State Guilty, Too? -- Slain Teen's Mother Sues Parole Board
Seattle Times Staff Reporters
JOHNNY ROBERT EGGERS, a compulsive criminal and confirmed sexual psychopath, killed a 17-year-old girl a year after state prison officials released him for the fifth time. Now the victim's mother wants the state to pay a price for her daughter's murder.
TACOMA - Two years ago this month, high-school cheerleader Meeka Willingham was stabbed 56 times by a man she had come to know as Uncle Johnny.
Willingham's family was shattered by the murder, in part, because the killer was a man they had taken into their home. Johnny Robert Eggers had become part of the family.
More shock would follow. The 45-year-old Eggers, the family would learn, was a diagnosed sexual psychopath who had a long history of violent assaults against women - assaults that included molestations, rapes, beatings and chokings.
His crimes were on record, his psychopathology on file. Psychiatrists and counselors throughout his many years in prison warned of his compulsion for sexual violence and of the near-certainty that he would re-offend.
Despite this, Eggers, a 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound man who spent much of his prison time lifting weights, was released from incarceration time after time, even as his crimes seemed to escalate in violence.
A year after his fifth release, Eggers killed Willingham in a sexual frenzy, confessed to the crime and was sentenced - under the state's "three strikes, you're out" law - to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The victim's mother, Sylvia McFarland, found little solace in his punishment.
McFarland has filed a $3.5 million wrongful-death suit accusing state corrections officials of gross negligence in releasing a violent psychopath, failing to supervise him and then failing to warn the community. Trial has been set for late 1997.
"Someone has to answer for my daughter's death," said McFarland, a school custodian who is still struggling to pay for her daughter's funeral. "We didn't have the privilege of knowing what this guy was about. The state did."
The state has denied the charges and, through a lawyer from the Attorney General's Office, Glenn Anderson, declined to discuss the specifics of the case. Anderson, however, said the parole board is covered by the same judicial immunity protecting judges, and that a plaintiff, to win a suit, must prove the board failed to follow the proper guidelines.
State officials, Anderson said, followed the guidelines.
"Judges and parole boards deal with human beings and human behavior, and they're not going to be right all the time," Anderson he said. "It's easy in hindsight to say, `Well, you shouldn't have let this guy out.' They didn't have the benefit of that knowledge."
Eggers, now committed to a special unit for sexual predators in Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Snohomish County, got off to a bad start from the time he was an young, abused child in Grand Coulee in Eastern Washington. A gangly, unpopular kid and a poor student, he flunked three grades before he was 12.
His first run-in with the law came at age 18, when he broke into a house and stole a go-cart, a radio and some old coins. It would be the start of a string of crimes that would keep him behind bars for much of the next two decades.
Prison counselors noted that Eggers was obsessed with sex and seemed to get erotic gratification through violence. His first sexual assault occurred at age 19, when he lured a young girl into a gravel pit, hit her head against some rocks and molested her. Eggers threatened to kill her if she told anyone, and the girl never filed charges.
For the next two decades, in the short intervals between prison stays, Eggers would molest, assault and rape numerous girls and young women, often while drunk or high on drugs.
One of his parole officers, Tom Short, then of Wenatchee, wrote in a 1976 report: "Johnny plus alcohol plus women equals trouble."
Just months after the report was written, Eggers got drunk and threatened a masseuse with a knife if she didn't have sex with him. The masseuse got away and called police. Eggers was sentenced to 10 years in prison for second-degree assault. After serving only four months, he was paroled.
A year later, he used a belt to choke a woman into unconsciousness, screaming, "Die, bitch, die!" and then raped her. Eggers was convicted of first-degree assault with the intent to kill, and was sentenced to a maximum of life in prison.
A King County judge imposed the sentence, in part, because of psychiatric studies that found Eggers was a sexual psychopath. An separate evaluation done by a psychiatric team at Western State Hospital confirmed that diagnosis, but the team refused to provide sexual-offender treatment because it considered Eggers too dangerous to be treated at the hospital, which did not have sufficient security for violent offenders. The team indicated he should be confined to prison.
The team concluded that Eggers' "history of acting out is a very good predictor of future dangerous sexually aggressive acts. We do not feel that he is safe to be at large."
Eggers was never provided sex-offender treatment while in prison.
In the summer of 1990, he was paroled again, and met McFarland in a math class at Tacoma Community House, a nonprofit agency that offered continuing-education classes to the public. The agency often accepted parolees from nearby work-release centers. Eggers was working on a his General Education Development (GED) certificate.
McFarland, a student in the math class, had a history of helping needy people and felt sorry for Eggers, who was unemployed. She gave him odd jobs to do around her house. Eggers told her he'd had some problems with the law but never went into details.
Nobody at the Tacoma Community House or at the Lincoln Park Work Release center, where Eggers stayed during his parole, told McFarland about Eggers' history, according to the lawsuit. Both facilities have been named as defendants in the suit.
Eggers spent more and more time at McFarland's Hilltop home, eventually being called "Uncle Johnny" by her two daughters, Meeka and Shonta. The family invited Eggers to Thanksgiving dinner and other special occasions.
In August 1994, McFarland traveled to Indiana to visit a sick relative and asked Eggers to stay at her house while she was gone.
