Mark James is accused of stealing over $5,000 from 13 mental patients he counseled at Western State Hospital in 2020 and 2021.
According to the News Tribune, James, 62, began working for the state’s largest mental hospital in 2017 and was "hired 13 days after he was booked into the Pierce County Jail on a fugitive warrant from Oregon, six days after he was booked into an Oregon jail on two charges of dealing heroin and other drug-related offenses."
One week after he was booked in Oregon, James received a letter from the State of Washington, congratulating him on his hiring as an institutional counselor at a starting salary of $41,800 which almost tripled over the next three years.
James was hired despite an extensive criminal record that goes back to the 1990s and included 22 felony convictions for theft, forgery, identity theft, and drug possession.
James told the outlet that the state "did background checks several times." He was hired anyway and given direct access to some of the state hospital’s most vulnerable patients, as well as money tied to their names, kept on their ward in a petty cash drawer.
After the state hired James, he received five more felony convictions from charges in Oregon including two for dealing heroin, and three more for possession of heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine.
Despite public records showing that the state knew, James kept his job. James pleaded guilty to the charges and in 2018 was sentenced to 30 days in jail in Oregon and 36 months of probation.
According to a December 2016 Lane County Sheriff’s report in Eugene, Oregon obtained by News Tribune, "I had investigated James for dealing heroin and methamphetamine in August of 2016, where I had seized drugs from him and he had admitted to dealing. I received information from a person wishing to remain anonymous that James was continuing to deal heroin and was going to Portland on this date to pick up heroin from his source of supply."
In the report, the officer stated James "kept minimizing his dealing activity," and claimed he was only "brokering deals to help a pregnant heroin addict he knew. James told police that letting her smoke heroin was less harmful to the unborn baby than going through withdrawal or taking methadone.
According to the report, when James was arrested, he had 19 grams of heroin, a gram of cocaine, pharmaceutical pills, a scale, and packaging material.
James admitted to possession and dealing, and according to court records in the Oregon case, Western State Hospital supported James at his sentencing hearing.
Following the conviction, James continued to receive his state-funded salary, which increased to $88,100 after he was promoted and by 2020, had risen to $118,000.
That year James allegedly began stealing money from patients by withdrawing small amounts of cash in their names. He kept the loot in a drawer in the ward where they lived and according to state records made withdrawals 117 times over nine months.
Seven months after hospital officials confronted James with evidence of the thefts he resigned in October 2021. He wasn’t fired, according to the News Tribune, because union rules prevented it while an internal investigation was pending and James claimed he was offered a transfer to the hospital’s kitchen.
State investigators forwarded the case to Lakewood police, who recommended felony charges. But James wasn’t arrested or charged because Pierce County prosecutors decided against it.
The institution has been plagued with problems for years. Western State Hospital, has been criticized for ongoing physical assaults on patients and staff, patient escapes, and staffing shortages. In 2018, after the hospital failed a safety inspection, the federal government pulled $53 million in funding from the facility.
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