King County pays $12M to settle lawsuit over deadly eviction

By Mike Carter   |  Originally published in the Seattle Times

King County has agreed to pay $12 million to settle a lawsuit alleging sheriff’s deputies failed to follow through on the eviction of a dangerous Seattle resident who went on to kill a maintenance worker and injure the apartment manager.

The lawsuit alleged four sheriff’s deputies, led by Detective David Easterly, arrived to evict Justine Stephenson, a “formerly pleasant” tenant whose behavior had become violent and unpredictable. But Stephenson wasn’t home, and the deputies left after a few minutes, making no attempt to locate her, according to the lawsuit.

The deputies had been set to oversee the eviction Sept. 23, 2020, after apartment manager Stephanie Carrillo called police three times on Stephenson over an escalating pattern of aggressive behavior and threats, prompting a King County Superior Court commissioner to find she presented “a significant and immediate risk” to others. The commissioner, according to the lawsuit, ordered Stephenson removed from her apartment despite a temporary statewide moratorium on most evictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Carrillo had also obtained a protection order before seeking Stephenson’s eviction, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in 2021 in King County Superior Court.

Just a week before the eviction was set to take place, Stephenson allegedly confronted Carrillo in the office after thinking she had been locked out of the building because her key fob hadn’t worked. She confronted the manager and said, according to the complaint: “I am only going to tell you this once. If you ever try to lock me out of my home again, I will slaughter you and your staff.”

Easterly included this warning in a memo sent out to the participating deputies in the days before the eviction, asking for at least three deputies as backup and also notifying his colleagues that Stephenson had already tried to stab maintenance worker Stanimir Tzankov during a routine apartment inspection, according to court documents.

But when the detective and his colleagues arrived to oversee Stephenson’s removal from the Centennial Tower and Court Apartments in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, she was nowhere to be found, the lawsuit alleged. According to the filings, the deputies didn’t try to locate her despite her previous threats.

Then, just minutes after the deputies left, Stephenson “discovered the movers and staff in her apartment and saw the eviction notice,” the lawsuit alleged. “Enraged, she made good on her promise and attacked Carrillo and Tzankov,” killing the maintenance worker and leaving Carrillo seriously injured.

Stephenson was arrested after the attacks and charged with murder. Records show she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in August and has been committed for treatment at Western State Hospital.

“KCSO deputies did not do their job properly that day and did not exercise ordinary or even slight care,” the lawsuit alleged.

That failure “created and exposed Carrillo and Tzankov to a recognizably high degree of risk of harm. … A reasonable law enforcement agency would know, understand and take appropriate actions to supervise the entire eviction and protect Centennial Apartments’ staff given Justine’s unstable and violent history.”

The county had disputed those arguments in litigation that found its way to the Court of Appeals, with the county arguing the deputies were protected by “judicial immunity” because they were carrying out a court order.

Underscoring the difficulties and dangers faced by deputies carrying out such civil court related orders, Easterly, who heads the county’s Civil Process Unit, was shot and critically injured while serving another eviction notice in Ballard earlier this year.

The appeals court rejected the county’s argument, however, and questioned whether the deputies owed a duty of care to Tzankov and Carrillo. The court also raised questions of gross negligence by the Sheriff’s Office for failing to follow through on the eviction or enforce Carrillo’s protection order.

An expert hired by the plaintiffs, former police instructor Russ Hicks, stated that his read of the county’s policies would have required the deputies to remain on hand during Stephenson’s eviction and do a security sweep of the area, and that their early departure left everyone — from the movers to the apartment manager — “defenseless” and in danger.

“It is my opinion that the KCSO deputies who executed the eviction … should not have left the scene,” wrote Hicks, who was the assistant commander of the state’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy before his retirement in 2021.

Hicks said in a court filing that after familiarizing himself with the incident, including reading sworn depositions by Easterly and others, he concluded they “betray an apathetic attitude toward their duty to conduct an eviction safely and reasonably.”

“It is my opinion that, had KCSO deputies adhered to their policies and procedures for conducting evictions and remaining on site for the entire duration of the eviction, they could have responded to and neutralized the threat that Justine Stephenson posed to apartment staff, preventing the death of Stanimir Tzankov and stabbing of Stephanie Carrillo,” Hicks wrote.

The settlement includes a $10 million payout to Vania Tzankov, the maintenance worker’s wife. Carrillo will receive $2 million to resolve her claim.

The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which represented the county, acknowledged the settlement but had no additional comment.