CLALLAM BAY CORRECTIONS CENTER — Looking back on it, Barry Lee Saunders Jr. now knows there are worse things than being disrespected.
Nearly four years behind bars have given Saunders ample time to reach that conclusion. And he has up to 15 more years to ponder why he ended up at Clallam Bay Corrections Center.
Of course, Saunders, 25, didn’t have the benefit of hindsight that day in 2008 when he armed himself with a handgun — for a number of reasons that made sense to him at the time — and went to Westfield Southcenter mall. When he saw his younger brother involved in a fight, Saunders pulled out a handgun and killed 16-year-old Diaquan Jones and wounded a second teen.
“I wish I didn’t have the gun with me that day. I had nothing against Diaquan,” Saunders said during an interview in the visitors’ room at the prison, about 50 miles west of Port Angeles.
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The fight that changed Saunders’ life, and ended that of Jones, started with an insult.
That’s not unusual, say police and prosecutors.
An insult, a slight or another perceived sign of disrespect, coupled with access to a weapon, can be a deadly combination, according to Karissa Taylor, a prosecutor with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office gang division. Many of the homicides and assaults that have occurred in the county over the past few years have had those common denominators.
Take the case of Justin Ferrari, a 42-year-old software engineer from Madrona, who was killed May 24 after he was struck by a stray bullet fired by a stranger, according to Seattle police and prosecutors.
Prosecutors allege that the suspect, Andrew Jermain Patterson, 20, fired a handgun several times at a person who had called Patterson a “bitch” for trying to bum a cigarette.
Patterson allegedly fired several times, missing the intended target, but hitting Ferrari as he drove the family van with his parents and children at East Cherry Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
Last week, Ever D. DeLosReyes, 18, of Kent, was charged with first-degree assault for allegedly stabbing on Jan. 12 a man who “disrespected” him by painting over some graffiti he’d created in Des Moines, court documents say.
In July 2011, 13 people were wounded in a shootout at a car show in Kent that police say was sparked when a rap performer asked the audience to show their gang affiliations.
As people looked around and saw members of rival gangs, a fight erupted and then guns were drawn, Taylor said.
In all, seven people were charged with assault, two were convicted and five are still awaiting trial.
Seemingly “trivial” matters
When analyzed in the cold light of day, the motives behind many such incidents can sound startlingly small, Taylor said. A unkind word, the flashing of a rival gang sign, an obscene gesture.
“It often starts over matters that appear trivial to the outsider,” she said. “For those involved in the situation, they are not trivial at all, which is why they often resort to gun violence.”
Respect — how it’s viewed and its importance in society — has been the subject of recent academic papers and studies. But it’s not a new issue.
“The meaning of insults and disrespect is very different depending on the kind of culture you come from,” said Karin Frey, a research associate professor in educational psychology at the University of Washington.
People who first colonized the Southern states of the U.S. typically came from the border lands of England, Scotland and Ireland, she said. They originated from pastoral societies where there was frequent warfare and very little rule of law, she said.
“When you have all your wealth and possessions out with you and there is no rule of law, you end up being solely responsible for protecting yourself. In those cultures, which are called ‘honor cultures,’ you must be prepared to defend against even the slightest offense to show your willingness to go to the mat to defend yourself, your family and your belongings. Insults were often a way of testing your resolve.”
By contrast, the European Americans who settled the Northeastern colonies came from cities where there was a rule of law and what Frey called a “dignity culture.” They differ in their belief that someone cannot take your dignity from you, she said.
The effects of those cultural differences still exist today,
“These very hotheaded responses to insults can look childish and silly, but there’s a logic behind it that makes sense although it doesn’t translate to our current culture,” she said.
“Guns were everywhere”
Saunders, whose family bounced around from Skyway, to Renton, to North Seattle, Colorado and Las Vegas, said he started carrying a handgun — illegally —- when he was about 16 or 17, he said. He got it from a friend.
“People were still fighting with their fists back then, but guns were everywhere,” he said.
It made him feel safer. He believed he needed to protect his mother from her ex, a violent man who’d beaten her and fractured her facial bones, he said.
He also wanted to protect his younger brother. And he believed it was smarter to carry a gun and not need it than the other way around.
He recalls 2008 was a rough year. More than a dozen young men and teens had been fatally shot during a series of confrontations and retaliations between gangs in the Central District and the South End.
Although he says he was not in a gang, he knew many of the victims and had been threatened himself several times.
Nevertheless, things were going were going well for him at the time.
He had a steady job, was investing in a 401(k) program and believed that he’d be able to own a home in a few years.
He was also performing with a musical group.
He went to the mall on Nov. 22, 2008, with a friend, his brother and his brother’s friend to shop and pass out fliers for an upcoming performance, he said.
He took his gun because he had been afraid that his brother would grab it if he didn’t, he said.
When they got to the mall, Saunders said, he could see that there were some people there that his brother’s friend had had trouble with in the past. He almost told his younger sibling and his friend to stay clear of them but he didn’t want to nag.
“I didn’t think I needed to say anything,” he said. “I was feeling good. Everybody had heard about our show. I was shaking hands and feeling a little taste of stardom.”
He was in a store when his brother called on his cellphone, panicked, saying “get down here, [people] are coming to get us.”
He raced out of the store and could see a crowd around his little brother and his friend. “They were being swarmed,” he said. Then, he heard a “crack” and saw his brother’s friend on the ground and his brother in a headlock.
He approached, intending to break it up, he says, but then he was surrounded. He still can’t explain why he pulled out the gun and opened fire.
Jones, of Seattle, was standing off by himself.
“I wasn’t pinpointing him, I didn’t have it out for him,” said Saunders, laying his head down and crying. “I didn’t even know Diaquan. I was just trying to protect my brother.”
He panicked after the shooting and fled. He was arrested four days later in Portland.
He learned from his brother and others after his arrest that the fight started when members of a rival group had flashed gang signs at his brother and his brother’s friend, which they took as both an insult and a threat, he said.
Saunders pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and assault, thinking a judge would go easy on him because of his relatively clean record. (His most serious run-in was in 2002 when he was charged with taking a motor vehicle without permission, but he completed a deferred prosecution and the charge was dismissed.)
“My mom said it would be OK because everyone knows I am not an aggressive person,” he said, “But the judge didn’t agree. He said, ‘You did this in a public place.’ ”
Saunders was sentenced to 17 years in prison. He takes classes and goes to church.
“All the things we run from when we’re on the streets are the things we do in here,” he said.
When a reporter wrote to him asking if he’d be willing to tell his story, Saunders agreed on the condition that Jones’ memory would not be disrespected and his own actions not glorified.
He said he’s not looking for sympathy. He understands what he did was wrong. All he wants is to share a warning about how quickly things can go wrong, especially when you’re armed.
“Honestly, there’s no win in the situation when you pick up a gun. You feel like you’re protecting yourself, but in all actuality you’re hurting yourself and your victims. It’s too easy to use it over things that don’t matter.”
Christine Clarridge can be reached at email@example.com or 206-464-8983.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.