Saturday, February 9, 2013
WALLA WALLA — A local businessman is under investigation for acts of vandalism involving a breach of state ordinances.
Jim Sanders, co-owner of Public House 124 on Main Street, told police last month he was responsible for dumping tubs filled with used cooking grease at the Walla Walla home of Randy and Clara Grant.
On Monday, the couple will go to court to seek an extension of a restraining order against Sanders and Deborah Daly.
The neighborhood with its wide and gently sloping street is filled with homes built in the 1970s and set toward the front of generous lots. Landscaped lawns are well kept, looking like lush carpets rolled out to welcome visitors, even in winter.
Except at the Grants. Their front yard bears irregular-shaped expanses of dead grass. The browned areas — and the blackened top of a nearby bush — stink, as well.
After nine months and five incidents, the couple learned in late January what had been eating their lawn — gallons of used commercial cooking grease.
Dumped by Sanders and, at least on one occasion, an accomplice, according to police reports.
It was grease from the restaurant’s dish-cleaning system, which uses a grease-trap interceptor under the kitchen sinks as dishes and pans are cleaned. The resulting substance is supposed to be recycled offsite, said restaurant co-owner Matthew Price-Huntington.
Sanders was a long-time employee of the Walla Walla YMCA, rising to executive director before he was fired in October 2009, along with Debbie Daly, operations manager. At the time, the YMCA board said it was dedicated to enforcing the organization’s employee code of conduct but gave no further information about its decision.
Randy Grant was hired by the board to fill the executive director position in January 2010. Union-Bulletin Publisher Rob Blethen is a member of the YMCA board.
The trouble began in March, Grant said Thursday. According to a report from the Walla Walla Police Department, Grant found a “foul smelling substance” on his front lawn. That time, it looked to Grant and police officers to be a pile of manure or septic waste, and Grant assumed the incident to be a prank.
Throughout the year, the Grants awoke four more times to a similar scene. They also found their back yard trespassed and their screen door smeared with the putrid slime, directly over the front door’s peephole, Grant said. “I thought it was from a pig farm that somebody had dumped.”
The couple told police they wondered if the vandalism had been done by former YMCA employees.
In September the homeowners had a security system installed, put deadbolts on their entrance doors, padlocked the back gate and borrowed a night-vision camera designed for hunting to hang in a tree. They asked neighbors to be on the lookout for suspicious activity.
That appeared to do the trick until the camera’s owner needed it back last month.
On Jan. 27, the Grants were watching Sunday night television when the doorbell rang. On the porch stood a neighbor and WWPD Officer Tim Martindale.
The neighbor had seen a car approach the street with its lights off, then watched as a man and woman exited the Mercedes SUV and placed two plastic containers on the street before leaving in the rig, according to the report taken by Martindale.
The pair returned to the same spot, walked to the 18-gallon tubs, then appeared to enter the Grants’ house.
“It seems the two suspects wanted it to appear they belonged to the residence and when (redacted) had driven past they either left down the street or hid somewhere nearby,” according to the report.
Martindale checked the hood of the unlocked vehicle left behind to determine it had been recently driven and ran a license-plate check.
The vehicle is registered to Sanders. A visit by another officer to Sanders’ residence — which is the same as Public House 124, 124 E. Main St. — revealed Sanders was not on there. A vehicle registered to another person was parked at the business, which is closed Sunday and Monday.
Martindale walked with Grant to the duct-taped containers in the street. The substance inside had the same look and smell as what had been dumped on his lawn in the past, Grant told the officer.
“I could see whatever was in the tubs looked like a mixture of oven grease, animal fat and possibly some kind of chemical,” Martindale wrote, adding that a towel of the sort used in restaurants was left atop the totes.
Martindale stayed on watch for the vehicle’s occupants to return, but his shift ended before that happened.
