King County prosecutors on Tuesday charged Justice Henderson, 19, with four counts of first-degree murder. "He simply lost his moral compass and he just started killing people," Federal Way Police Chief Andy Hwang said.
A 17-year-old who police say went on a killing spree in Federal Way in spring 2016 later bragged about gunning down four men, providing witnesses with key details of the homicides that hadn’t been made public, according to King County prosecutors.
Prosecutors on Tuesday charged Justice Henderson, now 19, with four counts of first-degree murder hours after Federal Way Police Chief Andy Hwang announced at a news conference that Henderson and two other men were suspected of the deaths of four men over about five weeks.
“He simply lost his moral compass and he just started killing people,” Hwang said of Henderson.
The string of killings so traumatized the city that at the time, Hwang warned residents against venturing out alone at night.
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Henderson is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for an unrelated attempted murder in Tacoma that happened on May 4, 2016, amid the homicides in Federal Way. He wasn’t arrested in that case until July of that year, months after the four men were killed.
Henderson has yet to be transferred to the King County Jail, jail and court records show. Prosecutors have asked that Henderson’s bail be set at $10 million.
“Henderson admitted he was responsible for these crimes to a number of individuals, and recounted details only the killer would know,” a Federal Way police detective wrote in charging papers.
One of Henderson’s alleged accomplices in the first of the four Federal Way homicides was Henderson’s co-defendant in the Tacoma attempted-murder case and is also serving 12 years in prison, according to police and court records. As of Tuesday, the murder case against the 18-year-old Federal Way man was still under review, according to a prosecutor’s spokeswoman.
A third man, Kamajah Skannal, 21, of Milton, was charged with one count of first-degree murder, accused of luring an alleged drug dealer to a Federal Way park so he could be robbed and killed, making his death the only one of the four that was not random, court records say. Skannal was booked into the King County Jail on Monday afternoon and is being held in lieu of $5 million bail, jail records show.
Police and Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell have long said they believed the killings were related and by fall 2016 they indicated the suspected gunman was in custody on unrelated charges. Tuesday’s announcement was the first public acknowledgment that detectives — who served more than 50 search warrants during the lengthy investigation — had developed probable cause to seek murder charges.
Calling Henderson a “spree killer,” Hwang said three of the homicides were “completely random, by chance.”
The first victim was Jeffrey McLaren, 19, who was found fatally shot at an apartment complex at 33131 First Ave. S.W. on April 3, where he was meeting up with a friend, charging papers say.
Confidential witnesses later told police Henderson and his alleged accomplice left a friend’s apartment with the intent of killing someone because Henderson “had recently acquired a new .22-caliber handgun and wanted to see the effects of shooting someone with it,” the charges say.
Henderson was going to shoot a woman he first came across, but decided against it “because she could have been someone’s mom,” according to charging papers.
McLaren was standing outside his car, talking on the phone, when Henderson shot him in the back, then ran up to him and continued firing, say the charges. McLaren was shot at least 12 times. Before he died, McLaren called 911 and reported he’d been shot.
Henderson and an accomplice, who stole McLaren’s backpack, ran away on a nearby trail, say charging papers.
Alex J. Kelley, 26, of Seattle, was smoking on the back porch of a friend’s town house around 1 a.m. on May 9 when he was fatally shot in the 1300 block of Southwest Campus Drive. According to charging papers, a witness said Henderson later told friends he was in the complex’s parking lot looking for a car to break into and thought Kelley had seen him. When Henderson saw Kelley get out his cell phone, he thought Kelley was calling 911, so circled around and shot him once in the back with a .357-caliber revolver, the charges say.
Kelley — who was actually viewing photos and videos of women on his phone — frantically opened a sliding glass door, said something about being shot, and collapsed onto the living room floor. He died from a single gunshot wound to the back.
Frank Cohens Jr., a Tacoma man, was found slumped over in a parked car in the 2200 block of South 333rd Street in Federal Way at 12:17 a.m. on May 10. Police say Cohens, 27, was reported to be a Xanax dealer and was carrying a large number of pills at the time of his death, according to charging papers.
Skannal, who set up the pre-planned robbery, got into the front passenger seat of Cohens’ car and grabbed Cohens’ cell phone, according to the charges. When Cohens fought back, Henderson shot him with a .45-caliber handgun from the back seat, then jumped out of the car and shot Cohens five more times, the charges say.
Investigators later found a trail of Xanax pills leading to a nearby apartment complex, say charging papers.
After Cohens was killed, Skannal fled to Eastern Washington with the stolen Xanax, the charges say.
Roughly 12 hours after Cohens was killed, Adam Edward Gutierrez, 30, of Tacoma was out running with his dog when he was shot several times in the 1800 block of Southwest 356th Street at 11:12 p.m. on May 10.
After Gutierrez’s wife appeared on television talking about her husband’s death, a witness contacted police and reported hearing through other people that Henderson had admitted to killing Gutierrez, say charging papers. Henderson allegedly was hiding in some bushes along the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) trail with the intent of shooting a female jogger, but for unknown reasons he “decided not to shoot the lady and instead shot Gutierrez.”
Henderson attempted to shoot Gutierrez’s dog but missed, say the charges. Gutierrez was shot seven times in the back and was found by police lying face down, charging papers say.
In part because of the homicides, South King County cities of Federal Way, Des Moines, Kent and Auburn together had more homicides than Seattle in 2016, despite having less than half the population.
Court records show Henderson and his co-defendant committed the attempted murder in Tacoma on May 4, shooting Henderson’s grandmother’s boyfriend after barging into his house because Henderson believed the boyfriend had abused or disrespected his grandmother. Henderson was arrested July 11, 2016, and has been in custody since.
Knowing Henderson was in custody and no longer a danger to the community, Hwang said his detectives were able to use the time to build their cases against Henderson and solve all four homicides. At the same time, the intense police scrutiny and media attention led to the complete dismantling of the street gang Henderson belonged to that operated in the southwest part of the city, the chief said.
For family members of the victims, there was relief but no sense of closure.
“Our lives will never be the same. It’s a relief he can’t hurt anyone else, but that won’t bring Adam back,” said Heidi Gutierrez, the mother of victim Adam Gutierrez. “I really want to ask him why, but I know I’ll never have that answer.”
Lisa Wollum, the paternal aunt of victim Jeffrey McLaren, said her nephew was a gifted musician who was very protective of his cousins.
“Hopefully this puts a little peace in my brother’s heart,” she said. “All we’ve wanted all along is justice for Jeffrey and we’re starting to get that.”