Luka Vitasovic: ‘I cannot shake … the feeling that it was avoidable’
VANCOUVER — “There’s nothing stopping him from trying to kill me. It’s all a game to him, and I’m the one who’s going to lose.”
Those chilling words came from Tiffany Hill, just a few short weeks before 38-year-old Keland Hill gunned her down in the parking lot of Sarah J. Anderson Elementary School in Hazel Dell. The shooting took place in front of the couple’s three children. Tiffany Hill’s mother was also injured in the shooting, but survived.
“I know he’s going to kill me if he’s not held accountable for his actions,” Hill had said to detectives handling her domestic violence case. “I’m so scared for my life and my kids’ lives.”
Those statements came after Hill, a former Marine, had been arrested on Sept. 11 for slamming his wife up against a wall at their Vancouver home.
After that first arrest, no bail was set and Hill was released pending a court case.
On Oct. 6 he entered a Wal-Mart in Portland and attempted to purchase a bolt-action rifle, “to take care of vermin in my house,” he told the clerk.
A background check showed Hill’s no-contact order with his estranged wife, and a Multnomah County deputy responded to the scene. According to court records, he said Hill appeared “surprised, but not alarmed” upon learning his application to buy the rifle had been declined.
That attempt set off alarm bells with Clark County deputies investigating the Hill case, and prompted a warrant for Hill’s arrest from the prosecuting attorney’s office. But he would remain free until an incident over a month later.
On Nov. 7, Tiffany Hill reported that she had seen her estranged husband at several locations around town. It was far from the first time he had violated the no contact order. She had received numerous text messages, as well as a FaceTime call from Hill. And a month before, Hill had walked into the Peachtree restaurant on Highway 99, where Tiffany was involved in a Parent Teacher Association meeting. When asked to leave, he did so, only to return a short time later claiming he had an order to pick up.
On that Thursday in early November, following Tiffany’s report, detectives located Hill at a Vancouver bowling alley and noticed him quickly deleting an app from his iPhone. After questioning him, they searched Tiffany’s car and found a small black box under a wheel well that turned out to be a GPS tracking device.
Hill was arrested that afternoon on charges of violating the no contact order.
Clark County Deputy Prosecutor Luka Vitasovic, unit coordinator for the Domestic Violence Prosecution Center, said it was during Hill’s second stint in jail that they learned the attack in September had left Tiffany with a concussion. That discovery led them to increase the charges from fourth degree assault to a second degree charge.
During a bail hearing on Nov.15, Deputy Prosecutor Lauren Boyd told Superior Court Judge John Fairgrieve that she believed Keland Hill would kill his estranged wife if he were allowed to make bail and get out of jail. She would later recount that as the only time she has ever made that claim of a defendant to a judge.
Boyd made the statement as part of an unusual request by the prosecuting attorney’s office. Asking Judge Fairgrieve to increase Hill’s bail amount from $75,000 to $2 million.
“My office is very selective about how we approach these issues,” says Vitasovic. “I cannot recall, off the top of my head, a time, or with somebody with minimal to no criminal history, charged with a Class B felony, we went in and asked for $2 million bail.”
A danger assessment of Keland Hill, completed by a Vancouver Police detective, put him at 31. Anything over 18 is considered an extreme risk to commit violence and 41 is the highest possible score.
But, despite previous arrests, including an attempted murder charge in North Carolina that was later dropped, Hill had no criminal history. He was employed, and generally not considered to be a flight risk. He was a former Marine who had served with honor.
The state Supreme Court provides guidelines for judges about setting bail, though they do have discretion on whether to deviate from it in certain cases. Generally, those factors include the defendant’s criminal history, likelihood of re-offending, or the chance they may fail to appear for future court dates.
Since bail amounts disproportionately impact the poor, the legal system dictates that a judge must account for a defendant’s financial situation before setting an amount. But there is often no way they can fully know what a defendant is capable of paying.
In the case of Hill, Judge Fairgrieve set bail at $250,000. While there are different ways of posting bail, it’s likely Hill would have had to come up with at least 10 percent of the bail amount, or $25,000.
While he can’t talk about the specifics of the Hill case due to the ongoing investigation, Judge Fairgrieve told KPTV News he is not immune to second-guessing many of the decisions he makes on a daily basis.
“All decisions that I make have potential consequences,” Fairgrieve told reporter Kelsey Watts. “Some decisions I make have relatively small consequences, other ones, such as a bail decision, potentially have huge consequences, and I will tell you that it weighs on me every day.”
“I have a lot of respect for judge Fairgrieve,” says Vitasovic. “Actually I think he’s a very, very thoughtful judge. And … I’m sure he gave, in his mind, what was a high bail on the case.”
Vitasovic admits that it is entirely possible Judge Fairgrieve thought that the $250,000 amount was a high enough financial barrier to keep Hill behind bars.
“You set bail based on the factors the Supreme Court wants you to consider, but there’s always some degree of risk, and I think that weighs on all judges who set bail. It certainly weighs on me,” Fairgrieve told KPTV. “And you’re always concerned that if a particular criminal defendant makes bail, that they might go out and commit a violent crime, and it’s, frankly, for judges, the worst-case scenario.”
While Vitasovic said he wasn’t comfortable giving his personal feelings upon hearing of Tiffany Hill’s death, considering his professional position, he did express hope that her tragic death might lead to some reflection on the part of the justice community when it comes to cases like this.
“There’s sometimes a comfort in, kind of, the way that things are done, or a group think when it comes to issues such as bail,” says Vitasovic. “And we were asking him (Fairgrieve) to break from the status quo here, and assign $2 million bail on this case. And I think we were 1,000 percent justified in doing so.”
The legal system, as established under state law, presumes that a defendant should be allowed an opportunity to post bail, except in cases of danger to the community or a high probability of skipping town. It’s unclear what criteria Fairgrieve used when deciding on the $250,000 number, but it’s likely to haunt him, as well as Vitasovic.
“One thing I cannot shake, at times, is the feeling that it was avoidable,” he says. “It’s hard not to have that reaction and have that sentiment.”
KPTV News contributed to this report