Meeka Willingham, 17, a petite girl known for her feistiness and energy, had just returned from cheerleading camp and was excited about cheering in her first game the following month. She had planned to stay with a half-brother in town, but one night Eggers asked her to come over to watch some movies. The two drank some wine. Sometime during the night, Eggers stabbed Willingham to death.
Willingham's body was found in her upstairs bedroom, lying face up on her bed. She was soaked in blood, wearing a T-shirt and underwear. A kitchen knife was found beside her, with the blade broken in two pieces. Many of Willingham's stab wounds were on her forearms, indicating that she had tried to shield herself during the attack, investigators said.
Eggers fled the house in McFarland's car, drove to Centralia and called police from a pay phone just hours later, confessing to the crime and directing investigators to the girl's body.
Eggers later told the judge in the case that he killed the girl after she had put him in a demonic trance, and that he was just "following orders." Eggers described an elaborate ritual involving demons, tigers, crystals and a queen who ordered him to commit the murder.
McFarland said her daughter was highly religious and feared the occult, and would never have been involved in any such ritual.
McFarland also said the ritual described by Eggers was suspiciously similar to The Legend of Zelda video game that Eggers liked to play.
"He played us so well," McFarland said. "That was the thing about this guy. You couldn't tell what was going on inside him. I never saw him mad. None of us did. We never would have guessed he had that much rage inside him."
In a telephone interview from prison, Eggers stuck to the ritual story but said he takes full responsibility for Willingham's death.
"I've told the truth as much as I'm able to do. I haven't hid nothing from anybody," Eggers said. "All I know is what happened happened, and there's nobody on the face of this Earth can change it. I did what I did."
Willingham's murder was the result, according to McFarland's attorney, Darrell Cochran, of a "parole system corrupted by incompetence." Cochran said the parole board chose to ignore the mountain of information indicating that Eggers would re-offend in a serious way when released.
The parole board, officially known as the Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board, is a defendant in the lawsuit, and members refused to comment on the Eggers case.
Ever since 1984, when the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) went into effect, the state has operated with two sentencing systems.
The SRA set the stage for the eventual phasing out of the parole board, setting up, instead, a grid system determining minimum and maximum sentences for every crime. The target date for termination of the parole board is 1998.
But nearly 700 of the 10,000 inmates in the state's corrections system are still under the jurisdiction of the old parole system, in which a board decides every few years whether an inmate is eligible for parole.
Kit Bail, chairwoman of the parole board, conceded that the parole system is imperfect, but said it isn't always imperfect in the way that Cochran alleges in the Eggers case.
"Not letting somebody out who should get out is just as bad as letting out someone who shouldn't be let out," she said. The parole board must walk the fine line between these two potentially disastrous mistakes.
"When an offender re-offends, we want to blame it on somebody," Bail said. "We think once a person is identified as a criminal that the responsibility of that person's behavior forever belongs to the state.
"Parole boards work hard to make good decisions, but we're not God. If we let a person out who goes out and kills somebody, well, that's hard to live with, but the best we can do is the best we can do."
------------------------------------------ JOHNNY ROBERT EGGERS: A RECORD OF VIOLENCE ------------------------------------------
1968: Went AWOL three times while in the U.S. Army. He was discharged after nine months.
1969: Arrested in Prosser, Benton County, for petty larceny. Had a nervous breakdown and was committed to the psychiatric ward of the VA Hospital in Seattle.
1970: Sexually assaulted a girl in a gravel pit, hitting her head against rocks and threatening to kill her. Shortly after, he was arrested for petty larceny. He was sent to Eastern State Hospital for psychiatric observation.
1971: Convicted of auto theft and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
1972: Paroled in July.
1973: Convicted of third-degree assault for breaking a beer bottle over a woman's head and trying to smother her with the intent to rape. In a separate incident, he forced sex on a woman by threatening to break her arm. His parole was revoked, and he was sent back to prison.
1975: Paroled in March.
1976: Arrested in June in connection with the rape of a neighbor woman. "He said that my blood would be splattered all over the kitchen," the woman told police. No charges were filed but Eggers' probation was revoked, and he was sent back to prison.
1976: Paroled in October. While staying at a halfway house, he assaulted and attempted to rape two women. In November, he was convicted of second-degree assault for threatening a South Seattle masseuse with a knife with the intent to rape. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
1977: Paroled in March. While working at Goodwill Industries in Seattle, he stole women's underwear and peeped at women trying on clothes. During this time, he molested the teenage sister of a friend and the 9-year-old daughter of a girlfriend.
1978: Assaulted a prostitute along Aurora Avenue in Seattle. Later in the year, he was convicted of first-degree assault with intent to kill after he used a belt to choke a woman to unconsciousness and then raped her. The woman said he was screaming "Die, bitch, die!" while choking her. He was sentenced to life in prison.
1981: Diagnosed as a "sexual psychopath" by a psychiatric team at Western State Hospital. The hospital declined to provide sexual-offender treatment because Eggers presented too great a security risk.
1990: Paroled in August.
1993: Discharged from parole.
1994: Killed 17-year-old Meeka Willingham, the daughter of a Good Samaritan friend in Tacoma. Eggers stabbed Willingham 56 times during a sexual assault. Eggers pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced, under the state's "three strikes" law, to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Information from prison, court, and psychiatric records.
Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.