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Published: Tuesday, April 3, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

County weed inspector under scrutiny in lawsuit

Concerns were raised before a confrontation that turned deadly, court papers say

VERLOT -- More than one manager raised concerns about an apparent lack of oversight for a Snohomish County weed inspector, whose fellow co-workers reportedly nicknamed him "Little Hitler" because of his temper, according to court documents recently filed as part of a federal lawsuit.
A month before a Verlot man was shot dead in a confrontation over weeds, Sonny Gohrman was ordered to meet with the county's risk manager to discuss how he and the Noxious Weed crew were taking enforcement action against private property owners.
Despite county policy, Gohrman had never undergone a performance evaluation and there wasn't a clear understanding of who should be supervising him, the court papers said.
Gohrman's employment history with Snohomish County has come under scrutiny as part of a federal wrongful-death lawsuit filed in connection with the May 29, 2009, shooting death of Daniel Wasilchen.
A Snohomish County sheriff's deputy fatally shot an armed Wasilchen, 44, after a heated argument with Gohrman.
Seattle attorney Ray Dearie recently filed a motion asking a federal judge to find in favor of his clients without a trial. He argued that the evidence, including testimony from Gohrman and the deputy, prove that the county-paid weed inspector violated the slain man's right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The wrongful-death lawsuit alleges that the county failed to properly train and supervise Gohrman. He has been the coordinator for the Snohomish County Noxious Weed Control Board since 1999. Gohrman's salary is paid by the county, but he reports to the county-wide weed control board, a separate entity.
"Instead of following the law, Gohrman chose to teach Dan Wasilchen a lesson. (He) misrepresented Washington law and induced two armed police officers to return to Dan Wasilchen's property. Sonny Gohrman knew better … ," Dearie wrote in the motion.
It is undisputed that Wasilchen told Gohrman to leave, going so far as to shove the weed inspector and threatening to shoot him if he returned, Dearie wrote. The lawyer alleges that Gohrman returned without a warrant, violating the law.
But county attorneys argue the Seattle lawyer's claims aren't supported by the evidence. They allege that no county employee entered Wasilchen's property. The dispute and shooting happened on county right-of-way, deputy prosecutors wrote. They also claim that Gohrman's purpose in contacting Wasilchen wasn't to spray weeds so he didn't need a warrant. They also defend Gohrman's training and supervision.
"Wasilchen was shot and killed because he armed himself with a firearm, pointed it at law enforcement officers and refused to drop it when lawfully ordered to do so," Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Michael Held wrote in response to Dearie's motion.
A federal judge hasn't ruled on the motion and it wasn't immediately clear when that could happen.
Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe concluded in 2010 that sheriff's Deputy Greg Rasar was legally justified in shooting Wasilchen. The deputy did everything he could to avoid lethal force, Roe said.
Wasilchen's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit last year, alleging that Rasar failed to follow proper police procedures. The lawsuit focuses primarily on Gohrman and his actions. Gohrman is accused of misleading deputies about his authority and violating Wasilchen's rights.
Wasilchen, a Boeing worker and former U.S. Army Ranger, was working on refurbishing an old Jeep when his stepfather and uncle came by for a visit. Gohrman and a seasonal employee stopped across the street from the property. Gohrman said he intended to get an agreement that would allow his crew to come back in a few months and spray for knotweed, an invasive species.
The county said the men weren't going to spray that day.
Both Wasilchen's relatives testified in depositions that Gohrman was unprofessional and became "belligerent and obnoxious" when he found Wasilchen unreceptive.
Wasilchen was concerned that the chemicals would be dangerous for his dogs, his stepfather told The Herald. He was upset that Gohrman was on his property. He pushed the weed inspector and threatened to shoot him if he came back, according to court papers.
The seasonal employee testified that Gohrman was "livid" and directed him to drive back toward Granite Falls to call 911. Gohrman told the emergency dispatchers that "essentially it's a misdemeanor if they don't let us do an inspection once we've contacted them," according to court records. He said he would follow the deputies or lead them to the property.
The seasonal employee testified that the purpose of going back was to access the property and spray for knotweed.
Gohrman arrived ahead of the deputies and parked in the driveway. Wasilchen didn't notice the deputies; instead, he went inside and retrieved a gun. He seemed surprised to see the deputies, court papers said.
The deputies testified that Wasilchen raised his gun. They ordered him to drop the weapon more than once, but he continued to aim at the deputies, prosecutors wrote. The deputies testified that they were worried Wasilchen was going to shoot. Rasar fired three rounds. Wasilchen was hit in the chest, arm and neck. He died at the scene.
The lawsuit alleges that if Gohrman had followed the law and sought a search warrant before returning to the property, the shooting could have been avoided.
Rasar testified that Gohrman didn't tell him that once a landowner refused access, a court-approved warrant was necessary to gain access.
County lawyers counter that most of Wasilchen's front yard and the area where the shooting happened actually belongs to the county.
Dearie argues that Wasilchen had reasonable expectation of privacy in the area surrounding his home and believed it was his property.
The Seattle attorney alleges that Gohrman has been a long-term problem for the county. He dug up emails that show various managers concerned about who was overseeing the weed-control program and supervising Gohrman. Public Works Director Steve Thomsen in March 2009 asked Gohrman to schedule a meeting to "discuss issues that have come up around accountability, reporting structure and enforcements."
Other e-mail shows that there were questions about whether Gohrman was required to follow county policies or cooperate with leaders in other departments. One email suggested that the county look at whether the weed-control program should report to the county executive's office. The road maintenance director determined that the majority of the state's counties have direct supervision over their noxious weed coordinator and employees.
County lawyers maintain that Gohrman was properly trained.
Thomsen, however, recently testified that Gohrman should have "(stood) down from the event and given it a day or two before he approached it again," court papers said.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » PoliceHomicideVerlot

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