Mark James doesn't deny that he stole more than $5,000 from 13 mental patients he counseled at Western State Hospital in 2020 and 2021 — but he doesn't admit it, either.
"That would be something that I'm not gonna talk about one way or the other," James told The News Tribune in a November interview.
He wasn't tagged with criminal charges, but hospital leaders were worried enough to start an internal investigation and forward the results to Lakewood police, who suggested charges were justified, according to public records.
James, 62, worked for the state's largest mental hospital for four years, starting in 2017. He 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.
A week after the Oregon booking, on April 24, 2017, James received his official letter from the State of Washington, congratulating him on his hiring as an institutional counselor.
"Mark — Welcome to our team!" a handwritten note said, above official verbiage and a proxy signature from Cheryl Strange, then the CEO of the hospital.
His state salary started at $41,800. Over the next three years, it nearly tripled.
James was hired despite a lengthy criminal record that stretched back to the 1990s. At the time of his hiring, it included 22 felony convictions for theft, forgery, identity theft and drug possession.
James didn't hide it. The state knew it. "Yes," James said. "I 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.
Leaders of the state's largest mental hospital now say that was a mistake.
"We're not saying one bit that this was a good hire," said Dan Davis, deputy CEO of Western State, in a Nov. 10 interview. "We can all agree that the process was not followed correctly."
Davis was promoted to his position a year ago. He's worked at the hospital for 12 years. He said the decision to hire James in 2017 was made by David Holt, the hospital's former chief operating officer, who was later promoted to CEO, and retired in 2021.
"It's hard to really answer on behalf of someone else who made the decision," Davis said.
Convicted, hired, convicted again
After the state hired James, five more felony convictions followed, stemming from the charges in Oregon: two for dealing heroin, three more for possession of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine.
The state knew it, records show. He kept his job.
James pleaded guilty to the charges. In 2018, he was sentenced to 30 days in jail in Oregon on the convictions, and 36 months of probation.
The sentence was light, in part because of the plea, in part because James cooperated with the investigation, and in part because, "Defendant has taken significant steps towards his own reform," according to a memo in the Oregon court file.
"If you look at the pending case, it had been ongoing for several years," James said. "I had no violence or sex on my record. I was given probation, so there were extenuating circumstances into those charges. I wasn't truly guilty of those charges."
A December 2016 police report from the Lane County Sheriff's Office in Eugene, Oregon, tells a different story.
"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," an officer wrote. "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."
The officer noted that James "kept minimizing his dealing activity," claiming he was only "brokering" deals to help a young woman he knew, a pregnant heroin addict. Letting her smoke heroin was less harmful to the unborn baby than going through withdrawal or moving her to methadone, James told police.
James said he wasn't a user himself, but he admitted that he was also making a little money on the deals; things had been tight for him lately. The police report added that when James was arrested, he was holding 19 grams of heroin, a gram of cocaine, pharmaceutical pills, a scale and packaging material. He admitted to possession and the dealing, the report states.
Court records in the Oregon case show that Western State supported James at his sentencing hearing. The case file includes letters from co-workers, including Allison Bayba, his direct supervisor at the hospital.
"Honorable judge," Bayba wrote on March 21, 2018. "I was asked to write this letter to confirm that Mark James is employed by Western State Hospital in the capacity of an Institutional Counselor 2 in the Habilitative Mental Health program. ...
"... Mark works with individuals who have been diagnosed with an intellectual disability as well as a mental illness. He has worked with us for a year now. He is an exemplary employee. His patience with the individuals we serve is outstanding. I have received only positive feedback on his job performance and his interactions with his co-workers."
Stealing from mental patients
Following his conviction, James continued to receive his state-funded salary, which rose to $88,100 after he was promoted. By 2020, it had risen to $118,000, according to state personnel records.
That was the year he allegedly started stealing money from patients by withdrawing small sums of cash tied to their names, kept in a drawer on P5, the ward where they resided. He did it 117 times over nine months, state records say.
