CAO clashes go beyond talk - Guns brandished in two incidents as landowner faces off with authorities
by Dean A. Radford
Journal Reporter
REDMOND -- Former Microsoft engineer Charles Strouss doesn't feel like a poster child for the property-rights movement.
If he could turn back the clock to just before 3 p.m. Nov. 27, he probably would decide to put on his pants and leave his shotgun in a safe place.
He wouldn't be facing 20 years in prison.
But he has spent about 20 frustrating years trying to develop his 40 acres near Union Hill on the rural side of the growth line.
``It's a political fiction that it's a rural neighborhood,'' he said.
The final straw for him and others in the rural area was the county's critical areas ordinances.
That fall afternoon, about a month after the CAO was adopted, he was angry.
What then happened, as described from the varying perspectives of Strouss and King County authorities, was either a case of a private citizen defending his land against unwarranted intrusion by government agents, or a cowboy-like threat by a shotgun-wielding homeowner who endangered the lives of two county employees doing their job.
Growing divide
Underlying both accounts is the growing divide between King County government and many rural residents convinced the former is their enemy.
Strouss recounts the incident this way:
A white county-marked pickup was parked on the gravel in front of his house. Two code-enforcement officers were walking toward his front door. Someone had filed a complaint that he was grading a wetland.
Strouss had used a bulldozer to bury a pipe he hoped would fix a drainage problem he said was caused by an adjoining development. His research showed he didn't need a permit.
He confronted the officers from his upstairs bedroom window.
You're trespassing, he says he told them.
They identified themselves and said they didn't see a no-trespassing sign.
The two men turned to leave, but Strouss asked for their names. They offered to put their business cards on his porch. But Strouss said they seemed to take their time and were ``poking their heads around.''
He has researched his rights protecting against illegal searches.
He picked up his shotgun and opened the front door.
A big man, Strouss was wearing only an unbuttoned shirt. He says he had a choice: put on his pants or get his shotgun. If the two code enforcement officers were armed, they would get the drop on him, he said.
He chambered a round.
The two men froze. One was a new hire who was being trained.
They told a detective he pointed the shotgun at them. Strouss says he didn't.
Charged with two counts
On March 31, Strouss was charged with two counts of second-degree assault.
Code-enforcement officers are never armed. If they believe they're going into a hostile situation, they'll bring a sheriff's deputy with them.
``I really didn't pick this fight,'' said the 46-year-old Strouss. ``They came to my land in the first place.''
Because the officers couldn't get access to the property to investigate the complaint, the case was closed.
``The burden of proof is on us,'' said Paula Adams, a spokeswoman for the county's Department of Development and Environmental Services.
The fight came again to Strouss' doorstep earlier this month.
The morning of April 7, he appeared before a Superior Court judge. Prosecutors were asking for $50,000 bail, but he was released on personal recognizance. First, he was fingerprinted and photographed, a brief and standard practice.
He went home, exhausted, and headed to bed with his wife.
About 3 p.m., four men got out of an SUV and came to his front door. He asked them repeatedly to identify themselves. He said they didn't.
His weapons were still in the house.
``They slammed open the front door,'' he said, and ordered him to kneel. He describes his feeling in an e-mail to Sgt. John Urquhart, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office:
``To force a man to kneel naked on the floor, with his back to four armed unidentified thugs, in the style of 3rd World death squads, expecting to have his brains shot out in front of his wife, is simply not forgivable.''
Urquhart said the four officers, members of the U.S. Marshal's Office Fugitive Task Force, did identify themselves. To do otherwise would put them at deadly risk, he said.
``That's how you get shot,'' Urquhart said.
Urquhart said the officers asked that Strouss come downstairs after they identified themselves. Had he done so, Urquhart said, he would never have been arrested at gunpoint.
``I don't know where he gets his information,'' Strouss said.
Eventually, Strouss explained that he had appeared in court that morning and was released. His story rang true and the officers called their supervisors.
Clerks had not yet had a chance to remove the arrest warrant from the system, following the court action that morning.
The officers apologized and left. They were part of a task force that was arresting those with warrants for an assault with a weapon. Two were sheriff's deputies.
Later, Strouss went to the sheriff's Bothell precinct to file a complaint against the four, but he said he was thrown out.
Urquhart said that's not the case. ``He didn't have a legitimate complaint,'' he said. ``The warrant was served in good faith.''
Police can arrest someone without a warrant in hand, but they must show the person a facsimile of the warrant at a jail, Urquhart said.
Strouss' attorney told him to call the newspapers.
The Sheriff's Office is concerned about the high level of rhetoric and hysteria that is fueling what has been dubbed rural rage against county workers and policies, Urquhart said.
``You have DDES workers performing their jobs and someone pulls a shotgun on them,'' he said.
It's an emotional subject, he said, but ``everyone needs to take a deep breath.''
Urquhart had a heated exchange of e-mails with outspoken county critic Ron Ewart of Fall City, who complained Urquhart wasn't responding fast enough to his inquiries about the incident involving Strouss.
In an e-mail to officials and the media, Ewart offered his take on Strouss' arrest by the fugitive team:
``They produced no warrant, or any identification. That, folks, is a police state and that, folks, was caused by your government writing too many laws.''
Ewart is not in the leadership of the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, which is watching the Strouss case closely. Strouss has participated in some of the alliance's protests but is not a member.
``We don't have anything in the works other than encouraging him,'' said Rodney McFarland of May Valley, the alliance's president. But it may use some of its money to help defend those cited by the county. So far, Strouss is paying his own defense bills.
McFarland doesn't think the rural rhetoric has much to do with the Strouss case.
``The rhetoric from the vast majority of us has been quite reasonable and not inflammatory,'' he said.
He said the alliance may put out a pamphlet to explain what a property owner should do if ``DDES knocks on your door.'' It also may get some no-trespassing signs made up.
Adams, the DDES spokeswoman, said code-enforcement officers won't enter property that's posted no-trespassing or where there's a closed gate. If necessary, the county will take photographs from the air or from the street.
If the property isn't posted, an officer will walk up to the door and knock, she said.
``We aren't going to walk around the property unescorted,'' she said.
Strouss' next court appearance is Thursday, but he said that might be delayed. There's also talk about behind-the-scenes negotiations that could get the charges dropped, he said.
He has had plenty of time to think about what happened last November. He wants his story told. He has posted no-trespassing signs on his property.
``It was unwise of me to step out on that porch with my shotgun,'' he said. But, he said, he believes his act was protected by the Constitution's Second Amendment.
To another rural mind, he said, carrying a gun isn't unusual. But to someone from the city, the person is ``a whacko,'' he said.
``I am as gentle as a lamb,'' he said.
Dean Radford covers King County. He can be reached at or 253-872-6719.