As Dante King lay dying in Pioneer Square, another victim of gun violence in a year filled with far too much of it, his last words were blunt and pleading.
“It hurts, it hurts, it hurts,” said King, who’d been shot six times in the chest, according to a young woman who stayed with him and later relayed his final words to his family.
King’s grandfather, Freddie Washington, has spent the five months since his 22-year-old grandson was shot and killed trying to piece together what happened. The shooting stole the life of the young man who was an avid fisherman and was helping Washington build a new, 2,800-square-foot house in Kirkland on the same lot where he has lived for the past 30 years.
What Washington has learned, after speaking with witnesses: It was a dumb argument. King was trying to break up a fight between two women and was killed by one woman’s boyfriend.
“(Guns are) everywhere and everybody’s got one. This is a whole different world they’re coming up in,” said Washington, 65. “We’ve got kids walking around with 50-round clips in a pistol. What do you need 50-round clips for, other than to kill a bunch of people?”
While overall homicides were down in the city compared with 2020, Seattle saw more gun violence in 2021 than any year in at least a decade — more people killed by guns, more people hurt by guns, more shots fired.
It’s taken the lives of people like King and Maria Camara, 39, who was killed in August in a Lake City apartment, both victims of gunfire that continues to disproportionately impact people of color. It has local leaders from across government, health care and community groups searching for the causes of, and new solutions to, the violence.
“Not just one specific thing”
Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz sees no single cause for the recent surge in gun violence, which is mirrored in many other American communities. In addition, King County as a whole experienced a spike in gun violence in 2021.
Seattle saw more shots fired in 2021 in every area of the city, in every single precinct.
Police data show that as of the end of November, 31 of 39 homicides in the city this year were committed with firearms, compared with 23 of 52 homicides in 2020. Numbers for December are not yet available.
Those numbers conflict slightly with a Seattle Times database compiled with information from police, prosecutors and the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. According to the Times’ data, 36 of 41 homicides in the city were committed with firearms as of Nov. 29, compared with 32 of 52 homicides in 2020.
In addition to last year’s homicide investigations, Seattle police have seized more than 1,000 guns and responded to more than 580 shootings, and many of those are believed to be connected to drug-trafficking enterprises.
Through the first three quarters of 2021, more than 81% of shooting victims in King County were people of color, according to the prosecutor’s Shots Fired Project, compiled primarily with data from Seattle, Tukwila, Kent, Auburn, Renton, Des Moines and Federal Way police departments and the King County Sheriff’s Office, which covers unincorporated King County and provides policing services to 16 contract cities. Seattle-specific data was not available.
Seattle police detectives are also seeing more gang violence, more mental health incidents spiraling into violence, and more random shootings, Diaz said.
“Were seeing upticks in every aspect of this, it’s not just one specific thing,” Diaz said. “You’re wondering is it related to COVID? Is it because you almost have to re-socialize everybody together? We have to almost realize that people have so much angst and so much anxiety and if they have access to a gun they’re willing to pick up a gun and use it.”
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said current levels of gun violence are reminiscent of violence seen in the mid-1990s, when street gangs were battling each other for territory to establish lucrative crack cocaine markets. While gangs and neighborhood “crews” haven’t disappeared, he thinks a lot of the violence is now retaliatory in nature and stems from a fight-on-sight mentality.
“Today, I don’t think it’s drugs. Today, I can’t help but think it’s related to the pandemic — the anxiety and depression and fear and all of that somehow makes people’s tempers shorter,” Satterberg said. “It’s more difficult than what we saw in the mid-1990s because it isn’t just about the trafficking of crack, it’s about a whole lot of other things. A lot of these gangs don’t have anything to do with drugs at all but they still have an ethic where they want to fight when they see each other.”
Many young people have said they feel they can’t leave the house without a gun — and they would rather take their chance with police or prosecutors than with whoever they think is out to shoot them, he said.
“That’s a life that unless you grow up in that way, you don’t understand that way of thinking. No amount of tough talk from the prosecutor is going to talk somebody out of that,” said Satterberg. “We see a lot of people who’ve lost their lives over senseless things and small provocations that lead to enormous consequences.”
The data-driven Shots Fired Project has contributed to a better understanding of who is most at risk of being involved in gun violence and where it’s happening. Satterberg said that in turn has helped nonprofit community groups develop promising intervention and prevention strategies and send “credible messengers” — people who’ve maybe been to prison for gun crimes or been shot themselves — into the community to try to talk others out of engaging in retaliatory violence.
