Inside the search for Washington state prisoners released early by mistake

BURIEN, Wash.  -- When state officials announced late last year that thousands of convicted criminals had been mistakenly released from prison early over the past 13 years, the search began for the dozens who would need to be tracked down and put back behind bars.

Arrest plans were made, fugitive recovery teams were mobilized, and agents working for the Department of Corrections found themselves in the difficult position of being the bearers of bad news.

“I guess we’re sympathetic to their situation – that they’re out through no fault of their own,” said John Conaty, an officer specialist who works fugitive apprehension for the state’s prison system.

As he spoke, Conaty sat in an unmarked SUV on a residential street in Burien, awaiting a phone call from his partners, who were in a truck parked a few blocks away.

“Right now we’re going to try to locate a DOC offender with a warrant,” Conaty said. “We got information of a possible location that he may be coming and going from and my partner has seen someone who matches the physical characteristics of our target, so we’re going to go there and try to make contact with him.”

The offender they were looking for was Ryan O’Dell, a felon who spent more than five years behind bars for burglary, robbery, and unlawful possession of a firearm.

O’Dell is one of roughly 3,300 inmates mistakenly released from prison early since 2002 – the result of a computer glitch that miscalculated sentences for certain offenders.

After waiting for several hours to see if they could spot O’Dell leaving an abandoned home in the neighborhood, the team called for backup and decided to move in.

O’Dell was inside the house and quickly surrendered.

“What is this?” O’Dell asked.

“You’ve got a warrant,” Conaty told him.

“When did I get a warrant?”

The three agents informed O’Dell of the computer error and told him he needed to return to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence – 216 days, according to the Department of Corrections.

“It’s very upsetting,” O’Dell said.

“Considering it’s just me and my two sons, basically, and my girlfriend, it’s going to put a hardship on them.”

O’Dell said he had tried to keep out of trouble after being released from prison, but did have one “negative contact” with police, as he put it.

“Possession,” he said. “A small piece of heroin.”

The “negative contact” O’Dell had after his mistaken release is partly to blame for the fact he had to return. By state law, those released from prison early through no fault of their own are owed a credit for each day they stayed out of trouble. That time can be forfeited if the offender violates the conditions of their release.

In total, 116 offenders were identified as needing to return to prison as a result of the DOC glitch. As of Tuesday, eight of those offenders were yet to be apprehended, although it’s possible some are deceased or locked up in other states, the DOC said.

Chad Winfrey, an officer specialist who works for a joint DOC-Seattle police team called the Neighborhood Corrections Initiative, said apprehending some of the early release offenders has been emotional.

“Complete sadness to complete anger,” he said of the emotions of those being returned to prison. “And every level of frustration in the middle.”

Other members of Winfrey’s team – tasked with recovering 27 of the offenders in total – recalled one instance where a man had to be pulled out of a rehab program to be returned to prison for just a few days.

In another case, the team had to comfort the crying family of an offender.

Still, the men acknowledged that some of those returned to prison had gone back to their old ways.

“Some could definitely benefit from a little more time in adult time-out,” Conaty said.

The teams also reflected on the scandal’s impact on the Department of Corrections as a whole. All expressed their admiration for Dan Pacholke, who resigned as head of DOC on Saturday after 33 years with the agency.

Pacholke cited the political climate in Olympia in his decision to leave the agency, writing in a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee that he hoped he could satisfy the political “blood thirst” of Senate Republicans by stepping down.

A nationally recognized leader in prison reform, Pacholke was beloved within the agency.

“He understood the human condition,” said Leslie Mills, who is in charge of the Neighborhood Corrections Initiative team.

“Dan Pacholke dedicated more than half of his life as a civil servant and reminded us each day that he valued our dedication to the human condition as evidenced by his close-eye and attention to our work,” she wrote in an email. “He believes it takes courage, loyalty and dedication to perform this type of challenging work, and he was right.”

And over the last two months, as teams with the Department of Corrections set out on the difficult task of arresting and returning offenders to prison, Dan Pacholke took the time to personally thank them.

“Thanks for moving in on this apprehension so quickly,” Pacholke wrote in an email to team members after one arrest. “I appreciate the extra effort late on a Sunday night.”