Former Wash. Mayor Charged in Fraud Scheme with Slain Trooper

August 27, 2007

Detectives investigating the killing of a former state patrol sergeant last year say they learned that he was involved in an insurance scam with another trooper.

That second trooper, Douglas Merino, 51 — who is also the former mayor of Westport, Wash. — was charged last week in Thurston County Superior Court with first-degree theft, attempted first-degree theft, conspiracy to commit first-degree theft and forgery. Merino is on long-term disability leave with the patrol.

Prosecutors wrote that Merino and former patrol Sgt. James Earl Varner, 49, of Olympia, were involved in a plan to collect insurance by falsely reporting a 1949 Chevrolet Woody worth an estimated $60,000 stolen in 2005. Farmers Insurance investigated the claim as a potential case of insurance fraud, and on Feb. 1, 2006, the day after Varner gave a deposition to insurance investigators, he was found dead in a vehicle on a U.S. Forest Service road about three miles west of Packwood.

The death remains under investigation, according to the Lewis County sheriff’s office.

The insurance scheme involved Varner and his son, Kenneth Ray Varner, 30, pretending to buy the 1949 Chevy from Merino, then taking out an insurance policy and reporting it stolen, prosecutors said. Merino told an insurance investigator he had spent many hours restoring the vehicle and sold it to Ken Varner for $60,000 in cash, they alleged.

“In the ensuing investigation, Doug Merino admitted to (authorities) that the green 1949 Chevy Woody … did not exist in the condition represented to Farmer’s Insurance, that he never delivered an actual working vehicle to the Varners and that Jim and Ken Varner’s insurance claim on the vehicle was fraudulent,” prosecutors wrote.

The younger Varner has pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree theft. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of one day in jail and 240 hours of community service.

Merino’s telephone number in Olympia is unlisted and he could not be reached for comment, The Olympian newspaper reported.

He has been on disability leave since 1993, when he was injured while pulling someone out of a vehicle following a traffic accident, Patrol Capt. Jeffrey K. DeVere said. Earlier this year Merino was working as an investigator in the state Department of labor and Industries, according to the state Office of Financial Management Web site.

The elder Varner worked with the State Patrol from 1979 to 1997. He supervised the state patrol’s detachment in Hoquiam in the early 1990s; at the time, Merino was stationed there, DeVere said.

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