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Originally published September 10, 2011 at 3:48 PM | Page modified September 10, 2011 at 4:30 PM

Sheriff's spokesman is quitting department after 23 years

Sgt. John Urquhart, who has worked under two sheriffs as spokesman for the King County Sheriff's Office for the past 11 years, is stepping down later this month.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sgt. John Urquhart used to read five newspapers a day. Now he reads two.

As spokesman for the King County Sheriff's Office for more than a decade, Urquhart once could take his time returning reporters' phone calls. But he hasn't had that luxury since the Internet demolished traditional deadlines and gave rise to a new generation of online journalists.

While many cops may view the media as a necessary evil, Urquhart — the blunt-speaking, sometimes prickly, always-good-for-a-quote face of the state's third-largest law-enforcement agency — is a self-described news junkie who sees the media as an integral part of a democratic society.

"I respect the press. Their role in society is exactly the same as ours — we keep America safe and free. You are the watchdog on government and we put bad guys in jail. We need both in this country," he said.

Urquhart, known for his honesty and ruthless wit, is leaving the Sheriff's Office after 23 years, the last 11 of them spent as the department's media-relations officer. His last day is Sept. 23, though he's promised Sheriff Sue Rahr to stay on to train his replacement.

Rahr said it will be impossible to find a personality like Urquhart's.

"He cuts nobody any slack, especially me," Rahr said. "He takes great joy in letting me know when I make a mistake or I've said something stupid. It's rare to find somebody who is completely unintimidated by the boss and I know I will always get the truth from him."

Rahr joked she was "practically suicidal" when Urquhart announced he would be leaving. "He's so much more than a media-relations officer. He's one of my most trusted advisers and I'm going to miss that."

Urquhart, 63, insists he isn't retiring.

"I'm quitting. Retiring means sitting in a rocking chair, whittling on the front porch. It means the early-bird special at the Old Country Buffet," he said. "... I've come to the realization it's time. There are other things I want to do with my life."

He has no plans, other than spending more time with his wife and his dog and finally getting the siding up on the house on Mercer Island that he's been renovating for 25 years. He's been married to Shelley, a pharmacist, for 36 years and is the father of two adult daughters.

A graduate of Ingraham High School and the University of Washington, Urquhart owned a successful business selling electrical construction materials before he sold the company in 1982.

He became a reserve deputy in Island County in 1975 before transferring to the King County department in 1980. He became a full-time deputy in 1988.

In the early 1990s, Urquhart was a patrol deputy assigned to a squad led by then-Sgt. Dave Reichert, who would later become sheriff. Urquhart later worked as a plainclothes vice and narcotics detective in SeaTac before becoming department spokesman in July 1998.

"I recognized his verbal skills immediately," Reichert, a Republican representative who was elected to Congress six years ago, said of Urquhart. "When I became sheriff, I thought this guy really has the ability to communicate clearly, say it like it is, and handle tough situations in a very professional way."

When Urquhart was promoted to sergeant in April 2000, Reichert reluctantly let him go back to patrol. Four months later, Reichert asked him to come back as his spokesman, a 30-day assignment that turned into 1 ½ years.

It was during that time that Gary Ridgway was identified as the Green River killer, the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history. He would later be sentenced to life in prison for killing dozens of women.

Ridgway's arrest prompted worldwide publicity, said Urquhart, who wrote Reichert's prepared statement that was later included in a book written by the former sheriff. "My words, his lips," Urquhart said. "It's kind of a legacy, I guess."

Always a stickler for accuracy, Urquhart said he had "some fairly spirited discussions" with members of the Green River Task Force, who wanted to identify Ridgway as the Green River killer upon his arrest. But Urquhart resisted because, at the time, they weren't certain Ridgway was responsible for more than the three killings initially attributed to him. Urquhart ultimately won.

"It was extremely exciting to be a part of that. Even though it wasn't an investigative part, it was an integral part," Urquhart said.

Urquhart said the case that has haunted him the most was the slaying of six members of a Carnation family, including two young children, on Christmas Eve 2007. The defendants, Michele Anderson and her former boyfriend, Joe McEnroe, are scheduled to go on trial later this year and could face the death penalty if convicted.

"The one that caused me really sleepless nights and really bothered me for a long time was Carnation because of the two little kids that got killed and the way it was done, the viciousness of it," he said.

Urquhart left the media office again in March 2002 — but came back in October 2003 at Reichert's request.

Reichert said Urquhart has maintained the trust of cops on the street while projecting "a certain confidence" that gives people peace of mind during stressful incidents.

Urquhart is so trusted by his colleagues that he's allowed to attend briefings at slaying scenes and send out news releases without getting them approved first.

"I want 100 percent of the information so I can give [the media] an accurate 10 percent. I want to give you enough information to tell the public what happened without compromising our investigation," said Urquhart. "No matter how much I believe in the public's right to know, the investigation has to come first."

In the past decade, he's watched the news media go through a revolutionary change, as newspapers shut down and neighborhood blogs proliferated.

What hasn't changed is his relationship with reporters — with a few exceptions.

"These really are my friends," Urquhart said of the journalists he's worked with. "It's been a long time and it's a business relationship, but it's a friendship as well. It's based on mutual respect, which is the best kind of friendship when you get down to it."

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

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