Kalama City Councilmember Matthew Merz is suing the Kalama Police Department and a Daily News reporter to suppress records in a case where he alleges he was the victim of cyberstalking.
Merz filed for emergency relief Aug. 27 to prevent a copy of the cyberstalking case file from being shared with Daily News reporter Marissa Heffernan. The records stem from a 2019 case in which Merz says he was threatened and harassed online, one aspect of which was cartoons and falsified pictures depicting Merz in various sexual scenarios.
Merz is seeking to have Heffernan’s record request rejected and the cyberstalking case sealed from future requests. He said the falsified pictures should fall under the protections given to intimate images of the victims of crimes, which are exempt from public inspection, and would not be of legitimate public interest.
Across the complaint and motion to seal records, Merz alleged a series of conspiracies against him over the last year involving Kalama Mayor Mike Reuter, Police Chief Rafael Herrera, members of the Kalama Library Board of Trustees and other residents of the city. Merz claimed Reuter and Herrera inappropriately leaked details of the case file to make Merz appear as a criminal and sabotage his campaign to unseat Reuter as mayor during this year’s election.
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“I have strong reason to believe that Rafael Herrera’s motivation was to damage and humiliate me in my hometown prior to the 2021 primary election,” Merz wrote in the motion.
Samuel Satterfield, the attorney representing the city of Kalama and the Kalama Police Department, said the city “very much denies all of the allegations” made by Merz about city personnel. Satterfield said the claims had little bearing on whether or not the police should fulfill Heffernan’s record request.
“For the most part I find it wholly irrelevant. The question is if the pictures and the things within the report meet the legal standard for the right to privacy,” Satterfield said.
A Cowlitz County judge will hear the case on Sept. 15 and Satterfield expected a ruling would be issued that day.
Merz claims previous mishandlings in case
In August 2019, Merz filed a police report outlining harassment and threats he said he had received from a group based in Oregon. City prosecutor Stewart Feil charged an unnamed Oregon resident with cyberstalking as a result.
Feil eventually reduced the charge from cyberstalking to littering and settled the case in June 2020. Merz says in his court filings that he was not consulted by Feil or the Kalama Police prior to that decision.
The case remained largely unknown until Kalama resident Harlyn Jenkins filed a records request for the case file in June. Jenkins said he heard about the incident while doing background research on all the candidates running in the mayoral primary. Jenkins said he has not shared the details of the case file with any other person.
“When I made the request they were a matter of public record and the request was issued to me,” Jenkins said. “I have had them since July and have no plans to release them.”
Jenkins’ position on the Kalama Library Board of Trustees led to a clash with Merz over the summer. He and Merz had a verbal dispute during the summer when Merz attempted to donate comics to the library and Jenkins allegedly questioned Merz’s ties to the alt-right-adjacent Comicsgate movement.
Jenkins said the debate over the comic donation did occur, but was contained to a single library board meeting. He said he had never talked about Merz with Reuter, Herrera or any city officials outside the library board.
Merz argued in the court filing that Herrera delayed notifying Merz of the record request until June 30 to give Merz less time to file an injunction preventing the release of the records. He missed the deadline to halt that request, but wrote a letter to Reuter and the Kalama Police on July 6, outlining questions about the legality of the records being released.
In the letter, Merz accused Reuter and Herrera of plotting to use the photos and other evidence gathered in the case to damage Merz’s political career. He said the release of the records to Jenkins indicated “the wholly corrupt nature of Rafael Herrera as member of law enforcement and Mike Reuter as an elected servant.”
Reuter “vehemently and categorically” denied the accusations made by Merz when asked Thursday. Reuter said he had no power over whether or not a record request to the police department gets filled and suggested that Merz’s relatively poor performance in the mayoral primary election was the reason for the claims.
“I am not concerned at all because it was said by one person who has nothing to prove what he said. He’s going on hearsay and conspiracy things, he’s putting it all together in his head,” Reuter said.
On July 15, Satterfield wrote to Merz asking him to cease any claims of criminal misconduct by city officials. Satterfield wrote that the pictures could not be excluded from a record request, as they were manipulated images that had been posted to public websites before being cited as evidence in the cyberstalking investigation.
Satterfield wrote that a judge might agree with Merz’s argument about the inappropriateness of the images, but that distinction was “a call that the City of Kalama is not legally allowed to make.”
Satterfield said Thursday he is representing the city in the record request case, not Herrera or Reuter personally, but that Kalama officially denies Merz’s claims within the filing.
“From everything that I’m aware of, his allegations are not the way reality sits at this point,” Satterfield said.
Kalama fight becomes public
The dispute between Merz and the city became public in early August, following the court case records being released to Jenkins. On Aug. 4, Merz went to a private Kalama Facebook group to share his opinion that Herrera had mishandled the record request and the cyberstalking case.
Days later, the Kalama Police Department issued a public statement rebutting Merz’s claims. Herrera outlined the timeline of the original case and the record request and said Merz’s allegations undermined the credibility of his department.
“This behavior is an inexcusable, willful, and wanton spreading of baseless accusations of official misconduct,” Herrera wrote.
The public comments about the case led Heffernan to request a copy of the cyberstalking case file to understand the debate between Merz and the Kalama Police. Merz filed for a temporary injunction to halt the release of the records and Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Gary Bashor approved it.