That’s when he went on duty, Grant said, waiting in his own car for any movement in the neighborhood. Sometime before midnight, he saw a man running through nearby lawns with a black hooded sweatshirt pulled low on his head. Grant pulled alongside and told the man to stop, at which point the man increased his speed, Grant said Thursday. The person disappeared down the dark side of a house and Grant returned home.
Grant said he recognized the movements and build of Sanders, even though he couldn’t see his face.
Sanders later told police over the phone he was at a friend’s house on another street in the neighborhood and was too drunk to drive home. When an officer came to his apartment, however, Sanders said he was the one dumping tubs of grease on Grant’s lawn, saying it was a juvenile thing to do “and that he had a long walk home from (Grant’s street) to think about it.”
On Jan. 28, Sanders sent an email to Grant, who supplied copies to the U-B.
“Suffice it to say, I owe you and your wife an enormous apology. Despite any differences we may have, there is no justification for my actions. It was not only stupid, but very juvenile. To say I am embarrassed and very regretful, is an understatement. I allowed some personal feelings between us, to cloud my judgement. Along with my actions, I realize there has to be significant damage to your personal property. With my apology, I would like to pay for any and all repairs to your yard. I can assure you there will not be any disrespect directed towards you or your family from me, anytime from here on out. If a face to face apology or further explanation is requested, I would be happy to comply. Again, I sincerely apologize for my severe lack of judgement. Jim.”
In a Jan. 29 email, Sanders told Grant he could understand why Grant wanted no contact with him, again promising the vandalism would never happen again. “I want to do everything in my power to make this right to you and your family. I realize these may sound like words, but I am prepared to put any action behind them. I am ashamed of my actions and I wish I would have shown better and much more mature judgement.”
On Friday, Sanders told a U-B reporter he had retained an attorney and would have no comment.
In an email sent Monday to YMCA staff members, a copy of which was supplied to the U-B, Debbie Daly expressed awareness that Grant had told his staff of the yard vandalism and denied having stepped foot on Grant’s property, but said: “I was aware that Jim had dumped grease on his yard months ago. I told him at the time it was a stupid and dangerous thing to do.”
Daly went on to say she had been humiliated when served with a restraining order initiated by the Grants while she was at Curves gym, which Daly owns.
The former Y operations director also said in her email that she and Sanders accepted full responsibility for termination of their jobs, and decried Grant’s leadership style. “However, none of those things justify what Jim did. To say I have exhibited poor judgement in the past is an understatement ... I am not guilty of the actions against Randy.”
On Jan. 31 Sanders resigned as a board member of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, where he had served for about a year.
“He told me that he felt he didn’t exhibit leadership qualities,” said Elio Agostini, executive director. “I didn’t ask questions. He seemed very sad.”
The disposal of commercial cooking grease is regulated by state law, said Harvey Crowder, administrator for Walla Walla County Public Health Department. “The dumping of grease on a lawn is on violation of the Revised Code of Washington and Washington Administrative Code for disposal.”
He and Sanitation Supervisor Kevin Turman looked at the Grants’ lawn and found greasy soil under the dead patches, Crowder said. The damaged soil will have to be removed and taken to the landfill, and viable soil and turf brought in, he noted.
Fines climbing to as much as $100 per cubic foot can be charged as a penalty, Crowder said, referencing the state law covering litter cleanup restitution payment.
The incident is under investigation, Detective Matt Wood said Friday. “We’re trying to determine if we have a crime, and if we do, to what extent.” There are a number of people police will be talking to, he added.
Price-Huntington said Friday afternoon he had been unaware of Sanders’s actions until the most recent incident. “I’m shocked this has been going on this long.”
His business partner is “extremely sorry” for his actions, “and he’s going to be paying the consequences for it,” the restaurateur said. “I apologize sincerely that I didn’t know and couldn’t stop these actions sooner ... it’s not how I operate a business.”
His hope is that the town can see this as an individual mistake on Sanders’ part and realize the efforts and goals of others at Public House 124 are intact.
“Hopefully people still believe in my integrity and that I want to be a positive role model in the community,” Price-Huntington said.