At the end of the year, Sheriff Mark Brown will end his 44-year career in law enforcement and pass the baton, keys, office and files to Rick Felici — but not his badge.
“The glass is still half full, with hope for the future,” Brown said. “I’m pleased with the whole department here, how we work together and get along.”
He said the transition is smooth, since Felici has been working for years as No. 2 in Brown’s command structure.
Camano Law Enforcement Support Foundation threw Brown a retirement breakfast party Tuesday, Dec. 11, at the Crow’s Nest. CLESF is a nonprofit set up to accept donations to support Camano Island law enforcement and helps fund the island’s Citizens Patrol.
Volunteers and law enforcement officials gathered over coffee, waffles and eggs to honor Brown. They’d worked with him in various capacities over the years and showed deep admiration for the man who led the Island County Sheriff’s Department for 12 years. It’s an elected position; he served three terms.
Secret behind the badge
On behalf of CLESF, member Bill Richards presented Brown a plaque complete with a shiny silver retirement badge, then divulged the story behind it.
Richards, a known teller of tall tales, confessed to the room packed with law enforcement officers and citizen patrol volunteers that he had attempted a badge heist.
Four months earlier, Richards got an assignment from CLESF Treasurer Earl Barnard to get a badge to put on a retirement plaque.
First Richards went to Glenn Morse, who collects badges from all over the country. He pulled out a badge that looked like Brown’s, but it had someone else’s number on it. So they couldn’t use that.
“So I called (Brown’s) wife, Kathi,” Richards said. “I asked her, ‘Can you steal a badge off his shirt?’”
Richards said he told her his mission. “She said, ‘No, he takes it off his shirt at night and puts it on his pajamas.’
‘Then I’ll stand outside the window and you can get it and throw it out to me when he takes a shower.’
‘When he takes a shower, the badge is in the soap dish,’ she said,” Richards recounted.
When Richards realized there was no way to rope the sheriff’s wife into snatching the badge, he finally had Chief Civil Deputy Lorene Norris have a badge specially forged. Richards prepared the rest of the plaque and mounted the badge when it arrived the day before the party.
“So everything turned out perfectly, except I lost a little bit of sleep over it,” Richards said, while the gang roared with laughter.
Citizens Patrol and CLESF
When the chuckles subsided, Brown presented a CLESF plaque to Barnard who has served seven years with the foundation — as president for six years and now as treasurer.
Barnard and Liz Tarbet started CLESF when Brown first became sheriff.
“Sheriff Brown gave his support from day one,” Barnard said.
“So many things got going with his leadership,” Brown said, including raising funds for a radar trailer and gun safe and for Christmas shopping with kids. “They generate their own ideas, it’s separate from the county.”
The room was full of people who appreciate working with Brown.
“He’s always made us feel special and an important part of the whole,” Cindy Richards said. She’s a Citizens Patrol member who gives safety vests to walkers and joggers. She said Brown, his wife, Kathi Phillips, and even Phillip’s mother attend their gatherings.
Island County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Scott Fague of the Camano precinct worked with Brown starting in 2000 on Whidbey when Brown was a trooper. “If you had to be arrested, you’d want to be arrested by him,” he said.
“He arrested many, many, many DUIs. People who are drunk and driving can be mellow and they can sometimes be unreasonable,” Fague said. “(Brown) treated everyone well and with respect no matter what they’d done. He was very unflappable.”
Chief Deputy Jose Briones was hired December 2015 and brought progressive change to the Corrections Division after a tragic death in the Island County jail.
Brown “took a look at what was going on in there. He reached out and said we should run a jail that others want to model,” Briones said.
It made a huge difference to have a supportive boss, he said.
“He’s just an honest man. He doesn’t have a political agenda, no hidden agenda, no angle to be worked,” Briones said. “Integrity shines through him.”
An appreciative citizen paid the bill for the retirement breakfast party. He tried to sneak away unnoticed, but Ram Prasad, CLESF president, caught him and got him to sit and chat.
The gent, who asked to remain anonymous, wanted to thank the officers for their service. He talked about the danger of working alone at night and pulling cars over for infractions. Despite his numerous military tours in Vietnam, “you couldn’t pay me enough to do what the deputies on the island do.”
Brown recounted some of the notable cases during his watch:
• As a teen, Colton Harris Moore went from burglarizing cabins to stealing small private airplanes and learned to fly from online manuals. He was apprehended in the Bahamas in 2010. He went to court in Island County, so it was a big deal here.
• In 2011, Joshua Lambert, 37, of Oak Harbor was convicted in a double homicide case. He murdered his two grandfathers and abducted his great aunt.
• The 2003 Douglas homicide case occurred before Brown’s time as sheriff, but was solved a decade later during his tenure. Jim Huden and his girlfriend, Langley hairdresser Peggy Sue Thomas, were convicted for luring Russel Douglas to a remote property where Huden shot him. Ann Rule wrote “Practice to Deceive” about this case.
• Brown said the saddest case was the 2015 death of Keaton Farris, 25, after 18 days in the Whidbey Island jail. Farris was having a mental health crisis and on a hunger strike.
“That was the saddest, most tragic thing,” Brown said. “Chief Briones came in after that and turned it into what I consider one of the best small-to-medium jails in the state of Washington.”
• The department is still working on leads for the 2018 beheading of Kathleen Cunningham on Camano Island. The suspect, Jacob Gonzales is still at large. Within the next few months, law enforcement might have some new evidence that will give closure.
“It’s a matter of analyzing evidence, we’re working hard at it,” Brown said. “I would have liked to see closure on that before I retire, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
“The job isn’t about fame; it’s about being a good steward for the time that you’re there,” Brown said. “It’s a complicated job. You don’t know when the next big thing will happen.”
As Brown became sheriff in 2007, the recession hit and the county had to lay off 23 percent of his working deputies, mostly through attrition.
“It puts a heavier burden on those who are working to cover the overtime shifts,” he said.
Brown spent the next 10 years building the force back up. The challenge is finding the right people who want to be in law enforcement.
“Now we’re getting back to where it was,” he said.
“It’s a good place to live and a good place to retire,” he said. In retirement, Brown plans a quieter life as his wife’s “go-fer.” She’s a busy real estate professional on Whidbey Island.
“I’m excited for the future of Island County. We’ve got good people. It will be a smooth transition. There’s hope for the future,” Brown said. “I’m proud to say that I’m going to retire and I’m going to stay in Island County.”