The district attorney has filed a notice to appeal a judicial decision made in Hood River Circuit Court last month that dismissed all charges against a former Hood River County Parks employee accused of stealing a significant amount of money from the county.

The defendant in the case, Cory Wayne Van Sickle, had been indicted on three counts of Aggravated Theft ($10,000 or more) and 10 counts of First Degree Theft ($1,000 or more), allegedly stolen over the course of eight years.
Judge John Olson decided to dismiss all charges with prejudice — a court action that prevents the case from being refiled — following a hearing on Oct. 1; incidentally, the same day Van Sickle’s 14-day jury trial was scheduled to begin.

“The Oregon Department of Justice agreed with me that the judge’s ruling is not supported by the law or the facts of this case. That’s why the appeal has been filed,” said District Attorney John Sewell, who is prosecuting the case on behalf of the State of Oregon.
The case was dismissed after Sewell alerted the court that his office was not prepared for trial.

Approximately a week prior to the scheduled trial date, Sewell requested that the case be dismissed without prejudice, which would allow the state to refile when they were ready to proceed, but the defense attorney, Matthew Ellis of Morris and Sullivan, objected to Sewell’s motion and asked the case to be dismissed with prejudice.

The Oct. 1 hearing was scheduled for Olson to formally dismiss the case, and he heard argument from both sides before deciding whether to dismiss the case with or without prejudice.

Olson said that he considered three factors in his decision: Whether or not the state committed “inexcusable neglect” in regard to trial preparation, the magnitude of public interest invested in the case, and whether or not Van Sickle’s right to a speedy trial would be compromised if the case continued.
Van Sickle was first indicted on April 20, 2018, and Olson set the Oct. 1, 2019, trial date in February 2019, “And I did everything I could to convey to the parties that this had to be tried in October,” he said when reading his decision.

Sewell said that they were prepared for trial until mid-September, when Ellis and the defense’s forensic expert sent over a significant amount of new information regarding Van Sickle’s divorce case from 2018 that showed bias from Van Sickle’s ex-wife — who was also the state’s primary witness in the cases at hand.

The accusations against Van Sickle were first submitted by his ex-wife approximately a month after the couple’s divorce case was settled and, according to Ellis, the judge for that case had denied her request to have nearly full-time custody of their son, instead granting 50/50 parenting time to both parents. Following the indictment, Van Sickle lost those 50/50 privileges, with his visitation limited to a couple weekends per month, Ellis said.
A few months ago, Van Sickle’s ex-wife submitted a motion for temporary status quo, which would officially modify the court’s custody order to maintain the child’s current living situation.

“She definitely had bias and she had a reason, a very dark and vindictive reason, to make these accusations — a lot of which we found out through our investigation, seemed to be fabricated by her,” Ellis said.

“These things need to be addressed, and not in a hurried fashion,” Sewell said of the information related to the divorce case.

Around the same time he received that information, he said, “There were some impediments … that were not legal in nature or within control of the state” that caused some of his limited staff to be out of the office for a significant time.

“This all cuts into the time that’s available for me to prepare this case, which was still on track before I had all of this new material dumped on me by the defense,” Sewell said.

“The two of us were prepared to go into the district attorney’s office to discuss this,” Ellis said, adding that Sewell did not reply to Ellis’ offer to meet.
“I busted my butt in the last two months to get prepared for this trial and it’s frankly insulting that the state is sitting here blaming me for their inability to prepare for this trial,” he said.

“Early on, I think, it was known by everyone that her credibility would be an issue, and that the case was circumstantial with regard to the money issues,” said Olson, adding that the defense had conveyed early on that they would need a forensic accountant to look over the evidence; but despite the court identifying an expert and issuing an offer, the defense did not give them content to review until after the offer expired.

“I think that’s inexcusable neglect, I have to make that finding,” Olson said. “I don’t find anything from the defense perspective that makes me think that they didn’t fulfill their discovery obligations in a timely manner.”
Regarding the public’s interest in the case, Sewell argued that the amount of taxpayer money that was stolen warranted continuation of the case.

“This case is indicted in terms of the defendant stealing from the county,” he said, “… That money, maybe it came from the county coffers, but you know where it really came from? Is every person in this county that pays property taxes — that goes into the county general fund, which then goes into parks and public works department.”

Olson found that public interest weighed in favor of dismissing the case with prejudice.
“I think there’s an interest at stake in terms of the efficient operation of the courts and I think that interest will be hurt if I don’t grant an order of dismissing with prejudice,” he said.
Olson also found that Van Sickle’s right to a speedy trial would likely be compromised if the case continued longer than it already has.

Van Sickle was released on a $6,000 bail (reduced from $60,000 by a court order) in May 2018, on the conditions that he did not leave the state and did not take employment where he had access to money.

Olson said that these release conditions “very significantly circumscribed his (Van Sickle’s) liberty,” adding, “the right to speedy trial is more than building a litigated case, it recognizes that defendants who are pending serious felony crimes suffer hardship, they suffer anxiety,” he said.

“So, I don’t do it lightly, but it’s appropriate to dismiss the cases with prejudice.”
Now that a notice to appeal has been filed with the Oregon Court of Appeals, the State Attorney General’s office will file an appellate brief, which contains a summary of all the legal arguments as to why Olson’s decision should be overturned.

The defense will then file a response, and the Court of Appeals will either issue an immediate decision or schedule a court date to hear argument.

“We’re not finished with Mr. Van Sickle and I fully expect to see that he’s held accountable for his criminal enterprise,” said Sewell.

Ellis could not be reached for comment by press time.

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