Tommy Ross Jr., right, sits with attorneys Harry Gasnick, left, and John Hayden during an appearance in Clallam County Superior Court. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Tommy Ross Jr., right, sits with attorneys Harry Gasnick, left, and John Hayden during an appearance in Clallam County Superior Court. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Charges dismissed in 40-year-old Port Angeles murder case

PORT ANGELES — A judge’s ruling in favor of dismissing charges against Tommy Ross Jr. in a four-decades-old murder case will be challenged by the Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols said Thursday he will appeal Superior Court Judge Brian Coughenour’s Wednesday ruling to the state Court of Appeals.

In ruling in favor of a motion by Ross’ attorney, Lane Wolfley of Port Angeles, Coughenhour dismissed first- and second-degree murder charges against Ross, 60, in the April 24, 1978, death of 20-year-old Janet Bowcutt in her Eighth Street Port Angeles apartment.

Coughenour said Ross’ constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated by the 40-year delay in the case.

“While we respect the court, we strongly disagree with the decision,” Nichols said in an interview, adding he may ask for a stay in Ross’ release from the Clallam County jail, where Ross has been incarcerated since mid-November in 2016.

Ross remained in jail Thursday on $1.5 million bail.

“I’m basically devastated,” Bowcutt’s sister, Pamela Horkey of Port Orchard, said Thursday.

“We waited 40 years to get justice and we thought we were going to get it and we just got slapped in the face.”

Janet Bowcutt’s son, Jimmy Bowcutt, was 6 months old when his mother was murdered. He was found by authorities crying on her bed while she lay dead on her bedroom floor.

He was informed of Coughenour’s ruling mid-afternoon Wednesday.

“I’m pretty pissed,” Bowcutt, who turns 41 this month, said Thursday.

“I was hoping to get justice, but that’s not going to happen.”

A Superior Court hearing at which Coughenour will consider an order of dismissal of the charges is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday.

After that, Ross could be released from custody, his lawyer, Lane Wolfley of Port Angeles, said Thursday.

“I expect him to walk out of court,” he said.

He was asked what he would tell Bowcutt’s family.

“I am very saddened that this matter could not have been addressed 40 years ago on the evidence, but all of us are benefited by the rule of law and the Constitution, which have been preserved,” Wolfley said.

Ross’ release from jail Tuesday “is certainly a possibility,” Nichols said.

“What would normally follow a dismissal of a case is a release from custody, so that is something we are planning on likely happening.”

Wolfley said he visited Ross on Wednesday night at the Clallam County jail, where he is the longest serving inmate.

He observed Ross’ reaction through the glass barrier in the jail’s visiting room as he told him the news.

“All I can say is, it was a mixture of elation and confusion and hope and concern,” Wolfley recalled.

“He has always maintained his innocence,” he said. He said that Ross has always denied confessing to the murder.

Ross admitted to two Port Angeles detectives in a 1988 interview that he killed Bowcutt and two other females in Anaheim and one other in Los Angeles, according to his probable cause statement.

Wolfley said Ross denied making the confession, which was not recorded.

Nichols said his office may ask for a stay of Ross’ release from the jail, citing his violent criminal history.

“Mr. Ross’ Victoria conviction and his history of attacking women in their homes is a danger because it poses substantial harm to the public,” he said.

In his ruling, Coughenhour focused on the actions of the prosecuting attorney’s office four decades ago.

In 1979, then-Prosecuting Attorney Grant Meiner, who later became a Clallam County Superior Court judge, deferred prosecuting Ross for Bowcutt’s murder, according to court records.

Meiner allowed Ross to be extradited from California, where he was facing murder and robbery charges, to Canada to face a murder charge in connection with the May 1978 strangulation death of 26-year-old Janice Forbes of Victoria.

Forbes was murdered three weeks after Bowcutt was murdered, in a manner similar to Bowcutt.

Meiner allowing Ross to go to Canada “was the genesis for reason for delay in this case,” Coughenour said.

According to court records, Canada did not honor a verbal agreement between Meiner and then-Crown Counsel Richard Anthony to return Ross to the U.S. following Ross’ conviction for murder in Forbes’ death.

Instead, Ross spent 37½ years in prison before his release in November 2016, his deportation to the U.S., and arrest at the Canadian border less than a week later on the June 10, 1978 murder charge in connection with Bowcutt’s death.

Clallam County never sought Ross’ extradition, Coughenour said.

“Clallam County simply waited for 37 and a half years to go by before Mr. Ross returned through the Canadian system for prosecution,” he said.

“This is not due diligence,” Coughenour said.

“It is particularly significant that the prosecuting attorney under whose administration this crime occurred warned that relinquishing jurisdiction to a foreign country would jeopardize prosecution,” Coughenour said, referring to Craig Ritchie, now a Port Angeles lawyer.

Coughnour recited a litany of assertions by Wolfley that Wolfley said impaired Ross’ defense, including evidence lost or destroyed, Ross’ lack of legal counsel on the Clallam County case while incarcerated in Canada, and experts witnesses who were dead or unable to testify.

Meiner said Thursday he relinquished jurisdiction of Ross to Canada in hopes that it would bolster his case against Ross in Port Angeles.

“I felt the Canadian case was a strong case and that with a conviction there, that could be used as evidence in our case that would bolster our case,” he said.

He said he did not recall Ritchie’s warning.

Wolfley said he had not filed a motion to dismiss the case on speedy-trial grounds until he delved into the assertion that Ross went to Canada to avoid the death penalty in Washington state.

In his motion to dismiss the charges, Wolfley extensively cited articles on the case in 1978 and 1979 in the Port Angeles Daily News, the predecessor to Peninsula Daily News, because court records from Lost Angeles County Superior Court were not available.

“The case could not have been solved without those Daily News article,” Wolfley said.

“The newspaper really held the prosecutor’s office accountable.

“What I discovered was that the Clallam County prosecutor gave away Tommy, and it was unclear why he did that,” Wolfley said.

“He just gave away Tommy to Canada on the basis of some agreement with the Crown counsel.”

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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