Simon McDonald, 33.
  • Cienna Madrid
  • Simon McDonald, 33, testified last week in the trial of two Seattle Firefighters and one woman, all of whom are accused of assaulting homeless people in Occidental Park.

On Friday, 33-year-old Simon McDonald was systematically grilled in front of an eight-person jury, a Seattle Municipal Court judge, and a small crowd of reporters. At issue: where he sleeps at night. To be clear, McDonald's not on trial for any crime. The soft-spoken man was the prosecution's first witness in the trial of two former firefighters—Robert Howell, 47, and Scott Bullene, 46—and their female friend, Mia Jarvinen, 38. They're all charged with assault and malicious harassment for allegedly attacking homeless men in Occidental Park last March. The trial began on November 20.

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Under questioning, McDonald told one of the defense attorneys that he was not actually homeless at the time of the incident. At the time, he said, he was staying with an ex-girlfriend. Assistant City Prosecutor Joe Everett asked him: "Have you ever been homeless?"

"Yes," Simon replied.

"When was that?"

"I'm actually between places right now."

McDonald was wearing a green cable-knit sweater and blue jeans. He has a thick beard and steady blue eyes. A wooden cross and a bone talisman hung around his neck. The tenor of his voice was low and soothing—the tone you'd take when talking to a skittish animal. And his state of homelessness is, paradoxically, key to both the prosecution and defense strategies.

The decision by the Seattle City Attorney's Office to pursue charges of malicious harassment—a hate crime—against all three defendants is both striking and rare. While only the willfully naive or supremely stupid would argue that Seattle's homeless population is treated with the same dignity and respect afforded to the rest of us, proving a hate crime was motivated by someone's homelessness is always difficult. For starters, homeless crime victims and witnesses are often hard to track down and less willing to testify or trust the justice system. But in this case, prosecutors found one victim willing to take the stand: McDonald.

City prosecutors argue that Jarvinen, Howell, and Bullene targeted and assaulted McDonald and another man because they perceived the men to be homeless and desecrating Occidental Park's Fallen Firefighters Memorial with their presence.

"[Jarvinen] said she saw a man lying on the Firefighter Memorial in the park and was 'sick of it,'" according to court documents. "She told Officer (K.B.) Stewart that she ‘pays taxes’ and repeated that she was 'sick of it.'"

The trio's defense attorneys, meanwhile, seem to hope to discredit McDonald's testimony by painting him as an unreliable transient slumming it in the park while arguing that the defendants—two of them heroic firefighters—were victims of both circumstance and an unprovoked attack.

Both sides agree to these basic facts: Early in the evening of March 15, Jarvinen, Bullene, and Howell were walking home from a Seattle Sounders game when they cut through Occidental Park.

On that evening, McDonald said he was reclining on the ground next to the firefighters' memorial, eating a free meal, when he heard voices raised in anger. The voices were so hostile that he failed to notice they were directed at him—until, he said, he was kicked by Jarvinen. "I wasn't paying attention until I was actually struck," he explained. At that point, McDonald said, he noticed that a fight was brewing between Jarvinen's two companions and another homeless man in the park, identified as "Clyde."

"After I'd gotten kicked, I'd gotten up," McDonald testified. "It looked like there was some arguing between [Clyde] and the group going on.”

Clyde was described to the court as a black man wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, and carrying a walking stick. He also had a knife on him—a small butterfly blade, which he allegedly showed to the defendants.

“[At this point] there was just a verbal argument,” McDonald explained. “The three [defendants] were offended that the firemen's memorial was being desecrated.” Meanwhile, “Clyde was saying he was a veteran, he felt he was being disrespected.”

"It appeared that Clyde was outnumbered and outgunned for sure,” McDonald told the court. “He seemed scared when he pulled out that knife.”

Nevertheless, the tension seemed to die down until, several minutes later, one of the firefighters, Bullene, was stabbed. During cross-examination by Bullene's private defense attorney, David Allen, McDonald said he heard a commotion, turned, and saw Bullene and Clyde fighting over what appeared to be Clyde's walking stick.

McDonald: Clyde was kind of on his back pulling on his walking stick.

Allen: There was a tug of war over the walking stick. Did you see Clyde hit Mr. Bullene with the stick?

M: No.

A: Did you see Mr. Bullene hit Clyde?

M: Yes.

A: Did you seen Mr. Clyde stab Mr. Bullene?

M: I saw, after being hit with the walking stick, Clyde jab at him.

A: What you're describing is an upward knife thrust.

M: Yes.

A: What broke up the fighting?

M: It looked like it just kind of stopped. It was over as quickly as it started.

A: At the time Mr. Bullene was hitting Clyde with the stick, was Clyde up or down on the ground?

M: He let the stick go and kind of fell to the ground, right away tried to get up, as this was happening he was making his way off the ground.

In a call to 911 that was played for the court, Howell, the other firefighter, described the scene much differently: "There's a white girl being assaulted by a black gentleman."

Police arrived minutes later. Responding officer Franklin Poblocki recalls asking Howell how much he'd had to drink because "he seemed to be slurring his words a little bit."

While the defendants will have their chance to explain their version of events on the stand, the facts of the case as they've been laid out so far are striking, particularly in a city that has been roundly and routinely criticized for its treatment of its homeless population (and in a county where a farcical 10-year plan to end homelessness, now in its 10th year, has not been able to stop a 14 percent jump in the number of homeless individuals sleeping on Seattle streets in 2014 alone).

The defendants have all been charged with one count of fourth-degree assault and one count of malicious harassment. If convicted, each faces a fine of up to $5,000 and up to 364 days in jail. Both Bullene and Howell were fired from the Seattle Fire Department after the incident. The trial resumes tomorrow.