A convicted felon whose cell was adjacent to that of Rick Riffe while he was housed in the Lewis County Jail’s medical unit told the jury the defendant confessed to him in early 2013.
While only a few minutes of Erwin Bartlett’s testimony focused on what Riffe allegedly told him when they were housed next to one another, the Hoquiam man remained on the stand for hours Thursday afternoon as Riffe’s defense attorney attempted to tarnish his credibility.
Bartlett, dressed in a suit and tie, told the jury that he previously spent more than 13 years in prison during the 1980s and 1990s for two counts of attempted murder after he found his then-wife with two other men.
He then attacked the men with an ax, he said. While serving time in prison, Bartlett said, he managed to escape, and was on the run for about six months before he was arrested again.
Years after his release from prison, he moved from New Mexico to Washington. In 2012, he was arrested for misdemeanor assault and was sentenced to a few months in the Lewis County Jail.
Bartlett, who suffers from a variety of severe medical issues, said he, like Riffe, were both housed in the medical unit of the jail for several days.
During that time, Bartlett said, the two men spoke to each other through the vents, which they call the “cell phone.”
“He said he had committed a crime and he had killed two old people,” Bartlett said, later adding, “He told me it was a bad, bad mistake.”
While they spoke about Riffe’s crime on multiple occasions, he said Riffe confessed one time, then later denied it.
“The first time he told me he did it, the second time he said he ‘allegedly’ did it,” Bartlett said.
He also said that Riffe complained about his attorney, who Riffe had told him was a prominent and expensive Seattle attorney, not interviewing witnesses.
He also said Riffe told him he committed the crime with an accomplice who was “no longer with us,” which Bartlett said he took to mean that the accomplice was dead.
After hearing Riffe’s alleged confession, Bartlett said he did not tell anyone until he tried to gain leniency with authorities after he was caught committing another crime.
During his jail sentence, Bartlett was allowed to leave the jail periodically for a few-hour furlough for medical reasons.
One day, he attempted to smuggle medication for his liver inflammation into the jail by sticking the pill bottle in between his butt cheeks, he said. He was caught by the jail staff, and immediately requested to speak to a detective about knowing possible information about some other pending cases.
He then told the interviewing sheriff’s deputy, Jeremy Almond, about three different cases he had information on, including one about Rick Riffe.
Bartlett also made a point to mention during his testimony that he never read a newspaper or heard about Riffe’s case prior to speaking with him.
Bartlett later pleaded guilty to drug-related charges for smuggling the pills into the jail, but has yet to be sentenced.
Thought Bartlett told the jury he was not “promised anything” by the prosecution, John Crowley, Riffe’s defense attorney, questioned Bartlett for nearly an hour about why the court documents for his guilty plea, and his pending jail sentence, made mention of a plea agreement.
The plea agreement, according to court documents shown to the jury by Crowley, said the prosecution would recommend a lower sentence in exchange for Bartlett’s “truthful” testimony in the Riffe trial.
Bartlett told the jury he did not know about the agreement, though Crowley gave Bartlett a copy of the document bearing Bartlett’s signature.