Tommy Le, a 20-year-old Vietnamese American, was fatally shot by a King County sheriff’s deputy who responded to reports that a man with a knife was threatening neighbors in Burien. Le was carrying a pen.

Share story

The family of Tommy Le, a 20-year-old aspiring firefighter who was fatally shot in Burien last year by a sheriff’s deputy, has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against King County, contending his death was partly the result of “racially selective police practices,” and that the Sheriff’s Office lied in official statements saying Le had a knife and lunged at deputies.

During a Tuesday morning news conference, attorney Jeff Campiche, flanked by members of Le’s family, said the Sheriff’s Office “absolutely knew” Le had no knife within seconds after the June 13 shooting, yet nonetheless told the public and family members otherwise. Deputies also later intentionally concealed from their police reports about the incident that two of the three bullets that struck Le hit him in the back, he said.

“It’s hard to be shot in the back if you’re lunging at the police officer that shot you,” Campiche said.

The lawsuit noted Le was “suffering from some type of mental impairment or confusion” and needed help. Campiche also acknowledged Tuesday that Le had a trace amount of LSD in his system, but said that has “no legal consequence on the unlawfulness of the shooting of Tommy Le.”

The lawyer also said it’s still uncertain whether a pen found about 20 feet from Le’s body after the shooting was in fact in Le’s possession, noting that it’s of the type commonly used by government offices. He added the Sheriff’s Office “looked very hard for a knife” but couldn’t find one.

The lawsuit further contends that Deputy Cesar Molina’s fatal shooting of Le was partly the product of “racially selective police practices” caused by a lack of proper training, supervision and policies within the Sheriff’s Office. The alleged use of excessive use of deadly force and racial factors both violated Le’s constitutional rights, the suit claims.

Le was a Vietnamese American.

“You ask yourself, would the police have shot a white kid in Magnolia under these circumstances? Probably not. We all know that to be true, we don’t want to say it, but it’s true,” Campiche said.

Along with Molina, the suit names King County Executive Dow Constantine and former Sheriff John Urquhart as defendants.

A spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office declined to comment Tuesday, directing questions to the King County Prosecutor’s Office. A spokeswoman for that office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Le was shot around midnight after sheriff’s deputies responded to several 911 calls about a man making threats in the 13600 block of Third Avenue South in Burien. One home­owner told dispatchers that he had fired his handgun into the ground, hoping to scare off the man later identified as Le.

When Le continued to approach, the homeowner fled back inside his house. Le, who was barefoot and wearing shorts and a T-shirt, then reportedly pounded on the door and stabbed it, screaming he was “the creator,” according to the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Sgt. Cindi West later said three deputies confronted Le, who refused commands to drop “what they thought was a knife.

Two deputies fired their Tasers, with one of them hitting Le, but it had no effect. When Le moved toward deputies, Molina shot him three times. Le died at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Le’s death came just hours before he was set to graduate from Career Link, an alternative high-school completion program at South Seattle College.

A news release issued by the Sheriff’s Office immediately after the shooting indicated deputies believed Le was holding a sharp object, maybe a knife.

During a public forum in July, Urquhart said a department investigation had found Le did have a knife at one point, but no longer had it when he was shot. Witnesses in Le’s house and across the street said they saw Le return to his house down the street and then leave again with a pen before the shooting, Urquhart said.

Investigators found a knife similar to one witnesses described in the house, he added.

Campiche disputed that point Tuesday, saying there’s “no evidence that (Le) went into any home, his home.”

“There’s a question of whether he had a knife earlier, and that will be resolved in the courtroom, but nobody doubts that he did not have a knife when he was shot,” he added.

The lawsuit also states that Urquhart later privately admitted to Le’s family that “he would not have shot Tommy Le,” and in October, the former sheriff also told members of the Asian Pacific Directors Coalition he didn’t know why Molina “didn’t wrestle him to the ground and take that pen out of his hand.”

Le’s family described their shock about learning about his death in the manner initially described. They said they knew Tommy as a kind and gentle person who liked to read, play checkers with friends and help his grandmother in the garden.

“I just want justice for my grandson,” Le’s sobbing grandmother, Kim Tuyet Le, said through a translator at the news conference. “He’s such a kind grandson, I miss him terribly. I just want to seek some justice for him so he can rest in peace.”

Le’s older brother Quoc Nguyen added his brother had “big goals, big dreams,” and “wanted to make a positive change in the world.”

Le’s family previously announced in September they planned to file a federal civil-rights claim seeking at least $20 million against King County for his death. An autopsy showed that Le had no drugs or alcohol in his system, and he had no history of mental health problems, Campiche told reporters at the time.

In October, Constantine formally ordered an inquest — a fact-finding process that is required under King County’s charter — into Le’s death. But last week, Constantine suspended all pending inquests countywide, including the one for Le, until a review committee examining the inquest process offers recommendations for reform.

The committee is expected to issue its recommendations in March.