Column One: Alligator in a meth lab? A place where crime is often stranger than fiction

Novelist and Pierce County prosecutor Mark Lindquist at Bob's Java Jive in Tacoma, Wash. The dive bar appears in his third novel, "Never Mind Nirvana."

Novelist and Pierce County prosecutor Mark Lindquist at Bob’s Java Jive in Tacoma, Wash. The dive bar appears in his third novel, “Never Mind Nirvana.”

(Maria L. La Ganga / Los Angeles Times)

Mark Lindquist needed just 66 seconds. That was all it took to persuade a judge to sentence William Grisso to prison for the next 31 years.

Grisso, 43, “had a complicated love life — a wife, a fiancee and a girlfriend,” the prosecutor told the court. “He could have unraveled that web any number of lawful ways. Instead, he chose murder.... This was not a crime of passion, but a crime of impatience.”

The same day Grisso had filed for divorce from his wife so that he could be with his girlfriend, he took his fiancee, 45-year-old Nancy Gardner, to a state park and shot her twice in the head.


But that’s not all. As Gardner’s brother Rick told the court during Grisso’s November sentencing, “he even tried to frame his own son. Who would do such a thing?” The son was a teenager at the time.

But that’s still not all. Because this is crime and punishment in Pierce County, home of Washington state’s strangest lawbreaking — some hilarious, some breathtakingly stupid, some in which weirdness is trumped only by heartbreak.

This is a place where sheriff’s deputies raided a meth lab and found a 4-foot alligator named Wally. Where a thirsty baby drank mom’s bong water and died of acute methamphetamine poisoning. Where not one but two men were accused of waterboarding children younger than 7.

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Where a high school teacher had sex with a student and was caught when she wrote an apology to the boy’s girlfriend. Where two men high on meth got into a chainsaw fight, and the winner sewed up the loser’s wounds with fishing line.

It’s also where a fictional “tweaker,” or meth addict, with a chainsaw — a plot point based on that real crime — became the antihero of a 2007 novel. “The King of Methlehem” was written by none other than Lindquist, who is working on his fifth novel — working title “The Queen of Cannabis” — while prosecuting criminals, gathering material and facing a recall effort.


“I had to tone down reality to make it believable fiction,” said Lindquist, 56, Pierce County’s chief prosecutor.

He was talking about the flesh-and-blood, power-tool-wielding meth addict. But he could have been describing a wide array of crimes here in Tacoma and environs.

Sometimes it’s not that the crime itself is that odd. It’s just that there’s always a Pierce County twist.

— Mark Lindquist, chief prosecutor in Pierce County, Wash.

“Sometimes it’s not that the crime itself is that odd,” Lindquist said. “It’s just that there’s always a Pierce County twist.”

Like an alligator in a meth lab.


Lindquist’s first novel, “Sad Movies,” was published in 1987. It drew on his time as a copy writer for a movie studio, where he worked after graduating from USC.

Another Hollywood-based novel followed in 1990. Shortly thereafter, he returned to his home state of Washington and went to law school. He eventually joined the prosecutor’s office and started writing about law, order and the Pacific Northwest.

“The King of Methlehem” was inspired by a time when the proliferation of meth labs put Pierce County in the same company as California’s Inland Empire, which federal authorities once considered “the methamphetamine capital of the United States.”

The 21st century had just dawned. The reality crime show “Cops” had seemingly set up residence in Tacoma, Seattle’s much-maligned blue-collar stepsister, 30 miles south and a world away. At a meth conference in 2000, then-Gov. Gary Locke described Pierce County as having “the dubious distinction of being the ‘meth capital’ of Washington.”

Howard Schultz — Lindquist’s antihero, not the Starbucks owner — was more poetic: “If you want to make movies, you go to Hollywood. If you want to play poker professionally, you go to Las Vegas. And if you want to be the meth king, you go to Pierce County, Washington.”

Schultz desperately wanted to be the meth king, to reign over a region that Lindquist described as famous for its crime and with very good reason.

“Serial killer and rapist Ted Bundy lived in Tacoma, as did serial killer and rapist Robert Yates,” Lindquist wrote. Gary Leon Ridgway, “the Green River Killer, is said to have buried bodies in Pierce County....”

“David Brame, the Tacoma police chief, murdered his wife and shot himself in a Pierce County strip mall parking lot in 2003,” the prosecutor continued, weaving stranger-than-life fact into fiction that struggles to keep up with reality here. What his book did not mention was that the estranged couple’s children, ages 8 and 5, watched from Crystal Brame’s car.

