Leslie Buker and a small group of her neighbors were having brunch Sunday to discuss safety issues on Third Avenue when they heard the pop-pop-pop of gunfire. One of the attendees didn’t even get up from the table to look out the window.
Two hours later, Buker was walking on the east side of Third, outside the old Macy’s building, and saw a man’s body covered with a sheet on the sidewalk.
Buker, who lives in a condo building on Third Avenue midway between Pike and Pine streets, said that during investigations into previous fatal shootings in the area, police have closed Third Avenue to traffic, forcing buses along the busy corridor to be rerouted.
She said that didn’t happen on Sunday, when a 52-year-old man was gunned down just before 12:30 p.m. outside the McDonald’s at Third and Pine. As of Monday, police had made no arrests and the man’s name had not yet been released by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.
“It seemed like it was no big deal. The attitude seemed so different this time,” Buker, 38, said of the fourth homicide in as many years to occur outside her front door. “It’s also becoming a lot less unnerving. It’s becoming a lot more normal.”
Olga Sagan had similar sentiment Sunday about the increase in crime in the neighborhood. The shooting happened not far from her Piroshky Piroshky bakery, prompting her to shutter her doors out of concern for her employees and customers.
Buker and others who live or work near the 1500 block of Third Avenue said Monday that the area has seen an influx of drug users since Seattle police cleared out an open-air drug market in Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood a little over a week ago. People openly hawk stolen goods on sidewalks crowded with drug users and dealers.
But the intersection and surrounding streets have a troubling history dating back decades, with various administrations and police chiefs targeting the open-air drug market in the area locally known as The Blade with varying degrees of success.
On Monday, private security officers who patrol Third Avenue described an uptick in visible crime on the sidewalk since the police operation in Little Saigon. Daily, they say there are more illegal resales of liquor and merchandise, more fights and more people who are “loyal to the foil,” those who heat fentanyl pills on bits of tin foil and suck in the smoke through straws.
“It’s not our job to protect them or to protect anyone but the buildings we work for,” said Sam King, a security guard for the Market at Century Square, moments after a nonbloody knife fight broke out between two men just feet from the building.
“It needs to be safer,” King added. “We just can’t do anything about it and keep having to watch it get worse.”
Three weeks before Sunday’s homicide, Mayor Bruce Harrell said that he would “not tolerate” crime in Seattle, committing his administration to addressing street safety, with an emphasis on certain high-crime areas.
At the time, Harrell said he was directing Seattle police to address a list of areas with distinctly high crime rates, starting with the efforts in Little Saigon. Police made 23 felony arrests and 14 misdemeanor arrests in the first 21 days of January, recovered stolen property 24 times, and had over 100 interactions with business owners, patrons and residents, according to the mayor’s office.
On Monday, Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell confirmed that Third Avenue is on the list for similar enforcement. She said the strategy includes a consistent law enforcement presence, with an emphasis on making felony arrests, and bringing “positive energy” and “positive attention” to the area by renewing business presence and foot traffic, which has been missing, in part, due to the pandemic.
“It’s not just about the policing part of safety, but it’s also about environmental solutions that will include ways to revitalize the area,” Monisha Harrell said.
It’s a similar strategy to what’s been tried before.
In 2015, for instance, bus stops were moved, alleys restricted and newspaper boxes used by drug dealers removed as part of the Police Department’s “9½ Block Strategy,” focused on a small section of downtown between First and Fourth avenues and Union and Stewart streets. More than 100 people were arrested during the undercover operation.
Though the open-air drug market was momentarily disrupted, it was never completely quashed. During the pandemic, tents flourished downtown for a time as the downtown core was emptied of office workers, commuters and tourists. Even now, only 33% of downtown workers have returned to their offices and foot traffic has rebounded to 75% of what it was pre-pandemic, according to data from the Downtown Seattle Association.
Businesses, too, have been moving out, with Piroshky Piroshky the latest casualty of the area’s violence. In the past year alone, 19 brick-and-mortar retailers or restaurants closed on Third, including a busy Starbucks, The Seattle Times’ Jon Talton wrote in early February. Other closings since early 2020 include such major retailers as Bed Bath & Beyond, Bergman Luggage, Macy’s, Columbia Sportswear, T.J. Maxx, IGA Kress grocery and Bartell Drugs.
“It’s sad. This location was great for business a couple of years ago, but we just can’t have our people in here right now,” Piroshky Piroshky owner Sagan, who has been asking city leaders to address crime on Third for months, said Monday while an employee cleaned the store to prepare for the closure.
“We’re still leased to be here and we’re going to reassign our employees while we’re gone, and we want to reopen,” Sagan said. “I just don’t know how long it will be and we’re not coming back until it’s safe.”
A week before Sunday’s homicide, on Feb. 21, a 48-year-old man was critically injured after being shot in the face at Third and Pine, according to police. A couple of days before that, Buker said she performed CPR on a woman who overdosed and was given Narcan before medics transported her to the hospital.
In January 2020, a shootout between rival gang members at Third and Pine killed one woman and injured six other people. Two men, Marquise Tolbert and William Toliver, await trial for first-degree murder and six counts of first-degree assault.
“Third & Pine is an area where known gang members, particularly those from the Central District … gathered, sold narcotics and engaged in other criminal activity,” King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Brandy Gevers wrote in a February motion seeking to have a gang expert testify at the men’s trial.
Detective Patrick Michaud, a Seattle police spokesman, said so much crime has been centered on Third and Pine because it can be hidden in plain sight with so many people going about their business and coming in and out of the downtown core.
“It’s as simple as where there are groups of people, there’s crime. It can be hidden and people take advantage of that,” he said.
As for the open drug use in the area, Michaud said police can sometimes make arrests for possession of illegal drugs but it depends on how much someone has on them when they’re contacted by officers.
“It’s not illegal to be high in the city of Seattle,” he said, and if officers catch someone after they’ve ingested narcotics, “we’ll get them medical help if they need it but the crime has stopped because there’s no longer possession.”
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, whose district includes the downtown core, said Monday he has been working with the mayor’s office on addressing downtown crime, but thinks the city needs a broad and consistent approach.
“We’ve been here before,” Lewis said, referencing Sunday’s fatal shooting. “We do know that Third Avenue has — since long before the pandemic — hosted a general climate that makes things like this happen over and over.”