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West Seattle Totem Pole Heist

Meghan Walker

It's not easy to steal a full–sized totem pole. But someone did.


Satterberg: "He took the pole, and he took it down to Oregon. Why? I don't know, but he did help himself to something that was not his."

That's King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. The thief has been caught, but not charged with a crime. And that has angered a lot of people. Let's go back to the beginning. Josh Sutton is the branch executive at the West Seattle YMCA.

Sutton: "In late November, suddenly we got a question asked of us of, Where's the totem pole?"

The pole is owned by the Seattle Parks Department. But it's a mascot for the West Seattle YMCA and Rotary Club. It's about 20 feet high, and at the top, there's a large bird with spread wings. The crime happened along a busy street, during evening rush hour. Now, you can't just pick up a totem pole. So the thief hired a boom truck. That's a small crane.

Sutton: "So the boom truck operator loads it on, gets stuck in the mud. Tow truck comes, picks him up, tows him out, with the cops redirecting him and he drives away."

The suspect even had bogus documents claiming he intended to restore it. None of those people, the boom truck operator, the tow truck driver, not even the police, knew they were abetting a crime. But within a few days, the thief was caught. Here's Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.

Satterburg: "The thief was identified but the pole was nowhere to be found. And when he was arrested, he offered to recover the pole, to show police where it was in exchange for leniency. In fact, the pole was down in Oregon, we never would have found it. It was not just hanging out in a backyard in West Seattle."

When police found the totem pole in Oregon, it was on a trailer, along with a second totem pole. That pole, it turned out, had recently been taken from outside a Fred Meyer store in Renton.

Despite the fact the two totem poles were found together, police won't say for sure that they were taken by the same person. They did arrest a man for stealing the West Seattle pole, but that suspect wasn't charged with a crime because he worked out a deal.

The prosecutor gave the Rotary Club two options: to press charges or accept money from the suspect to restore the pole. They took the money. The settlement made some community members angry. But Josh Sutton says the Rotary Club made the right decision.

Walker: "So, why not charge this man with a theft?"

Sutton: "The request made from the prosecutor was whether this other alternative would make things whole — would they make things better? The decision we've made we feel is best for the community in terms of taking care of the pole and restoring it and putting it back in its rightful place. I get the numerous comments and conversations online about this. And I also hope people better understand why we made some of those decisions."

The prosecutor says the suspect agreed to pay $20,000 for the pole's restoration. In return, he was not charged. Prosecutor Dan Satterberg says sometimes a settlement just makes more sense.

Satterberg: "The West Seattle Rotary, the victims of this crime, are delighted to have their pole back and to have it restored. And so we do take into account the wishes of victims in a theft case — if they don't want the case prosecuted, if they're satisfied, and they've been made whole — and in this case they've been made more than whole — so we will not prosecute the case."

The West Seattle pole will be back in place by the end of the summer. Josh Sutton says the Rotary Club never expected to be caught up in such a heist. But something good did come out of it.

Sutton: "We've all known that the pole needed this work. I don't think this man did us any favors stealing the pole, but we're looking forward to taking advantage of the opportunity to make sure that the pole is preserved well and continues to be a community treasure for a long time to come."

For KUOW News, I'm Meghan Walker.

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