Costs mount for major crime in Island County

A spate of serious crimes has been expensive for Island County.

Elaine Marlow, the county’s budget director, recently warned the commissioners about mounting defense costs for two murder cases. At the same time, detectives in the sheriff’s office have a backlog of lower-priority cases as they deal with a murder and other serious cases.

The costs are especially high, said Marlow, because the county had to hire “conflict attorneys” to represent the defendants. The county contracts with a firm for defense services but outside attorneys are needed when the firm can’t represent a defendant because of conflicting interests, such as if the firm previously represented a victim or witness.

Currently, five defendants in two murder cases are being represented by conflict attorneys.

In March, a jury in Island County Superior Court convicted Christopher Malaga, 24, of the first-degree murder of Oak Harbor resident Adam Garcia. He is scheduled to be sentenced May 6.

Malaga’s defense has cost $93,000 so far, according to Marlow.

The fact that four suspects have been charged in the murder of 17-year-old John “Jay” Johnson means it will be especially expensive. Marlow said the defense attorneys have already racked up $250,000 in bills and the case is likely a long way from being settled.

“We have to be fully prepared, budget-wise, to defend all four at trial,” she said.

Another case that could get expensive, said Marlow, involved two South Whidbey residents and owners of an escrow company accused of stealing large sums of money from investors. The county may have to pay for a forensic accountant to work for the defense.

The county will have to dip into its reserve account to fund the expenses, Marlow said.

Sheriff Mark Brown said that his detectives have dedicated much of their time to the Johnson murder investigation and other serious cases, including a recent child rape trial that ended with a conviction.

“Murder and rape cases are obviously our highest priority,” he said. “They require multiple detectives and require a lot of work.”

As a result, some of the lower-priority cases have been piling up. Brown points to a recent meeting he had with South Whidbey builders who are upset about a number of burglaries and felt greater resources should be dedicated to solving them. He promised to dedicate more detective time, including overtime, to solving the cases.