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Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The Fatal Lie: A Police Ruse Gone Wrong

Note: The reportage upon which this account is based did not include the names of the parties involved. Names have been assigned for clarity.

     On May 25, 2018, in Seattle, Washington, Tom Nelson, a former drug addict trying to turn his life around was involved in a fender-bender traffic accident where no one was injured. Before police arrived Mr. Nelson left the scene of the mishap.

     The accident investigator acquired an address for Mr. Nelson through his vehicle registration information. Since the address was on the other side of the city, the traffic investigator called the precinct covering that area and asked that someone from that station go to the listed address and obtain a statement from Mr. Nelson.

     Later that day, Seattle police officers Robert Niles and John Rhodes showed up at the address in question and spoke to Mary Harris, the woman who lived there. She informed the officers that she had allowed Tom Nelson to register his car at her address because he did not have a permanent place of residence. She said that Mr. Nelson was at the moment staying at a friend's house, however, she did not know that address.

     Earlier, on their way to Mary Harris's house, Officer Niles had told his partner that in order to get Tom Nelson's cooperation he planned to employ what he referred to as a ruse--he would tell him that a woman had been seriously injured in the accident and wasn't supposed to live. "It's a lie," Officer Niles said, "but it's fun."

     Just before Officer Niles asked Mary Harris for Tom Nelson's phone number he told her that Mr. Nelson was a suspect in a hit-and-run case involving a woman who had been seriously injured and was not expected to live. 

     After the police officers left her house, Mary Harris tracked down Tom Nelson and informed him of what she had just learned from the Seattle police officer. He became extremely distraught over the news. Perhaps he had struck a pedestrian without him knowing it. Mary Harris suggested he hire an attorney.

     Tom Nelson, in an effort to find out more about the seriously injured woman, searched the Internet but came up with nothing. Maybe for some reason the police were intentionally withholding this information. This just added to his worry about the woman, his angst over having caused her suffering, and what might happen to him as a result.

   A few days after the accident, Tom Nelson went to a friend's house and in his garage left a bag containing his possessions and some cash. He also left a note that read: "If you don't see me, keep this stuff."

     On June 3, 2018, a week after the minor traffic accident, the man whose house Tom Nelson was living in, went to his room and found him dead. He had committed suicide. (The reportage of his death did not include how he had killed himself.)

     After the suicide, Mary Harris and Tom's friend decided to conduct their own inquiry into the traffic accident. While the police were not particularly cooperative, Mary Harris and her investigative partner were able to determine that no one had been injured in the fender-bender. Seattle police officer Robert Niles had lied to her about that, and she had passed it on to Mr. Nelson. And now he was dead.

     On March 12, 2019, Mary Harris filed a formal complaint against Officer Robert Niles with the watchdog group, Office of Police Accountability (OPA). Investigators with the OPA questioned officer Niles and Officer Rhodes who gave different accounts of their encounter with Mary Harris. Officer Niles said that had he not employed the ruse Mary Harris would not have cooperated with their inquiry into Tom Nelson's whereabouts. Officer Rhodes gave a different story. According to his account, Mary Harris would have cooperated fully without the lie.

     Following the OPA inquiry, the watchdog group recommended that Officer Robert Niles be disciplined for the inappropriate use of a ruse in the course of an investigation. (Officers are only authorized to lie in the course of criminal interrogations of people suspected of serious crimes.)

     In November 2019, Seattle Police Officer Robert Niles was placed on unpaid administrative leave for six days.

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