James resigned in October 2021, seven months after hospital officials confronted him with evidence of the thefts. He wasn't fired — union rules prevented that while an internal investigation was pending. James said he was offered a transfer to the hospital kitchen.
"I was put in the kitchen as a dishwasher, and I was told it wasn't retaliation," he said. "I believe I was made one of the scapegoats. I believe the problems existed long before I got there."
State investigators examined the case and forwarded it to Lakewood police, who thought felony charges against James were warranted, according to public records.
"Based on the timelines and the amount of money Mark James had been withdrawing, there is probable cause to arrest him for theft in the 1st degree," a Lakewood officer wrote on July 8, 2021.
James wasn't arrested. He wasn't charged. After receiving the Lakewood report, Pierce County prosecutors decided against it, in part because the victims — some reluctant, some incoherent — couldn't provide reliable testimony, according to public records. Prosecutors also noted that the hospital's system for tracking patients' money was so weak that the criminal case would be hard to prove.
The state Department of Health is still investigating his actions, which could cost James his state licenses as an institutional counselor and nursing assistant.
Hired, but why?
Why was James hired in the first place? Answers are complicated.
A felony conviction doesn't automatically disqualify a job applicant from employment with the state Department of Social and Health Services, which includes Western State Hospital. Hiring rules allow for exceptions and the idea of redemption. When he applied for the job at Western State, James fell into that category.
He'd been convicted in the 1990s and 2000s of theft and forgery, as well as drug-related offenses. The crimes were red flags, according to a list of DSHS rules governing job applicant screening, but the cases were old: The most recent convictions — a set of eight, for forgery and identity theft — dated to 2006, 11 years before James applied to Western State. According to court records, James had admitted forging multiple checks linked to his employer.
The passage of years since his convictions meant (and still means) DSHS could allow exceptions with approval from higher-level supervisors.
"After 5 years, an overall assessment of the person's character, competence, and suitability to have unsupervised access (to patients) will determine denial," state records say, in a standard DSHS memo related to hiring practices.
After his earlier convictions, it appeared that James had reformed. His prison sentence on the 2006 forgery and identity theft cases, originally 79 months, had been reduced. He'd obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Oregon. He had mentored ex-offenders. He was on his way to obtaining state certifications as an institutional counselor and nursing assistant.
He also applied for a job the state was desperate to fill. It was true in 2017, and it's still true at Western State in 2022. Hiring staffers to oversee vulnerable, mentally ill adults was and is a challenge, said Davis, the hospital's deputy CEO.
Patients at Western State Hospital are not prisoners. They are involuntarily committed, entitled under state and federal law to treatment, potential recovery and a return to civilian life.
The adult patients who worked with James and other staffers are among the hospital's most fragile clients. They are assigned to the habilitative mental health ward, which houses a subset of 30 developmentally delayed patients.
"They are very vulnerable," Davis said. "This program is very special to the hospital and to our patients. That's why it's very important that we hire the right individuals."
The patients have money held in accounts tied to their civilian lives, supported by their families. They are not confined to the hospital. They can visit relatives, buy snacks and take trips. Hospital rules allow them to withdraw cash for such purposes, with help and approval from staffers.
"If they want to go see a movie, that's what they use their money for," Davis said.
The withdrawals linked to James were small, in keeping with hospital rules: no more than $50 at a time, below the threshold that would require greater scrutiny from Bayba, James's supervisor. The cash lived on the ward in what staffers called "the P5 drawer," records say.
Cash withdrawals were supposed to be accompanied by receipts, a stated reason, and two signatures from hospital staff. Often, the withdrawals tied to James lacked second signatures, according to state records and the Lakewood police report. In some cases, James withdrew money from accounts of patients he didn't supervise directly, on days when he wasn't scheduled to work, the police report states. In others, James listed the reason for the cash withdrawal as a trip off-site for a patient, which was impossible during the state-mandated pandemic lockdown.
