Almost a year later, Steve Leonard is still haunted by the "what ifs. " What if he had arrived at the East Republican Street house 10 seconds...

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Almost a year later, Steve Leonard is still haunted by the “what ifs.”

What if he had arrived at the East Republican Street house 10 seconds later?

What if he had arrived 10 seconds earlier?

What if he had pulled the trigger?

Since the bloody Saturday morning when he encountered Kyle Huff outside the Capitol Hill house, Leonard’s memories of the nightmare have gone from pervasive to periodic. He’s a man who boasts readily about his two young children, but he quickly becomes somber when discussing the morning that will never completely leave his thoughts.

As the first officer to arrive at the house where Huff had just unleashed a deadly fusillade, Leonard saw first-hand the carnage that ended seven young lives and scarred many, many more. Ignoring Leonard’s orders to drop his shotgun, Huff ended his own life in front of Leonard.

It was the first shooting the veteran officer had ever seen.

Speaking at length for the first time since the shootings, Leonard recently described the personal toll of witnessing one of Seattle’s worst crimes. Even for police, who are trained to deal with tragedy with professional detachment, the emotional effects can last long after the crime-scene tape has been removed.

For Leonard, the first few months were the most difficult, as scenes from March 25 replayed over and over in his mind:

The bandolier of shotgun shells dumped at the top of the stairs.

The young people quietly cowering beneath blankets, too frightened to emerge even as police flooded into the house.

The ugly cloud of smoke that emanated from Huff after he shot himself.

Leonard, 44, who attended mandatory department counseling with other Seattle police officers after the shooting, was plagued by fitful sleep. His son, now 12, acted out, in reaction to what happened and in fear of what could have happened to his father.

And then there were all those “what-ifs.”

Arriving at the house

Alone, Leonard comes upon a hellish scene.

When Leonard heard the first round of pops just after 7 a.m. March 25, he went looking for kids tossing firecrackers.

But as he turned his patrol car onto the usually quiet East Republican Street, Leonard saw a dozen teenagers in ghoulish makeup walking stone-faced down the street. They looked “stunned and speechless,” he recalled. He then realized the popping was gunshots.

“I pulled up to them and the 911 calls were coming in,” Leonard recalled. “They were in disbelief. I yelled at them, ‘What’s going on?’ “

Finally, one teen motioned toward a blue house at the top of a hill; the teen said there was a man there with a shotgun, Leonard said.

When he pulled up near the house, Leonard realized he was the only police officer on the scene.

He drew his handgun as he walked past other teens who were fleeing the house. He saw a man bleeding on a grassy embankment. Leonard told him to stay still.

Huff then burst into the yard and pumped his shotgun — the ominous clacking echoing through the neighborhood.

“I just yelled, ‘Seattle police, show me your hands,’ ” Leonard said. “He immediately stopped, swung it [the shotgun] around and pulled the trigger. I don’t know if he saw me or not to this day. I don’t think he did.

“Had his gun come pointed to me, I would have taken a shot.”

After Huff shot himself in the head, Leonard stared at the haze of smoke hanging in the air, unsure about what he’d just seen.

Leonard’s attention was brought back into focus when he heard the wounded man move from the grassy embankment and collapse into a pile of trash cans. Another officer then arrived. He and Leonard walked up to Huff and saw that he was obviously dead.

“You just don’t think somebody is going to do that,” Leonard said about the suicide. “You would think he faked it.”

Entering the house

Was there another shooter lurking inside?

Leonard peered around; the quiet Capitol Hill street he had patrolled dozens of times looked like a war zone.

Christopher Williamson, Melissa Moore and Jeremy Martin had been fatally shot near the front door.

With police now swarming the neighborhood, Leonard and about a half-dozen other officers walked slowly into the house in a tight single-file line, their guns drawn.

Some victims moaned for help and others cowered beneath blankets in the living room, refusing to come out. Leonard said police had to pull the most petrified partygoers out of hiding.

People were patted down as they were passed along the line of officers and sent outside, where officers frisked them more thoroughly, Leonard said.

“We didn’t know if there was another shooter in the house,” Leonard said.

The team of officers went from room to room, searching for survivors. Though the scene was horrific, Leonard said, his training helped him to focus on the job at hand and not the carnage. He didn’t have time to react emotionally.

“You’re trained to handle a situation. Address it, move and deal with it [emotionally] later,” Leonard said. “You train so it can eventually be second nature.”

Justin Schwartz, Jason Travers and Suzanne Thorne were also killed.

By the time Leonard went back outside, Assistant Chief Harry Bailey had arrived.

Bailey ordered Leonard and other early responders to return to the precinct.

“It’s a psychological situation,” Bailey recalled. “Seeing something that gruesome, they needed to decompress a little bit.”

When he returned to the precinct, Leonard logged into evidence a bag of bloody clothing — handed over by a neighbor who had helped a shooting victim — and sat down for lunch. He then called his wife, Stephanie.

On the other end of the phone, Stephanie Leonard began to cry when she learned what her husband had witnessed. At the time, Leonard didn’t understand why — he hadn’t fully realized what had happened.

It wasn’t until that night, when Leonard was working an off-duty security patrol shift at Dick’s Drive-in on Broadway, that he broke down.

“My knees started shaking, my adrenaline just started dumping out,” he recalled.

Leonard said he knew from his crisis training that he was going into shock. He told another off-duty officer working at Dick’s about what he had encountered that morning.

Talking about the incident helped calm him, Leonard recalled.

After the shootings, Leonard found his mind replaying some of the disturbing images he’d witnessed.

He attended mandatory department counseling, where other officers dispatched to the East Republican Street home shared their most striking memory of the incident. It helped. He also found that exercise, fresh air and talking with people about what had happened helped clear his mind.

Norman Mar, who has worked as a Seattle Police Department psychologist for nearly 20 years, was called in to help officers cope with the shootings.

“When officers are involved in extreme situations, particularly those involving life-or-death, it has an impact on them,” Mar said.

“Most officers in the midst of an incident go back to their training and their experience. They’re screening out things that are extraneous. Emotionally, they really are able to sequester themselves.”

Still, Leonard has had a hard time keeping the questions at bay:

If he had arrived 10 seconds earlier, would the death toll have been less? If he had turned down a different street and arrived later, would more people have died?

And in that split second when he encountered Huff outside the home, what if he had been forced to shoot the gunman? What would that have added to his emotional aftermath?

Turning praise aside

“I couldn’t just back out and wait,” Leonard says.

A few months after the shootings, Leonard was honored with a plaque from the city for his actions as the first officer to arrive on the scene. He smiles graciously when asked about the award but discourages the praise. He doesn’t think he’s a hero.

“Most any officer would have done the same thing,” he said. “I couldn’t just back out and wait for more backup. I had to go.”

Assistant Chief Bailey, who said the shootings were the most gruesome crime he has handled in his 35 years at the department, has no doubts that Leonard is a hero.

“I’m convinced, had he not been there, there would have been additional people killed,” said Bailey, who oversees the East Precinct.

Leonard and the other officers who responded to the scene used to talk often about the Capitol Hill shootings. But as the months passed, so did the discussions.

Still, “you’ll never forget it,” Leonard said. “You can’t not think about it.”

The shootings have made Leonard more protective of his 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. They’ve also made him more forgiving when the kids are noisy or wound up.

“The little things they used to do that drove me crazy are little now,” he said. “They’re here, and now I just think that the worst things are pretty good.”

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or