PORT TOWNSEND — Two men who allegedly attempted to fake a suicide at Fort Worden State Park so one could leave the U.S. Army have been charged in federal court.
Devin Mitchell Schmidt, 20, a former soldier at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) near Tacoma allegedly attempted to fake his death with the assistance of his cousin, Ryen Ethan Bell, 21, of Bonney Lake, in December as part of a plan to leave the military and move to Mexico, authorities said.
Schmidt received an Other than Honorable Discharge from the military on March 25.
The pair was charged Wednesday with knowingly communicating a false distress message to the U.S. Coast Guard — a federal felony — at the U.S. District Court in Tacoma, court documents said.
Making a false distress call to the Coast Guard is punishable by up to six years confinement, three years of supervised release, up to $100,000 in civil penalties and up to $250,000 in fines, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice.
It also could result in financial liability for all costs incurred by the Coast Guard for the life-saving efforts, according to the release.
The charges were filed by special agent Evan Sanborn of the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) before Judge J. Richard Creatura, a U.S. Magistrate Judge.
The next court date for the pair is on June 4 at the U.S. District Court, according to the press release.
Sanborn gave the following account in a criminal complaint filed with the court:
On Dec. 18, Schmidt failed to report for military duty at 6:30 a.m. at JBLM and instead went to Bell’s house in Bonney Lake. Bell hid Schmidt from his mother, Bambi Bell. Later, Bell and his mother left the house separately.
Schmidt later called Bell and requested $150 and then took an Uber from Bell’s house to Fort Worden, which cost $144.66.
After he arrived at Fort Worden State Park at 9:31 a.m., Schmidt created a fake suicide video saying goodbye to his friends and family and sent it to Bell at 1:15 p.m.
Bell drove to the park with a friend and found Schmidt’s dog tags, unlocked phone and other belongings at the top of the cliff, about 150 feet above the beach.
Bell filed a missing person’s report with the Port Townsend Police Department at about 5:40 p.m., after he notified Schmidt’s parents, who live in Port Townsend. Schmidt’s mother called 911 at 4:58 p.m.
Port Townsend police asked for assistance from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the Coast Guard, but due to severe weather and available light, the Coast Guard started a search of the waters below the cliff the next morning, Sanborn said in the court document.
The search lasted about 10 hours and cost the Coast Guard $172,000, which includes more than $46,000 in Navy maritime assets, Sanborn said.
At about 4 p.m. Dec. 19, the search and rescue team conducted a debriefing with Schmidt’s parents and Bell’s family, during which they discussed Schmidt’s Uber ride, Sanborn said.
Bambi Bell became suspicious of her son, saying he had told her that the Uber had picked up Schmidt at a friend’s house and had informed her that Schmidt was missing at 9:14 a.m., four hours before the suicide video was sent to Bell, Sanborn said in the court document.
Casey Crawford, a friend of Bell’s and Schmidt’s, said Bell had showed him a Facebook message from “Jake Elbstein,” requesting Bell to meet him at the Port Townsend McDonald’s at 6 p.m., and he believed the message was from Schmidt, Sanborn said.
Law enforcement took Schmidt into custody at about 5:55 p.m. that night at the McDonald’s, and Bell was later taken into custody.
After he was read his Miranda rights, Schmidt admitted he was aware of the search, and that he had created the fake “Jake Elbstein” account to send Bell the message, Sanborn said, adding Schmidt also admitted that Bell agreed to assist with the suicide hoax and create the false report with law enforcement.
Sanborn said Schmidt referred to the initial suicide hoax as “phase one” in a plan to leave the military and travel to Mexico.
After having been read his rights, Bell admitted to knowing about Schmidt’s plan and said that he went along with it because Schmidt was “a loyal lifelong friend,” Sanborn said, adding that Bell also said that Schmidt would have done it with or without his help.
Sanborn said Bell also admitted he continued to help the Coast Guard and authorities with the search knowing Schmidt wouldn’t be found and believed they had successfully fooled authorities until his mother notified police of her suspicions.
Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at [email protected].