More than 150 people gathered in Seattle on Wednesday night to press authorities for answers in the fatal shooting of Tommy Le by a King County sheriff’s deputy on June 13.
Tommy Le was going to graduate from high school and loved playing chess. At the time of his death, he was reading “Faust” and “The Count of Monte Christo.”
He wasn’t a violent criminal, and he shouldn’t have been killed by a sheriff’s deputy, family and community members said at a public forum in Seattle’s Asian Counseling and Referral Service building.
About 150 people attended the forum to hear from and address a panel of public officials, including King County Sheriff John Urquhart, County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight Director Deborah Jacobs.
“Tommy was beloved by the large Le extended Vietnamese-American family, none of which have been arrested for or convicted of a crime,” family members said reading from a prepared statement.
Le, 20, was fatally shot by a King County sheriff’s deputy in Burien on June 13, hours before his graduation ceremony. Le had attended Career Link, an alternative high-school completion program at South Seattle College.
Le’s family has called for an independent investigation into his death. At the forum, Urquhart said he agreed and will ask the FBI to take over the investigation.
“Departments should not be investigating their own officer-involved shootings,” he said. He also said he would push lawmakers to require that the Washington State Patrol investigate all officer-involved shootings, and that he would lobby for all officers to wear body cameras.
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Urquhart and Satterberg noted that there will be an inquest in King County District Court, which is typical after a shooting involving law enforcement.
Sheriff’s deputies said they thought he was carrying a knife when he was shot. The sheriff’s office later said he had been holding a pen.
At the forum, Urquhart said the investigation has shown that Le did have a knife at one point, but didn’t have one when he was shot. Witnesses in Le’s house and across the street said they saw Le return to his house down the street from where he was shot, and then leave again with a pen, Urquhart said. Investigators found a knife similar to one witnesses described in the house.
Three deputies were responding to several 911 calls about a man with a sharp object who was threatening people in the 13600 block of Third Avenue South. A homeowner fired his handgun into the ground hoping to scare off the person, later identified as Le, and then fled into his house as Le stabbed at the door. Le screamed he was “the Creator,” the sheriff’s office said.
Community members questioned the story and wondered if, since the sheriff’s deputies confused a knife with a pen, that maybe witnesses did, too.
Le didn’t have any weapons and had never gotten into a fight before, his parents said through a translator.
Two deputies fired their Tasers after Le refused to drop what they thought was a knife, but the Taser that hit him had no effect. The sheriff’s deputy, later identified as Cesar Molina, shot him three times. Le was pronounced dead at Harborview Medical Center.
Before the forum, the organizers created a list of questions they wanted answered, including why Le’s family wasn’t informed of his death until at least a day later. Urquhart said it took a while for family members to positively identify Le. As the sheriff talked about the process, some of Le’s relatives left the room, crying.
Career Link students and faculty described Le as a “bubbly kid” and a “goofy little guy.” He worked part time in the kitchen at Macau Casino in Tukwila and wanted to go to South Seattle College.
He was one of six siblings. One brother talked at the forum about seeing him for the last time when they were looking for a suit for Le wear to the brother’s wedding. Instead, he wore the suit at his funeral.
“He wanted to make a positive change in the world,” his brother said.
Panelist Larry Gossett, a Metropolitan King County Council member, noted that as an elected official he has been involved in 47 inquests into officer-involved shootings. Le, he said, is the first Vietnamese American to be killed.
The forum, which included translations in Vietnamese, was hosted by Seattle’s Vietnamese community and a group called “Viets Who Give a Shiet.” Organizers opened the floor to questions from community members, giving priority to Vietnamese American youth.
The forum was held three weeks after a public forum over the death of Charleena Lyles, who was shot and killed by Seattle police officers in her Northeast Seattle apartment in June.