Clallam County deputy accused of sex crimes

Clallam Corrections Deputy Howard Blair

Clallam Corrections Deputy Howard Blair

PORT ANGELES — A former Clallam County corrections deputy is facing charges of inappropriate touching of eight female inmates and having sexual contact with another woman in the county jail, Sheriff Bill Benedict said.

Howard Andrew Blair, 54, is expected to be charged today with first- and second-degree custodial sexual misconduct and fourth-degree assault with sexual motivation for a series of crimes that allegedly occurred before he was placed on administrative leave Sept. 26.

Blair joined the Sheriff’s Office in April 2007. He resigned in lieu of termination Dec. 22.

“The entire department is pretty upset at this behavior,” Benedict said in a Wednesday interview.

“It’s certainly not indicative of who we are, but it did happen.”

Formal charges

Grays Harbor County Prosecuting Attorney Katie Svoboda said Wednesday that she plans to file formal charges against Blair in Clallam County Superior Court today.

The Grays Harbor County prosecutor is handling the case to avoid conflicts of interest among Clallam County officials.

A female inmate reported that Blair had grabbed her buttocks while she was returning meal trays on Sept. 24, prompting a criminal investigation.

Sheriff’s Detective Joshua Ley determined that Blair had inappropriately touched a total of eight women while he was on duty over the course of several months, Benedict said.

Four of the eight women agreed to cooperate with the investigation.

“The touching was not consensual,” Benedict said, adding that even if it were it still would be against the law.

While Ley was interviewing witnesses, the Sheriff’s Office conducted a parallel administrative investigation into Blair’s behavior.

“It was determined that there were grounds for discipline, and the discipline on that was going to be termination,” Benedict said.

“Had we been aware of the felony part of it, I probably would not have allowed him to resign. I probably would have just terminated him.”

On Feb. 20, a former Clallam County jail inmate who had been sentenced to state prison told a mental health counselor that she and Blair had had sexual relations over a six-month period when she was incarcerated in the jail.

The woman told investigators that the sexual contact was consensual. A person who is in custody is not legally able to give consent.

The woman told Ley that she and Blair had frequent sexual encounters but never had penile intercourse.

According to Ley’s investigation, Blair gave the woman cookies and coffee in exchange for sexual contact that began in January 2017 and continued though June 2017.

Redacted investigative reports provided by Benedict included sexually explicit letters that Blair allegedly sent to the woman after she was transferred to the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor.

The woman told Ley that she and Blair had “done things in all the blind spots” where the jail security cameras could not detect them.

The Sheriff’s Office installed new security cameras in the 120-bed jail about four years ago.

“We’re taking a hard look at policy in terms of having interactions of inmates with just a single corrections deputy,” Benedict said.

“Generally, we try to have two corrections deputies for both officer safety and to avoid this, but right now our staffing wouldn’t allow that.”

First-degree custodial sexual misconduct, a Class C felony, occurs when a corrections officer has sexual intercourse with an inmate.

Second-degree custodial sexual misconduct, a gross misdemeanor, occurs when a corrections officer has sexual contact with an inmate.

Several deputies, sergeants and state Fish and Wildlife officers served a search warrant at Blair’s Port Angeles residence May 1. Blair was detained during the search but was not arrested.

He is expected to be summoned to Clallam County Superior Court for an arraignment in June, Benedict said.

Blair joined the Sheriff’s Office shortly after Benedict became sheriff in January 2007.

Ley spent months interviewing female inmates and investigating the alleged sexual contact between Blair and the former inmate.

The investigation resulted in a binder several inches thick.

“I had him investigate the whole jail,” Benedict said.

“The good news is that he assures me that he saw there was no evidence whatsoever of any other corrections deputy being involved.”

Benedict said he was “devastated” when the allegations surfaced.

The third-term sheriff, who is running against former detective Jim McLaughlin in the November election, said he was certain that the case would become a campaign issue.

“We’ve done a thorough audit of the jail and investigation,” Benedict said.

“It’s my belief that [Blair] was a lone actor and thoroughly betrayed the trust of the community and the trust of the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

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