The investigation into the alleged assault of Jimmy Matta has gone from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to the state Attorney General’s Office to the FBI.
Three weeks have passed since a man purportedly motivated by hatred attacked Burien’s first Latino mayor, but the case has yet to result in any criminal charges.
Officially, the alleged assault, which garnered national attention, remains under investigation. At least four different law-enforcement agencies are playing a role since Mayor Jimmy Matta reported that a man in his 60s attacked him at the Olde Burien Block Party on July 21.
By Matta’s account, the man put him into a headlock, and while pulling him to the ground, scratched his arm on a fence post and drew blood. During the attack, Matta said the man whispered threats into his ear and told him: “We’re not going to let you Latino illegals take over our city.”
The suspect, a 62-year-old Burien man who fled before police arrived, later turned himself in to authorities amid heavy media coverage in the days following the alleged attack. He was fingerprinted and released, with King County sheriff’s detectives ultimately forwarding an investigation report to prosecutors on July 25 that recommended a felony malicious-harassment charge against him. Malicious harassment is the state’s hate-crime statute.
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But for county and state prosecutors, the case since has proved to be somewhat of a hot potato due to potential conflicts.
Because he is a potential witness, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg has referred the matter to the state attorney general’s office for review, said Whitney Keyes, a spokeswoman for the county prosecutor’s office. Satterberg’s rock band, The Approximations, was playing at the block party at the time of the alleged attack, and he spoke with Matta shortly after the incident, Keyes said.
The attorney general’s office has accepted the case and plans to make a charging decision, but whenever that happens, Attorney General Bob Ferguson won’t play a role, said agency spokeswoman Brionna Aho.
Because Ferguson and Matta “have mutually endorsed each other in the past, the AG has recused himself from the case,” Aho said in an email. Aho added that the AG’s office is waiting for the FBI to complete aspects of the investigation and doesn’t know when that might happen.
“We’re still waiting to receive the investigation file,” Aho said in an email. “Hard to guess at a timeline when we’re not sure when we’ll get the file, but I’m sure the team will need some time with it to review the evidence before making a recommendation.”
A spokeswoman for Seattle’s FBI field office this week declined to confirm or deny that the agency is reviewing the alleged assault on Matta; she noted that in general, the FBI can take months to investigate hate-crime cases.
Matta, elected to the City Council in 2017 after a racially charged campaign and later chosen by council members as Burien’s first Latino mayor, has been a vocal supporter of Burien as a so-called sanctuary city, or jurisdiction that limits its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement actions.
When he reported the alleged attack, Matta told police he had previously encountered the suspect during two separate conversations in which the man criticized the mayor’s policies toward immigrants.
Proving a hate crime under state or federal laws can be tricky, officials say. It’s not enough for a suspect to have simply mentioned race or ethnicity, or even called someone a slur, during the commission of a crime. Rather, there must be evidence that a criminal offense was “motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity,” according to the FBI.
While the investigation remains open, Matta, who held a news conference in the days following the alleged attack, has gone silent about it.
“Right now, he’s still not doing interviews about this particular story really because it is an ongoing investigation,” Burien spokeswoman Emily Inlow-Hood said Friday.
The suspect, whom The Seattle Times is not identifying pending criminal charges, so far has declined to comment.
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