Small thefts, big money
In the aggregate, the small thefts added up quickly, and they accelerated. Overall, James allegedly took $5,340 from patients over the course of nine months starting in June 2020. But public records from the state and Lakewood police say he took roughly $2,500 from the patients in six weeks between late January and early March of 2021, when hospital staffers discovered the thefts.
One patient had money stolen 46 times for a total of $2,180 — more than any other victim.
From January to March 2021, James made 14 separate withdrawals for another patient, for a total of $620, records say. His signature was the only one on official forms, and the records included no receipts for items supposedly purchased. Four times in two weeks, the forms listed the reason for the withdrawals as "shoes."
The patient was known among staffers for wearing special shoes. A state investigator asked the patient about it.
"He told her he does wear specialized shoes, but has had the same pair of shoes for almost a year," the Lakewood police report states.
Another patient had a total of nine withdrawals for $385. Again, James signed all the forms. Again, there were no receipts. The state investigator tried to interview the patient without success.
"Due to his inability to communicate, no interview was conducted," the Lakewood police report states.
A tantalizing reference in the police report cites an anonymous email, purportedly sent in 2021 from an unidentified Western State employee who said co-workers knew James was taking money but said nothing because of his criminal record.
"In the email it details that the employee(s) feared retaliation from James if they had come forward with information sooner. The email alleges that Mark James has a sorted [sic] criminal history, to include offenses such as "FUGITIVE WARRANT OF ARREST, ROBBERY 2ND, THEFT 2ND, THEFT 1ST, FORGERY 1ST, FORGERY 2ND, IDENTITY THEFT, POSSESSION OF FORGED INSTRUMENTS 1&2, AGGRAVATED THEFT 1ST DEGREE."
After reviewing the Lakewood police report, Pierce County deputy prosecutor Patrick Cooper decided in October 2021 that the case against James lacked sufficient traction for criminal charges, according to an internal memo. The victims weren't reliable witnesses, and the loose treatment of cash on the P5 ward was riddled with record-keeping problems.
"Even if a specific paper trail was followed with a transaction, these allowed lapses in policy seem to create a doubt as to who is exactly getting the money, and who has taken it. Further, without a specific assertion by the victim, who has to be competent, and saying I didn't authorize these monies to be taken, it appears unlikely we could prove it beyond a reasonable doubt," the memo states.
In a way, the alleged thefts made little sense. By 2020, James was earning a six-figure salary from the state of Washington. What would be the point of filching small sums of cash from patients?
Asked directly in his November interview, James offered vague hints.
"I think you just answered that question yourself," he said. "I will go back to what I said at the very beginning. It's a lot of corruption out at Western State Hospital. It's been going on for a long time — it's been covered up for a long time — and it will continue."
A source familiar with James and his history, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, offered a guess.
"It's a game, almost. It's not about the money," the person said. "He's very good. He's very convincing at what he does. It's pretty pathetic."
Ultimately, the patients got their money back, repaid by the state, said Davis, the deputy CEO.
Hospital leaders have taken steps to make sure the problem doesn't reoccur, he said. The process began with an internal audit and retraining for staff to make sure cash withdrawals are handled correctly, that all paperwork is filled out properly, and all receipts are saved each month.
The audit found that no other money had been taken by other staffers — only James, Davis said.
Another step was more obvious: The so-called P5 cash drawer was the only one in the entire hospital.
"We just took that cash drawer off the ward," Davis said. "It just takes away the risk of something like this ever happening again."
James is back in Oregon, working in local mental health services, he said in his November interview.
"They didn't charge me. I moved on. It is what it is," he said. "I'm not a bad guy. As far as I'm concerned, it's over. I moved on. I hope everything is better with them, with the facility, with Western State Hospital. I hope everything's better. I wish them the best."