The King County Sheriff’s Office has agreed to pay $5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of a 20-year-old Burien high-school student and aspiring firefighter who was shot and killed by a deputy while carrying a ballpoint pen.
The 2017 shooting death of Tommy Le has been a dark cloud looming over Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s office, even though the shooting occurred during the previous sheriff’s tenure. Le’s killing sparked outrage in the community and criticism from policing experts, not just over the circumstances of Le’s death — the diminutive student, who was set to graduate from high school later that day, was shot in the back — but also for the questionable investigation that followed.
The settlement comes just three weeks before a $10 million civil-rights lawsuit filed by Le’s family in 2018 was set to go to trial via Zoom in U.S. District Court in Seattle over the objections of the Sheriff’s Office and its attorneys.
At a news conference Wednesday announcing the settlement, Le’s family said they would continue fighting for police reform and accountability at the Sheriff’s Office. Le’s father, Hoai “Sunny” Le, said no amount of money could ever replace his son, and that he doesn’t want any other family to experience what his family has gone through.
“There is still pain in our family every day,” he said. “I want my son back.”
Le reportedly ran at deputies who had responded to a report of a disoriented man, possibly armed with a knife or sharp object, who had frightened and threatened several people in a Burien neighborhood the evening of June 14, 2017. The Sheriff’s Office initially reported Le had attacked the deputies with a knife or sharp object and was shot in self-defense.
Deputy Cesar Molina was the third deputy to arrive and, according to his sworn deposition, confronted Le and shot him 105 seconds after his arrival. In that period, both Molina and another deputy, Tanner Owens, unsuccessfully tried to incapacitate Le with Tasers before Molina shot him, according to reports.
The sheriff’s Use of Force Review Board concluded the shooting was justified.
However, an outside review of the case by the Los Angeles-based OIR Group described a “lack of rigor” in the internal investigation, pointing that the evidence indicated Le was likely moving away from both Molina and Owens, who Molina said he was trying to protect, when the shots were fired. The report said the sheriff’s investigators never explored the inconsistencies in the evidence.
The final internal investigation failed to mention that Le was shot twice in the back.
After the shooting, Molina said Le had charged him with a “sharp, pointed object” clenched in his fist and then veered toward Owens and a group of civilians when he fired. Molina denied he shot Le in the back, however an autopsy concluded otherwise, finding Le was struck twice in the back and once in the wrist.
The investigation showed Le was disoriented and under the influence of LSD. The investigation found Le was clutching a ballpoint pen and witnesses said he had been yelling about being the “creator” before Molina fired a total of six shots.
The outside review — authored by Michael Gennaco, a former Department of Justice civil-rights lawyer and the retired lead attorney for Los Angeles County’s Office of Independent Review — concluded that detectives investigating the shooting spent much of their time trying to find a knife one witness believed Le may have been carrying, in order to help justify Molina’s use of deadly force.
During the news conference Wednesday, Jeff Campiche, one of the Le family’s attorneys, said evidence showed that investigators knew no knife existed minutes after Le was shot, but allowed the disinformation to be spread.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the Sheriff’s Office did not specifically address any of the substantive issues raised by the lawsuit — the flawed internal affairs report, the critical outside review or the family’s claims of a cover-up. It noted that Molina was dismissed from the lawsuit just prior to settlement — a common move in civil-rights settlements to avoid individual liability.
Molina has since been promoted to detective and continues to work for the Sheriff’s Office, according to court pleadings. He was not disciplined for the shooting.
“The King County Sheriff’s Office was ready and willing to try this case in a court of law,” Johanknecht’s office said in a release Wednesday afternoon. “Although the parties do not agree on the fundamental facts of this case, we are pleased this settlement will allow everyone to avoid a difficult, and likely painful, trial.”
In legal pleadings the Le family’s attorney alleged evidence showed at least one of the bullets was fired into Le’s back while he was on the ground and that a bullet recovered from his body showed signs that it had been tampered with to obscure that conclusion. They’ve also repeatedly stated that the Paper Mate ballpoint pen Le was reported to have been carrying is the same kind used by the Sheriff’s Office and have implied it was planted at the scene.
The family’s attorneys also question why deputies didn’t simply grab and tackle Le, who was 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighed 120 pounds and was barefoot and clad in boxer shorts and a T-shirt. That issue was raised by Molina’s boss, then-Sheriff John Urquhart, who reportedly told Le’s family and, later, a group of Asian American community leaders, that that’s what he would have done.
The review found a “lack of rigor” in the review process and that an incomplete factual record plagued the investigation, the report said: “We noted problematic gaps in the areas of fact collection, identification of systemic issues, follow through on the suggestions that were identified and scrutiny of the deputy’s decision-making.”
The Use of Force Review Board “did not fully utilize or grapple with those critical facts that it did have at its disposal,” Gennaco wrote, concluding it failed to conduct an “exacting assessment” of the threat level facing Molina when he fired.
The county has lost virtually every major decision in the litigation, including an appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which resulted in sanctions for filing a frivolous action that the family’s lawyers claimed was nothing more than a delay tactic.
Le’s family has been steadfast in its resolve to see the Sheriff’s Office held accountable for his death, and the circumstances of Le’s shooting were repeatedly cited as evidence for the reforms in police investigations brought about by Initiative 940 and the Legislature’s efforts this year to further police accountability.
Campiche, the attorney, said the lawsuit has obtained “as much justice as we can” for Tommy Le and his family, and that the question of meaningful and lasting reforms in the Sheriff’s Office now rests with the sheriff — soon to be an appointed position — the Metropolitan King County Council and County Executive Dow Constantine.
County Councilmember Joe McDermott, whose constituency includes Burien, said that while the “painful loss of Tommy’s life cannot be made right,” he hopes the settlement brings some peace.
“Tommy’s killing shed a bright and tragic light on the need for accountability and reform in the King County Sheriff’s Office,” McDermott said in a statement. “I’ll continue to hold Tommy’s memory close as we move forward with implementing the reform of the Sheriff’s office that King County voters demanded last November.”
As for other county elected officials, Campiche asked, “So what are you going to do about it?”
“We either initiate police reforms or change the name of the county away from Martin Luther King County, because we don’t deserve to be named” after the civil rights leader, he said.