By CHRISTINE WILLMSEN
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE (AP) — When Tommy Le’s photo appeared in the screen during the slideshow fellow graduates cheered and hollered.
The 20-year-old and about 45 fellow students had just graduated from Career Link, an alternative high-school completion program at South Seattle College.
But they also didn’t understand why the wide-smiling, cheerful Le wasn’t at the June 14 celebration, and missing a high point in his life.
They were unaware that Le had been shot and killed by a King County sheriff’s deputy hours earlier.
Around midnight, three deputies were summoned by several 911 calls about a man with a sharp object, maybe a knife, threatening people in the 13600 block of Third Avenue South in Burien. One homeowner told dispatchers he had fired his handgun into the ground, hoping to scare off the man — later identified as Le.
When Le continued to approach, the homeowner fled back inside his house. Le, who was barefoot, then pounded on the door and stabbed it, screaming he was “the Creator,” according to the King County Sheriff’s Office.
Deputies confronted Le, who refused commands to drop “what they thought was a knife,” said sheriff’s spokeswoman Sgt. Cindi West. Two deputies fired their Tasers, with one of them hitting Le. But it had no effect, she said.
When Le reportedly moved toward deputies, a deputy shot him three times. He died at Harborview Medical Center.
It wasn’t until more than a week later that the Sheriff’s Office reported Le had a pen, not a knife, in his hand when he was shot. The Sheriff’s Office said a search of the Burien home Le shared with other people turned up knives and detectives were trying to determine whether one was used in the earlier attacks.
The shooting is under investigation by the sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit.
Teachers, family and friends are still grappling with news of Le’s death and how uncharacteristic it was for the young man to threaten anyone, let alone be involved in an altercation.
They said he had shown no signs of mental illness or violence. He didn’t have a criminal record.
Teachers describe Le as a “goofy, little guy,” who was “always smiling.”
When fellow graduate Nafisa Mohamednur, 19, learned of his death, she thought people had the wrong person.
“He’s a bubbly kid,” she said. “He’s an easy person to talk to about anything.”
Sunny Le, Le’s father, questions whether law enforcement handled the situation properly.
“I’m so angry,” he said, referring to the fact that his son, who weighed about 100 pounds, was only carrying a pen when he was shot by a deputy. “I want to know what happened to my son.”
Tommy Le was buoyant the afternoon before his death.
Ten hours before he died, Le received a B on his final exam in modern history, earning enough credits to graduate, said Curt Peterson, Career Link director and one of Le’s teachers.
“It was a high point for him,” Peterson said about the last time he saw Le. “He was bouncing off the walls in a good way.”
He picked up his cap and gown, ready for the next day’s graduation ceremony.
Peterson had watched Le grow from the time he enrolled in the program in July 2015. On his application, Le wrote that he dropped out of Evergreen High School in White Center because the classes were too large and difficult.
Peterson said his death doesn’t makes sense.
“In a school that works entirely with dropouts, we get interesting kids,” Peterson said. “I could tell you 100 people I would have imagined this happening to before him . If we had a discipline file on Tommy it would be completely empty. He was the sweetest kid in the world. He didn’t have an aggressive bone in his body.”
Le worked part time in the kitchen at Macau Casino in Tukwila. He wanted to go to South Seattle College after getting his high-school diploma, said Sunny Le, 42.
What changed between the time Le picked up his cap and gown and his encounter with deputies is still a mystery.
Sunny Le said a sheriff’s detective told him Le may have been drunk that night. West said Le may have taken drugs, based on the young man’s behavior and a statement from one of his friends.
Toxicology reports are pending from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.
The one area of Le’s life that was unstable was his housing. He also sometimes had trouble with attendance, said Molly Ward, a director and teacher at Career Link.
“He had come a long way and he got it turned around, so that makes it even harder,” Ward said. “He didn’t always speak up in class, but when he did it was a thoughtful, different perspective in art class.”
He occasionally wrote about living out of a backpack and sleeping on benches and in parks in a journal for an English class, she recalled. Le had recently found housing with a friend and was living within a block of where the shooting occurred.
His father said Le moved out of the family home six months ago because he wanted his freedom. He disagreed that his son was ever homeless. And if that was the case, he said, his son could have always come home to live with his grandmother and him.
Le had two half-brothers and a half-sister.
Sunny Le saw his son two weeks before his death when he dropped some food off for him at the Burien home. There was a memorial service for him June 20 at a Seattle funeral home.
“I miss everything about him,” Sunny Le said.