Clallam case basis of bill for Kimberly Bender’s law

By Paul Gottlieb

Olympic Peninsula News Group

OLYMPIA — Former corrections officer John Russell Gray spent 13 months in an Oregon prison for sexually assaulting four Forks jail inmates in 2019, all of whom were recovering from heroin addiction.

The Snohomish County resident, released from incarceration in early 2021, may forever be tied to legislation bearing the name of alleged victim Kimberly Bender and imposing stiffer sentences for the custodial sexual assaults he admitted to committing.

Bender, 23 and a single mother, died by suicide in December 2019, after the Quileute tribal member’s allegations of Gray’s lewd comments and behavior toward her led to an investigation and Gray’s arrest.

Bender had made the allegations three weeks earlier while being hospitalized for attempting suicide, then was returned to the same jail where she died in her cell.

“She was the whistleblower,” her family’s lawyer, indigenous rights attorney Gabe Galanda of Seattle, said Monday in Olympia at a Senate Law and Justice Committee hearing on Senate Bill 5033.

In moving testimony, Bender’s mother, tribal member Dawn Reid, said she believed, judging by her daughter’s behavior, that Gray had assaulted her daughter, too.

Reid recounted how Gray made lewd comments to Bender while she detoxed from heroin, according to allegations also contained in court records. He stared at her from the entry to her cell. He called her Princess, Reid said.

“Had Kimberly not spoken up, John Gray would have assaulted more women,” Reid said.

“He served 13 months in an Oregon state prison for assaulting four women. Four sexual assaults, 13 months. That’s it?”

“If Kimberly were alive I believe he would have been guilty of a fifth assault, but that would have only added a few more months to his sentence.

“This bill needs to be passed to deter the next John Gray from taking advantage of women in the care or custody of [a] jail or [a] prison.

“This would help me further realize that Kimberly’s suffering was not in vain. I hope you will consider naming this bill Kimberly’s law.”

Bipartisan Senate Bill 5033, which the committee Thursday renamed Kimberly Bender’s Law, would sharpen the 1999 statute under which Gray was sentenced to 20 months and served 13 on four counts of custodial sexual misconduct.

A lifelong corrections officer, Gray was 52 when sentenced and worked on-call at Clallam Bay Corrections Center.

First-degree custodial sexual misconduct involves intercourse. A second-degree offense involves sexual contact.

Both offenses apply to corrections officers and, in the case of first-degree custodial sexual misconduct, to police officers who have intercourse with a person being detained, is under arrest or in custody.

Two of the counts Gray pleaded guilty to in December 2020 were for first-degree custodial sexual misconduct, a Class C felony with a maximum five-year sentence. Two additional counts against Gray, of second-degree custodial sexual misconduct, are gross misdemeanors, which have maximum one-year sentences.

The law would upgrade second-degree custodial sexual misconduct to a Class C felony and increase the first-degree Class C felony offense to a Class B offense, boosting the maximum sentences to five years and 10 years.

It also would impose higher ceilings on sentencing ranges.

State lawmakers Thursday unanimously voted SB 5033 out of the Law and Justice Committee, two weeks before the Feb. 17 deadline as the 105-day legislative session concluded its fourth week. It now goes to the Rules Committee,

A second 2019 Clallam County custodial sexual misconduct case in which a corrections officer received no jail time also would have had a different outcome had SB 5033 been in effect.

Former Clallam County Corrections Deputy Howard Blair pleaded guilty in March 2019 to four counts of misdemeanor custodial sexual misconduct while working at the county jail.

Four women said Blair had fondled them, that they disrobed for him or performed oral sex on him, and that he made lewd comments toward them. One woman said Blair had tormented her for three years.

Superior Court Judge Lauren Erickson sentenced him to 364 days, with 244 days suspended and 120 days on electronic home surveillance, fearing for his safety if he served time in jail.

Testimony at the hearing Monday focused solely on Gray’s sentence.

“The more I learned, the more I thought this really is a necessary policy change,” said bill sponsor Sen. Mike Padden, a Central Washington-area Fourth District Republican who joined five Democrats in offering the legislation.

Michele Devlin, Clallam County Chief Criminal Deputy, testified in favor of the bill. She handled the 2020 prosecution of Gray, who pleaded guilty in February 2021.

He used his position as a corrections officer “as a revolving door of vulnerability,” Devlin said.

“This proposed change in the legislation increasing the severity level will fix some of these injustices,” she said.

She said the bill acknowledges the unequal power dynamic between inmates and corrections officers and the trauma endured by survivors of sexual assault.

“We know that this trauma is a cascading event of terror, she said, that can range from turning to drugs “to the loss of life.”

Devlin said the legislation also acknowledges that law enforcement, with its power and authority, should be held to standards higher than the general public.

State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Port Angeles, who represents the 24th legislative district, is one of five Democrats, including Senate Law and Justice Committee Chair Manka Dhingra, who co-sponsored the legislation.

Van De Wege said he was urged by Padden to support the measure because the assaults occurred in Clallam County, which along with Jefferson County and half of Grays Harbor County is in the 24th District.

“It’s awful when this unfortunately happens,” Van De Wege said, calling custodial sexual misconduct a violation of the public trust that “warrants a harsh penalty.”

He said the bill may pass despite some hesitancy in recent years among lawmakers for creating or enhancing penalties.

No one spoke against the legislation at the hearing.

Gray’s comments and behavior toward Bender were corroborated in interviews contained in a Forks Police Department report, Galanda said.

The city of Forks paid $1 million to settle the family’s negligence-civil rights case against the city that centered on Gray.

“Had the spotlight not been shined on the jail, maybe [Gray] would not have been exposed,” he said Thursday.

Galanda said Bender’s son receives 85 percent of the settlement and her mother, 15 percent.

“The city stands by the multiple layers of review of this event, its employees, and its defense of the lawsuit,” city officials said in a statement late last year following disclosure of the settlement.

The case was finalized Jan. 27 in federal Western District Court in Tacoma by Judge David Estudillo, who dismissed it in light of the court approving the settlement and a stipulated order of dismissal submitted by Bender’s family and the city.