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Originally published Monday, May 10, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Seattle officers appeal discipline for fatal release decision

A Seattle police sergeant and a patrol officer are appealing their suspensions late last year after they released a domestic-violence suspect who then returned home and allegedly killed his roommate.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A Seattle police sergeant and a patrol officer are appealing their suspensions late last year after they released a domestic-violence suspect who then returned home and allegedly killed his roommate.

Seattle police Sgt. Roger Rusness and Officer Adley Shepherd were disciplined for the decision to release Valente Alvarez-Guerrero instead of booking him into the King County Jail after he was arrested in a May 27 assault on his roommate, according to internal-investigation documents released in response to a public-disclosure request.

Two hours after Alvarez-Guerrero was arrested he is accused of returning to his South Seattle apartment and fatally stabbing Arturo Guillen Ramirez, 36. Alvarez-Guerrero, 41, who has been charged with second-degree murder, is expected to stand trial later this month.

The complaints against Rusness and Shepherd hinged on state law — and Seattle Police Department policy — that requires that anyone suspected of domestic violence be arrested and booked into jail. The state definition includes adults living together, regardless of whether they're romantically involved.

According to the internal-investigations documents, Rusness had a three-minute phone conversation with Shepherd, the arresting officer, before Alvarez-Guerrero was released.

This was a violation of department policy requiring that supervisors conduct in-person screenings and see arrestees before they're released or taken to jail — even if it's through a holding-cell window or on a TV monitor, the documents say.

Rusness told investigators with the department's Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) that Shepherd never told him the assault involved roommates — which elevated the incident from a misdemeanor assault to a domestic-violence assault. Shepherd, however, said he did, according to interview transcripts.

Rusness and Shepherd have served their suspensions — 12 days without pay in Rusness' case, and 10 days without pay for Shepherd — but both have filed appeals, which will be heard by a civilian arbitrator, probably by late summer or early fall, said Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild.

They plan to argue that the suspensions handed down by Interim Police Chief John Diaz were too severe, he said.

While O'Neill acknowledged that Rusness and Shepherd made administrative mistakes, he said it's not fair to hold them responsible for Guillen Ramirez's death or punish them based "on the end result."

Even if Alvarez-Guerrero had been booked into jail that night, "people don't stay in jail forever," O'Neill said. "He would've seen a judge and been gone the next morning."

While the assault on Guillen Ramirez meets the definition of domestic violence (DV), O'Neill said the case of "two guys duking it out" isn't typically what officers see when investigating DV-related incidents.

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Guillen Ramirez wasn't afraid of Alvarez-Guerrero, didn't want him arrested and offered to let him stay the night so long as he left in the morning, O'Neill said. And Alvarez-Guerrero showed no signs of "emotional rage" — the kind that typically leads someone to commit violence against a partner, family member or roommate.

In hindsight, Shepherd should have booked Alvarez-Guerrero that night, "but I think he was trying to show a little empathy for the guy," O'Neill said.

Woke up angry

Guillen Ramirez called 911 at 11:52 p.m. on May 27.

The call to police was prompted after he'd come home with a woman and she turned on the living room light, waking Alvarez-Guerrero, who'd moved in two months earlier, according to a Seattle police report. Alvarez-Guerrero allegedly became enraged, scaring the woman away and then attacking Guillen Ramirez in his bed, the report says.

After police arrived, Guillen Ramirez, his mouth bloodied and his bedroom trashed, answered a few questions but then stopped cooperating, according to a police report and Shepherd's OPA interview transcripts.

In his OPA interviews, Shepherd spoke about being unsure which man was "the primary aggressor," since both had injuries consistent with a fight, according to the transcripts.

Shepherd also discussed his uncertainty about whether the King County Jail would accept Alvarez-Guerrero because of a pre-existing injury to his hand, according to the transcripts. Alvarez-Guerrero was scheduled to have surgery the following day, the documents say.

According to Shepherd's interview transcripts, Alvarez-Guerrero was calm, even mellow, after his arrest. He had $350 cash — more than enough for a motel room — and told Shepherd he understood that he was not to return to Guillen Ramirez's apartment, the transcripts say.

Alvarez-Guerrero was placed in a South Precinct holding cell at 12:30 a.m. and was released 35 minutes later, according to a detainee log.

On May 28, the same day Guillen Ramirez was killed and Alvarez-Guerrero was arrested after fleeing to California, OPA Lt. Mark Kuehn filed complaints against Rusness and Shepherd.

Ruling by police chief

In December, Diaz sustained two complaints each against Rusness and Shepherd, the documents say.

Rusness, a sergeant since 2000 who has served more than 30 years with the Seattle police, was found to have violated his responsibility as a supervisor and the department's arrest procedures. In addition to his 12-day suspension, he was ordered to receive additional training on the department's domestic-violence policy, tactics and procedures.

Shepherd, a five-year veteran, was suspended and transferred out of his South Precinct unit, the documents say. Shepherd was found to have violated department policies related to the exercise of discretion and adherence to the law.

Through their interviews with OPA investigators, it's clear both Rusness and Shepherd understood the department's policy dictating that domestic-violence suspects are subject to mandatory arrest.

"If I would have heard DV or domestic, we wouldn't be sitting here. And roommates were not even brought up in this conversation," Rusness said during a July interview with OPA.

Rusness also said he left the decision to release or book Alvarez-Guerrero to Shepherd, saying he trusted the experienced officer's judgment, the documents say. Rusness instructed Shepherd "to document everything" about the incident, according to the interview transcripts.

But Shepherd said he sought Rusness' permission to release Alvarez-Guerrero: "I didn't do it on my own," he told the OPA investigator.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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