Debbie Judd was driving home through Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood. Raúl Sánchez was in his yard nearby. Jenn Seva was still at work. Kendra Azari was with her kids.
They remember exactly where they were and what they were doing on the afternoon of March 27, 2019, when a man walked into the middle of Sand Point Way Northeast and started randomly shooting at people in vehicles passing by. The rampage, which also included a car-jacking and a fatal collision, sucked the sunny afternoon into a vortex of loss and trauma, leaving two men dead and sending Judd and a Metro bus driver to the hospital.
It also shook a community into action.
For two years, a determined band of neighbors has worked to honor the late victims and sought to heal by creating a pocket park and memorial at the bus stop where the bullets flew two years ago. They recently received a monetary donation that will help them enlarge the project.
“We were all concerned,” said Seva, who lives a few blocks away from the site, a modest triangular parcel wedged between the arterial and Bartlett Avenue Northeast, a residential street without sidewalks. “We wanted to do something positive.”
Previously cluttered with blackberry bushes and trash, the spot is now accented at its point by lavender, tulips and a baby oak. It’s located in a quiet corner of Lake City, studded with shingled houses and small apartment buildings.
The property’s fringe has been planted with redbud trees. There’s a poem about the tragedy installed in the bus shelter, where painted panels will soon be added. Each element has been shaped by the talents of a particular contributor.
Sánchez, a poet and teacher who’s lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, composed the words. Azari, a muralist who grew up in and around Lake City, is painting the panels. Seva has led on logistics.
Chuck Kuehn, who called 911 when the shooting occurred, is the group’s treasurer. Mark Rediske, who rushed to the scene, is the ad hoc arborist. They take turns mowing the grass at the memorial.
Neighbors joined the project on a rolling basis. Some started talking about a memorial at a meeting hosted by City Councilmember Debora Juarez. They created a committee with help from the Lake City Neighborhood Alliance, and word began to spread.
Many residents didn’t know each other before the incident. When he heard about the project, Sánchez offered to put pen to paper. He was desperate to show that he cared.
“I live two long blocks away … even at that distance I could hear the gun blasts. That’s not unusual, sometimes at night. But this was the middle of the day. Later, I heard the helicopters and the sirens,” he recalled.
His poem describes “cars, buses humming along … coming and going, shopping,” and then “quiet routine disturbed, obliterated.”
The poem also names the men who were killed: Robert Hassan, 76, a doctor shot while driving home after a game of pinochle with friends, and Richard Lee, 75, a longtime Lake City resident pinned when a vehicle driven by the accused gunman collided head-on with Lee’s car.
The man charged in their deaths, who told police he’d been drinking heavily, is in jail awaiting his trial, which is currently scheduled for September. Hassan’s daughter, Wendy Hassan, avoided the spot where the shooting occurred until the memorial committee invited her there to help plant the oak tree.
“They’re doing such a beautiful thing,” she said, recalling her father’s love of trees and plants; he once set up a greenhouse adjacent to his medical practice so his patients could commune with nature. “Now every time I drive past, I see the tree. I’m still sad, but that makes it bearable.”
Firstly, the memorial is for Hassan and Lee, and for the survivors, bus driver Eric Stark, who steered his passengers to safety after he was shot — driving in reverse, and Judd, an elementary school teacher. The emotional residue has been more difficult to deal with than the bullets still lodged in her body, said Judd, whom the committee has consulted about the project.
“Just a lot of sadness and grief … stability taken away,” she said.
For at least some of the neighbors, the memorial also is a way to push back against a wider scourge. Bullets are still flying around the city, the state, the country.
There were 69 firearm homicides in King County last year, according to the county prosecutor’s office, not counting suicides and fatal shootings by police officers. In line with national trends, that was a 27% increase compared to the average of the three previous years.
Already this year, gun violence has claimed: 23-year-old Anais Valencia, waiting for a friend in the Central District in February; 19-year-old Omari Wallace, at a church in Rainier Valley in March; 16-year-old Earl Estrella, on his Rainier Beach doorstep last month; and more than a dozen others countywide.
“The bigger story of gun violence is so paralyzing … I don’t know what to do,” Seva said. “But I feel like I can do something here.”
Making a statement in the neighborhood matters to Azari, too. The visual artist has been mulling her community’s struggles and triumphs as she mixes paint in her backyard and guides her brush across the bus-stop panels.
There have been other shootings in Lake City lately, including Thursday. At least three pedestrians have been killed by drivers in the past two years. Several businesses burned in an arson fire in December, she noted, and the pandemic has taken a toll, with many people living unsheltered by the neighborhood’s library.
“We’re in a rough patch right now, but I feel like our ties have only gotten stronger,” said Azari, who’s “putting her soul” into the panels because she wants to do right by the victims. “This community doesn’t give up.”
The neighbors did the memorial’s initial landscaping with a $5,000 grant from the city’s Department of Neighborhoods. They partnered with Metro on the bus shelter. More than 30 people have logged time at the site.
But the memorial is still a work in progress due to COVID-19 delays and because a 900-square-foot chunk of the site was owned by a private party, rather than the city. That changed recently, when Juarez helped secure a $75,000 donation from Amazon, the $300 billion tech behemoth.
The neighbors bought the land via the Seattle Parks Foundation and are ceding the property to the city. They plan to add public art like a sculpture, park benches, a community garden and more trees.
“As we like to say in Indian country,” Juarez remarked as the council approved the transaction last month, the site is now “a sacred space.”
The memorial’s tulips bloomed early this year, but the blossoms on the redbud trees are “just starting to show,” Rediske noted.
Everyone touched by death grapples with the “why” question, and violent deaths can seem especially senseless, Azari said. “I don’t think you get over the loss. It’s hard to understand why someone would steal a life away.”
Yet in Lake City and across Seattle, in ways big and small, community members are coping together and speaking up, including Sánchez, through his poem:
“Fragile as china, strong as steel. We remain friendly, watchful, active neighbors looking out for each other.”
Staff reporter Sara Jean Green contributed to this story.