Why some places are more snakebit than others is the big question. Seattle has its own crime problems, mostly clustered in its downtown core. But the Emerald City is big, affluent and sedate by comparison.

Det. Ed Troyer, spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, blames what he calls the Pierce County “crime warp.”

“In Pierce County, we have Western State Hospital, the biggest mental hospital in the state of Washington,” Troyer said, ticking off what he considers crime warp components. “We have the women’s prison, Washington Corrections Center for Women.”

Add to that Joint Base Lewis-McChord, he said, and “halfway houses and a dumping ground for sex offenders who get convicted all over the state and end up here. Mix in the blue-collar towns, the dependents left over from years and years of military from our area. It just creates this craziness.”

And don’t forget about meth.


Historian Michael Sullivan would add the Port of Tacoma to Troyer’s crime warp catalog. In its early years, the port brought soldiers, sailors, loggers and dockworkers, young men with disposable income and a penchant for trouble.

The University of Washington Tacoma adjunct professor was driving past Opera Alley, once notorious for bars, bordellos and a madam named Amanda Truelove.

Sullivan wended his way past downtown’s Winthrop Hotel, where crime boss Vito Catone ran a pinball machine protection racket out of the coffee shop. And the street where 9-year-old George Weyerhaeuser, son of a prominent lumberman, was kidnapped in 1935.

He pulled into what is now part of the University of Washington campus, all clipped grass, red brick and crisp purple awnings.

“When Dashiell Hammett was here,” he began, “there was a terrible shooting.”

In 1920, the nascent master of detective fiction was being treated for tuberculosis at what was then a U.S. Public Health Service hospital. His stay coincided with a burst of violence in Pierce County’s biggest city.

On Dec. 14, 1920, a man named Samuel Hamblet was walking through Tacoma’s sketchy warehouse district to visit a son who ran a newsstand. A young beat cop ordered him to halt. Terrified, Hamblet ran. The officer shot into the air, then into the ground.

They were supposed to be warning shots. But one ricocheted off the pavement and hit the father of six in the ribs. He fell.

The randomness of that death stayed with Hammett and ended up in a much-discussed snippet of “The Maltese Falcon” known as the “Flitcraft Parable”: A young father in Tacoma escapes death when a beam falls off a building under construction. He walks away and disappears. Sam Spade, Hammett’s fictional detective, is hired to find him.


Kimmie Daily, 16, went missing on a hot August day in 2010. Her body was found five days later, naked, buried beneath her bicycle and a tangle of blackberry bushes in a vacant lot not far from her home. Her T-shirt and bra were tied tightly around her neck.

At the 2013 trial of the young man accused of raping and killing her, Lindquist told jurors that Tyler Savage had lured the developmentally disabled teenager to the lot, digitally raped her, strangled her and “threw her away.” Then he went home and played video games.

Daily was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and clubbed feet. She weighed 94 pounds, Lindquist said, and had the mental capacity of an 11-year-old.

Defense attorney Les Tolzin told a far different story, of consensual relations between a girl with an interest in sadomasochistic sex and an 18-year-old who “is legally an adult but still in all sense of the word is a child.”

Tolzin described the encounter as “Fifty Shades of Grey” gone terribly awry. “Did he digitally penetrate her? Yes,” Tolzin told the jury. “But at that time, he believed she was already dead.”

Second-degree manslaughter, max, he said.

Then it was Lindquist’s turn.

“‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ as you all recall, is a novel, a work of fiction,” the chief prosecutor began.

Objection. Overruled.

“I think that what is appropriate,” Lindquist continued, “is that what you heard from the defendant on the stand and what you just heard from defense counsel is also fiction.”

Savage was convicted of aggravated murder and is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.


These days, Lindquist is living his own Pierce County twist.

In August, Superior Court Judge Jay Roof ruled that a recall effort can move forward against the novelist-turned-prosecutor, although he threw out 11 of the 12 charges that Lindquist’s opponents filed as reasons to toss him out of office.

The charge that Roof let stand alleged the abuse of authority, through vindictive prosecution and obstruction of justice, in a convoluted case involving a woman who was prosecuted twice for child sex crimes only to have all charges dismissed.

She spent more than seven months in jail and later sued the county. The case is continuing.

Lindquist insists that his office acted “in the interest of protecting children,” and that if his opponents gather enough signatures to put a recall on the ballot, he will easily prevail.

Of the accusations that led to the recall, the novelist said, most are “just fiction.”


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