The Mountlake Terrace man was obsessed with school shootings and said he admired Eric Harris, one of two student gunmen responsible for the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.
Before Aaron Ybarra was sentenced to 112 years in prison, he named each of the victims — the freshman who was killed, the young woman who was critically wounded and the three students who managed to run away — of his June 2014 shooting at Seattle Pacific University.
“I’ve realized I’ve damaged more than just innocent people. I damaged the community and even the world. I’ve hurt a lot of people’s emotions. I wish I could take that away, but I can’t,” Ybarra, 29, said Friday. “I’m sorry to the world.”
During his trial last fall, jurors heard Ybarra’s anger at the world that prompted him to go off his medications, scout the campus and then return with a 12-gauge shotgun on the second-to-last day of classes, intent on killing as many people as he could. He had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
Freshman Paul Lee, 19, was fatally shot outside Otto Miller Hall, and then 22-year-old Sarah Williams, who testified at Ybarra’s trial, was critically wounded by a shotgun blast to the chest as she descended a staircase inside. A third student was hurt by shotgun pellets.
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Ybarra was tackled and disarmed by school safety monitor Jon Meis, who doused Ybarra with pepper spray. Two other students provided first aid to Williams while another student ran into classrooms to warn others.
Superior Court Judge Jim Rogers condemned Ybarra’s cowardice while praising the engineering students who ran into the line of fire to disarm Ybarra and treat the wounded. He noted that a number of Seattle Pacific University (SPU) students have, in accordance with their Christian values, sent Ybarra letters of forgiveness.
The SPU campus is known as a peaceful place, Rogers said. “On June 5, 2014, that peace suffered a destructive blow when you got out of your truck and started shooting at unarmed strangers,” he said.
Though Lee’s father, Peter Lee, declined to address the court, the family put together a slideshow, with photos depicting Paul Lee as a baby, a young boy with a fishing rod, and a teenager in a cap and gown. There were photos of family gatherings and photos of the memorial that sprung up on the SPU campus. The presentation ended with the Twitter hashtag, #DanceForPaul.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Jessica Berliner said some crimes are so heinous that a defendant doesn’t deserve to ever be free — even if he suffers from mental illness and feels some remorse.
“This is one of those cases,” she said. “It’s not only the crimes against those victims but his intentions.”
Defense attorney Ramona Brandes said Ybarra chose to go to trial because he wanted people to see who he was and hear about the downward spiral of his mental illness.
“We don’t often get to see behind the veil,” she said, referring to other school shootings that often end with the gunman dead.
His low IQ, brain damage and mental illness “led Mr. Ybarra to this heinous action,” she said.
Ybarra was convicted in November of premeditated first-degree murder, three counts of attempted first-degree murder and one count of second-degree assault after a monthlong trial. The charges all carried firearms enhancements as well as an “aggravator” because of the impact the shooting had on the entire SPU community, elements that added to the length of Ybarra’s sentence.
Ybarra drove to the campus on June 5, 2014, and killed Lee, of Portland, on a sidewalk outside Otto Miller Hall, and wounded a second man, Thomas Fowler.
Ybarra then tried to shoot a female student, but his shotgun misfired and she ran away, jurors were told.
Next, Ybarra walked into Otto Miller Hall, where he shot and critically wounded Williams as she walked down a flight of stairs. Ybarra pointed the shotgun at another student, but the gun misfired again and Ybarra was tackled by Meis, a student-safety monitor.
Ybarra’s guilt wasn’t contested during his trial after he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Jurors had to weigh whether they thought Ybarra knew at the time of the shooting that his actions were legally and morally wrong, or if he was legally insane.
Defense testimony focused on Ybarra’s developmental delays through childhood, his battles with substance abuse and his treatment for mental illness — which included a failed attempt to have Ybarra involuntarily committed.
He told jurors he never intended to kill anyone, contradicting both entries made in his journal and statements made to police immediately after his arrest. He also discussed his obsession with school shootings and admiration for Eric Harris, one of two students responsible for the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.
Prosecutors acknowledged during the trial that Ybarra is mentally ill, but insisted that he was driven by hatred and anger, and understood what he was doing was wrong.
In sentencing Ybarra, Judge Rogers said Friday the state’s mental-health system is completely inadequate. Still, he said Ybarra chose to go off his medications because “you wanted to feel your hate,” then chose to keep his plans secret, even from those who could have helped him.