Breaking the cycle
At Harborview Medical Center, where the vast majority of the region’s gunshot victims are taken, doctors and social workers recognize that for most of their gunshot patients, it wasn’t a random act of violence.
There are certain factors that increase the risk of being a victim of gun violence — being young, being male, being a person of color, being poor, being homeless. And being a victim of gun violence makes it much more likely that same person will become, again, either a victim or a perpetrator of gun violence.
So Harborview is trying something new: Reaching out to gunshot victims even while they’re still in the hospital, to connect them with services — social workers, counseling, mentorship, job training, housing assistance — whatever community resources are available to try to keep them from being shot again, or picking up a gun and shooting someone else.
“For years we’ve been trying to set these individuals up with programs and resources after they leave the hospital,” said Dr. Deepika Nehra, a trauma surgeon who is leading Harborview’s new gun violence intervention program. “But I think what we’ve learned is that it needs to be something much more intensive than that, to actually change someone’s life trajectory to have a meaningful effect.”
The program, launched in 2021, is part of the Regional Peacekeepers Collective, a new coalition funded in part by the city of Seattle and King County, aiming to intervene early for those at highest risk of gun violence.
“I’m there to listen”
Paul Carter III knows something about dumb arguments. One nearly cost him his life.
Six years ago, Carter was riding in a friend’s Jeep. Another friend was on his way to confront a man in a dispute that dated back five years and began over a $200 debt, according to court filings.
When his friend confronted the man in West Seattle, the man started shooting, court documents say. Carter’s friend was killed. Carter, sitting in the back seat, was shot in the face. He arrived at Harborview in the early morning hours of Oct. 24, 2015, in critical condition. He’d been shot through the jaw, his esophagus torn in half.
Surgeons put in a tracheotomy tube and removed half of a lung. He was in a coma for three days. He would stay at Harborview for nearly two months. For most of that time he was unable to eat, drink or speak.
He remembers the nearly insatiable urge for a sip of water. He remembers the frustration of not being able to communicate, to ask questions. He remembers the vulnerability brought on by feeling ill at ease in an unfamiliar place.
Upon his release, a nurse challenged him to give back. And so he started volunteering, every Friday, to come sit with trauma survivors, to listen, to empathize, to let them know that he knew what they were going through.
Last year, Carter started working full time at Harborview as a violence intervention and prevention specialist as a member of the Regional Peacekeepers Collective.
Carter will stop by the bed of a gunshot victim. He’ll let them know he’s there to help, to listen, that he’s been through something similar.
Some are more receptive than others. Some want to talk about improving their lives. Some want to talk about football. Or cooking. Some want company, someone to go to physical therapy with them.
“Some patients are scared, some may seem like they might be hard to work with — my job is to gain that trust from them,” Carter said. “I’m there to listen, I’m there to get feedback and the most important thing out of all of this is that I’m there.”
Carter’s goal, ultimately, is to connect victims with the bevy of service providers that are available. Those providers aren’t new, but the way they previously were offered to patients was often through a handful of flyers and business cards given upon release. Carter wants to make that connection personal, material and while they are still in the hospital.
“He’s able to build pretty quick rapport and trust with patients and families who I think — notoriously, understandably — have a mistrust in the medical system,” said Laura Waszkewitz, a medical social worker at Harborview. “Paul can go in and meet with a patient or family and can build that kind of quick rapport and trust.”
A longstanding body of research shows that being a victim of gun violence makes you more likely to be a victim of gun violence again.
A 2015 study of all patients hospitalized in Washington over the course of two years found that patients hospitalized with a firearm injury were at “significantly greater risk” to be shot again, killed by a gun, or arrested for a gun-related crime in the following five years.
“Somebody gets shot, they get in a hospital, they get treated and they get released right back out with no services and now they’re back in the streets and then, you know, things happen that are even worse,” said Dominique Davis, founder and CEO of Community Passageways. “The same victim becomes the perpetrator, or becomes the victim again.”
Davis’ group is one of several that Carter works to connect with patients while they are still in the hospital.
They try to provide youth — both in the hospital and especially after release — with what they’ll need to break that cycle of violence. Do they need mentoring, drug or alcohol counseling, a place to live, a way to get back into school, a job, just somebody to walk their dog while they’re in the hospital?
