Well-known Hammond fisherman convicted of sex abuse

Dennis Lee Sturgell

A well-known Hammond fisherman was found guilty Tuesday of sex abuse and bribery charges stemming from a day of drinking and drug use with a young woman in 2015.

Dennis Lee Sturgell, 66, was convicted of four counts of first-degree sodomy, two counts of first-degree unlawful sexual penetration and one count of second-degree sex abuse after jurors found that the woman did not or was unable to give consent.

The jury — nine women and three men — included 10 people that found Sturgell guilty of all charges. One juror found him guilty on all but one charge, while another found him not guilty on all the sex abuse charges.

Oregon is the only state to still allow split verdicts in felony trials, except for murder. Voters in Louisiana this month ended the practice of nonunanimous verdicts.

Sturgell was indicted last year along with James Herbert Cunningham, 47. The two men were accused of committing several sex crimes against a young woman who was roughly 40 years younger than Sturgell at the time.

Cunningham, who is in prison for a separate criminal case, faces trial in January.

Several of Sturgell’s convictions carry a minimum of more than eight years in prison for each count. Circuit Court Judge Paula Brownhill may, however, rule that some of the sentences run concurrently.

Daniel Wendel, an attorney with the Oregon Department of Justice, and Clatsop County Deputy District Attorney Dawn Buzzard prosecuted Sturgell. Wendel was the lead prosecutor due to a number of direct or indirect relationships local police have with the victim.

“The DA’s office is very proud of the fine work of Senior Deputy DA Dawn Buzzard and Assistant Attorney General Dan Wendel and the hard work of all the jurors,” District Attorney Josh Marquis said in a statement. “Nobody is above the law.”

Brownhill ruled Friday that prosecutors needed to prove that Sturgell knew the woman was incapacitated or physically helpless.

Prosecutors and Jason Thompson, Sturgell’s Salem-based attorney, agreed that Sturgell and the victim drank alcohol and took cocaine and that they engaged in a number of sex acts.

The victim consumed some beers and liquor shots, some of which were paid for by Sturgell. Described as “blackout drunk,” the victim left a Warrenton bar and got into Sturgell’s truck.

Sturgell drove her across the Astoria Bridge to his wooded property in Naselle, Washington. Along the way, he provided her with cocaine.

“Who needs a gun and a knife when you’ve got drugs and alcohol?” Wendel told jurors during closing arguments.

“He used drugs and alcohol to prey on this young woman in order to satisfy his own twisted sexual desires,” Wendel said.

Thompson, though, argued that the woman voluntarily drank.

“She was consuming alcohol, and she ended up making decisions that she did not like,” Thompson said. “No one was forcing her to drink that alcohol.”

After arriving at the Naselle property — a field inside a large collection of trees — Sturgell engaged in sex acts with the woman, along with another man who joined them. Because the acts took place in Washington state, they were not prosecuted in Clatsop County.

Sturgell and the victim then drove back to Astoria, taking more cocaine along the way. The victim, at one point, got out of the car and vomited.

After arriving in Astoria, Sturgell checked into a hotel, and the victim — struggling behind — followed him into the room.

The victim, who testified during the trial. was often overcome with emotion, once asking for a break during questioning.

She repeatedly said she did not recall some things or why she took certain actions.

“I blacked out, but I was kind of there,” she said. “It’s like pictures almost.”

Cunningham allegedly arrived at the hotel after several calls with Sturgell. At one point, Cunningham looked at the victim, who was lying on a bed, and said, “Where did you find this one?” she said.

The victim also testified that, at least once, she could not sufficiently move her body to commit a sex act.

A few hours after arriving in the hotel room, the victim began to regain normal functions. She left the hotel and called a cab that took her to her car at the Warrenton bar.

The victim gave conflicting reports to investigators and friends about whether she ever explicitly said “no” during the encounters with the two men. She also testified that she suffered from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares and suicidal thoughts as a result of the night.

Dr. Mindy Mechanic, a psychology professor at California State University, Fullerton who specializes in crime trauma, was hired by prosecutors to testify. She said sexual assault victims’ actions during their ordeals can often be “counterintuitive” — such as not escaping situations when opportunities arise — and that memories can be inconsistent.

Thompson argued that, while she may have been “blacked out,” Sturgell could not have been expected to know.

“If it takes an expert from Southern California to come up here into this courtroom in Oregon and tell us all that, how did this fisherman from Warrenton know all that?” Thompson said.

Sturgell was also convicted of two counts of bribing a witness and one count of tampering with a witness stemming from a meeting he held with the victim’s father. During the meeting, he offered $5,000 and threatened to hire attorneys to “dig up dirt” on witnesses in the case, her father testified. When the victim heard about the offer, she became angry and contacted authorities.

Thompson said the victim and her father were hoping Sturgell would give her money. In an email sent earlier this year to Oregon Assistant Attorney General Erin Greenawald, the lead prosecutor at the time, the victim said she would rather pursue a civil case than a criminal one.

Buzzard, however, challenged the notion that she only reported the crime for the money by citing the victim’s anger at Sturgell’s bribe, which had taken place months before.

“First of all, she would have asked for the money before she went through with prosecution, and when he offered her money, the first thing she did was call the police,” Buzzard said.

Sturgell did not testify during the four-day trial. He placed his head in his hands and appeared to cry a few times during closing arguments.

Sturgell is known as a polarizing figure among commercial fishermen. His crabbing career has brought him from the Oregon Coast to Alaska and the San Francisco Bay Area.

As he was being led out of the courtroom in handcuffs Tuesday, a crying Sturgell peeked at some of his family sitting in attendance.

“I’m sorry to my family,” he said.

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