentence,” he said.

“It’s important that, regardless of who you are — whether you’re homeless or whether you’re not, whether you’re very well off — that if you’re the victim of a violent crime or a crime in general, the prosecutor’s office, and in this case police, will treat that violent crime with the same kind of intensity to solve as they would have for somebody else,” McNerthney said.

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More than 50 cases faced sentencing in King County last week