“There’s a touchpoint in the hospital when you catch somebody at a time when they are vulnerable, and they’re trying to survive and heal, that’s where they’re in pain, where they’re starting to rethink some of the decisions,” Davis said. “We’re able to build a wraparound service of support around this young person and his family.”
“Not my baby”
The early morning hours of July 25 were among the most bloody and chaotic in Seattle in 2021, leaving three men dead and four others injured in separate shootings in Belltown, Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill.
Two of the dead — Dante King and 26-year-old Anthony Summers — were both shot in a parking lot at Occidental Avenue South and South Washington Street just after 2:30 a.m., as the neighborhood’s bars and nightclubs were letting out.
The shootings in Pioneer Square that morning offer a possible real-world example of the overlap between victims and perpetrators of gun violence that prosecutors, public-health officials and service providers have long known to exist: Two of the men injured by gunfire in Pioneer Square have been identified as suspects in a fatal shooting just two days earlier in Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood, court records show.
Seattle police have made no arrests in connection with the shooting deaths of King and Summers.
Washington, King’s grandfather, remembers getting a phone call the morning of the shootings and racing to Harborview Medical Center. He waded through a crowd of police officers and learned from a doctor that his grandson was dead. He then had to break the news to his daughter.
“I had to come outside and tell her he didn’t make it. She just dropped to the concrete and screamed, ‘Not my baby, not my baby,’ ” Washington said in his unfinished living room, seated next to a framed portrait of King. “That’s my daughter, but what can you say to somebody who’s just lost her child?”
King is the third grandchild Washington has mourned: King’s youngest brother died at age 6 from birth complications that had left him severely disabled. Then two years ago, Washington’s 20-year-old granddaughter died in car crash in Indianapolis.
As heartbreaking as those deaths were, Washington said there’s a distinct difference to the pain he feels in losing King to gun violence.
“A car wreck, that’s an accident, that’s an act of God,” Washington said. But knowing his grandson was gunned down over something so petty, “you want revenge on something like that,” he said.
Washington is in regular contact with the Seattle police detective investigating King and Summers’ deaths and is confident progress is being made. But the killing of his grandson has left him with a lingering bitterness and he is now more cautious about his own safety and that of his five children — including two sons still in their 20s — and his five remaining grandchildren.
“What I miss most is him walking in here and saying, ‘Hey, Grandpa! What are we doing today?’ ” Washington said of King, who helped cart 6,000 pounds of new floorboards into the house two weeks before he died. “It hurts more than words can explain. It’s just unbelievable and so senseless. … Something’s got to be done about all these guns.”
Like Washington, Lisa Kelsie is still reeling from the August killing of her daughter, Maria Camara, another victim of gun violence.
Nearly two years ago, Camara moved from Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood to Stanwood, a Snohomish County community where 90% of the town’s 7,000 residents are white.
Camara, who was Black, made the move to get her teenage son out of the city, concerned he could fall victim to gun violence that disproportionately impacts young men of color, said Kelsie, 59, of Auburn.
“She was just trying to keep him straight … Specifically, she wanted him out of Lake City,” Kelsie said. “And it was working, you know, it was all right. They liked it out there.”
But Camara continued to “dip in and dip out” of Seattle to visit her boyfriend of almost 10 years, Juan Anthony Brooks, 51.
It was during one of those visits that Camara and Brooks were both fatally shot Aug. 28 in what Kelsie believes was a robbery.
“Whatever they got wasn’t enough to warrant two deaths,” Kelsie said.
The King County Medical Examiner’s Office determined Camara and Brooks had each been shot once in the head and their deaths were ruled homicides. No arrests have been made.
Camara’s 22-year-old son, who lives with roommates, “is completely shut down” from the shock of his mother’s violent death, Kelsie said. Her 17-year-old son now lives with one of Kelsie’s cousins and seems to be doing OK, surrounded by family.
Kelsie’s adopted her daughter’s service dog, a pit bull terrier named Cleopatra, who was inside the apartment with Brooks and Camara’s bodies for 10 hours before they were found by police.
As the months have ticked by, Kelsie said her grief has gotten worse, with still no explanation as to why her daughter was ripped from her life.
“You’re used to not talking to somebody for a few days or a week or maybe a couple weeks but when it becomes months, and you really can’t pick up that phone, it really starts to set in that they’re gone forever,” Kelsie said. “I don’t want to let her go. I don’t want her to be forgotten.”