On a cool Monday evening on April 17, 1995, Sue Ohnstad called the Bellingham, Washington Police Department saying that her 14-year-old daughter Kristy hadn't come back home from school that day. The police immediately entered Kristy's name into a missing persons database and put their ear to the ground.
The next day, a passerby nearly tripped on a backpack in a ditch along a commercial strip in town—inside he found a sweatshirt and Sue Ohnstad's number, so he called her to tell her what he found.
Later that day, Clark Elmore—then known only as James Dickey, arrived at the man's house, explaining that he was Sue's boyfriend of ten years and was more or less Kristy's stepfather, as well as the biological father of her sister Kayla.
But when Elmore asked to take Kristy's backpack back home with him, the man refused, saying he wouldn't until the police arrived.
What followed was a grand charade, in which Elmore pretended at unfettered grief over Kristy's disappearance, and after publicly criticizing the police department's search efforts, actually commissioned a private search party of his own.
But when police eventually found Kristy's brutalized body, they were able to connect the murder to Elmore by the tools used to beat and mutilate the girl.
That's when the story became clear: on April 17th of 1995, Elmore raped and killed Kristy in his van after she threatened to go to the police about his repeated sexual abuse of her when she was five years old.
Elmore had raped her, strangled her, run a skewer through her skull, bludgeoned her with a sledgehammer, then dumped her body in the woods.
After initially running, then turning himself in, Elmore pleaded guilty to aggravated first-degree murder. The jury found no cause for leniency and sentenced him to death on May 3rd, 1996.
But on Thursday, 20 years after being placed on death row, Governor Jay Inslee made a controversial decision: he granted Elmore reprieve on his death sentence.
The Bellingham Herald reported that while handing down the reprieve in a Bellingham court on Thursday, Inslee cited “lack of clear deterrent value, high frequency of sentence reversal on appeal, and rising cost” as the reasons for the decision.
In 2014, Inslee introduced a moratorium on executions in Washington state, setting the stage for a decision that has been received with anger and disbelief by some of the public:
But in a statement, the Governor's office defended Inslee's decision, noting that Inslee had consulted with the Ohnstad family beforehand and that they had expressed a preference for Elmore to stay in prison for life rather than be executed:
“As he stated when he announced the moratorium in 2014 the action is based on the governor’s belief that the use of capital punishment across the state is inconsistent and unequally applied – sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred.”
Whatcom County Prosecutor David McEachran had a meeting with Inslee last week, in which he asked Inslee to make an exception to the moratorium.
But McEachran admitted in a statement to the press that it was a long shot, and that Inslee's decision was regrettable:
“I am disappointed, that after 21 years of appeals, in which the sentence of death has been upheld by the highest courts in the state and the United States, the governor has derailed the sentence.”
Hope isn't necessarily lost for those who feel Elmore should receive the punishment he was originally sentenced. A new governor could repeal the moratorium, or at the very least, Elmore's reprieve. Governor Inslee was re-elected in November.