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Medical marijuana patient dies of assault injuries

Pierce County sheriff's detectives are trying to learn who killed a medical marijuana patient who had been growing 150 pot plants on his Orting-area property and been the victim of attempted robberies in the past.

“We’ve been working on the case, and it just continues to get more complicated,” sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said Monday.

Detectives suspect Michael S. Howard, 38, might have been targeted in a robbery, but they had no suspects in his slaying. He died Saturday after being struck in the head, possibly by a crowbar, four days earlier.

Howard suffered back injuries in a couple of accidents years ago and used medical marijuana to deal with the pain, said his stepfather, Michael Atkins.

He was a patient of CannaCare, a Seattle-area organization that provides patients with marijuana plants and advice about Washington’s law, said Steve Sarich, the group’s director.

Howard also posted on CannaCare’s online forum and volunteered his time for the advocacy group.

Investigators had nothing connecting Howard’s death to a robbery that ended early Monday in a shootout at Sarich’s Kirkland home. King County sheriff’s investigators believe the home might have been targeted because of a medical marijuana grow operation inside.

Sarich was wounded in the face and leg by shotgun pellets during the robbery. He shot one of the four robbers, who was taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with life-threatening injuries.

Before the shooting, Sarich raised concerns about robberies of marijuana patients. He said patients are reluctant to report the robberies because law enforcement officers ignore the crimes and instead focus on the patients for having pot.

“What happened to Mike Howard could happen to me or any other patient in Washington as long as we can’t trust the police to do their jobs,” Sarich wrote in a letter Sunday to state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle. “This is beyond disturbing.”

In Pierce County, sheriff’s investigators were called to Howard’s home in the 17700 block of 147th Avenue East about 4:30 a.m. March 9. A woman at the home called 911 after Howard was hit by an unknown attacker.

Howard was bleeding from a head injury and conscious when deputies arrived. They interviewed him about what happened, Troyer said.

He said his dogs started barking, and he armed himself with a can of bear spray and went outside to investigate. He confronted someone and was hit in the head with an object, Troyer said.

Howard could not describe the attacker. He did tell investigators he was a medical marijuana patient but denied having any pot plants and then declined to answer questions, Troyer said.

The woman told deputies that there had been other attempted robberies at the home, some of which were not reported.

Howard was taken to the hospital, but his condition worsened, and he died Saturday at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma.

Meanwhile, his stepfather called deputies after finding a crowbar on Howard’s property. The crowbar was taken as evidence Wednesday, but Troyer said investigators are unsure if it was used in the attack on Howard.

Detectives got a search warrant for Howard’s property and found 150 marijuana plants. Under state law, medical marijuana patients can grow up to 15 plants.

Detectives from the homicide, special investigations and intelligence teams were working on the case.

“We are looking at other robberies there and other incidents this guy has been involved in,” Troyer said.

Howard was convicted of third-degree assault Feb. 23 after he pepper-sprayed a man who’d come to shut off his power Nov. 17, according to court documents. He was in the Pierce County Jail from Jan. 5 until Feb. 24, Troyer said.

Friends and family remembered Howard as a man with a big heart who bred, raised and sold pit bulls. He worked as a home inspector and enjoyed riding motorcycles and quads, said Atkins, his stepfather. “He was a good, friendly guy,” Atkins said.

In an e-mail to The News Tribune on Sunday, Sarich raised concern about the Sheriff’s Department’s investigation of Howard’s death and said medical marijuana patients “never get help from law enforcement.”

Troyer denied that the case wasn’t being fully investigated.

“These are extraordinary circumstances,” he said. “It’s very complicated.”

Stacey Mulick: 253-597-8268

stacey.mulick@thenewstribune.com

blog.thenewstribune.com/crime

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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