By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Tommy Le was a 20-year-old Vietnamese American man who had a job at a casino in Tulalip at the same time he was finishing up school — and he was one day away from his high school graduation when he was fatally shot by King County sheriff’s deputy Cesar Molina on June 13 in Burien. Witnesses claimed they saw Le wielding a knife and threatening people. When he was shot, Le was found to only be holding a pen. Le had no criminal record nor history of violence. He died of injuries at Harborview the same night.
About 150 people congregated together at Asian Counseling and Referral Service on the evening of July 19 at a community forum organized by members of a Vietnamese American group, Viets Who Give a Shiet.
Government leaders present at this forum included King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight Director Deborah Jacobs, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, King County Deputy Executive Rhonda Berry, King County Sheriff John Urquhart, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, Washington state Rep. Mia Gregerson, and Washington state Sen. Bob Hasegawa.
“Tommy Le was a very kind and non-violent young man,” said the Le family’s attorney, Jeff Campiche, of Campiche Arnold PLLC. “He owned no weapons. He belonged to no gangs. … Tommy Le’s friends, coworkers, and teachers describe him as pleasant and all smiles. He was beloved by his large extended Vietnamese American family — a family that fled the oppression in the police state of Vietnam. …”
“[The Le family has] some questions, questions for the sheriff,” added Campiche. “Why was an unarmed student shot dead? Why were the officers not wearing body cameras? What crime had Tommy Le committed?”
Satterberg explained that an inquest will be conducted in district court in Seattle. An inquest is a judicial inquiry held to determine a person’s cause of death.
“An inquest is an unusual feature in King County, in which any death involving a police officer is something we put in an open court,” said Satterberg.
Satterberg explained that during an inquest, the family has an opportunity to be represented and call witnesses. Additionally, anyone interested in the investigation are welcome to come to court to listen.
“We’re willing to do an inquest as soon as it’s convenient for the Le family,” said Satterberg. Then he added, referring to the people in the room, “I want to tell people who are angry that it’s appropriate to be angry. This is a tragedy. This is something we need to get to the bottom of.”
Urquhart stated his intentions to give unbiased, objective information at the forum and to answer questions the family has.
“A lot of the truth will come out of the inquest,” said Urquhart. “It’s the only opportunity where witnesses and my deputies will testify under oath. They will be sworn in, and they will have to tell the truth. They will be questioned by attorneys, so hopefully more information, more truth will come out.”
He also addressed the tension between the Vietnamese American community and law enforcement, which plays into the greater national tension in regards to people of color experiencing disproportionate deaths and brutality at the hands of law enforcement.
Urquhart said that he speculates that, whatever results are found via inquest or other avenues, “No one will believe the results. The [Vietnamese] community is not going to believe our investigation.” Urquhart said he partly attributes the understandable skepticism and wariness of law enforcement findings to the fact that he does not think the county should investigate its own police shooting.
“I will ask tonight that the FBI come in and take over this investigation,” he said. “And you (the community) can believe or not believe what the FBI comes up with. I believe that in this day and age, the police department should not be investigating their own officer-involved shooting.”
After the shooting investigation is completed by the Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Unit, the investigation will then be sent to Satterberg’s office to determine if criminal charges are warranted.
The night of the shooting
According to previous reports, the sheriff’s office stated that on the night of Le’s death, several 911 calls came in about a man, later identified as Le, who had a sharp object and was threatening people in the Third Avenue South block of Burien. A homeowner who was being threatened fired his gun to try and ward off Le. The homeowner then fled into the house as Le stabbed at the door and screamed that he was “the Creator.” At this point, no one was injured, and Le left the scene.
Three deputies arrived on the scene. As they were getting the story from the neighbors, Le came back.
At the forum, Urquhart said that, according to his deputies’ reports, they believe that Le had gone home to put the knife away, before returning to the scene with a pen.
Officers told Le to drop whatever was in his hand. Le kept advancing as deputies backed away. The deputies used their tasers. According to the sheriff’s department, one of the probes made contact but did not deter Le. Deputy Molina then fired several times, hitting Le.
“Something happened to Tommy that night,” said Urquhart. “There was some sort of mental crisis he was in. We don’t know what that was. We don’t know why. This was so uncharacteristic of the young man you’ve heard about. We don’t know what happened. We are looking into it.”
The Le family
Le’s father, Hoai Le, had short remarks at the beginning of the forum. In Vietnamese, Hoai said, “There is no other pain as the pain of losing a son, as losing a piece of my heart. … I don’t know why this happened. I don’t know why my son, who wasn’t holding a knife in his hand, was shot. I want to thank all of you for being here. I want justice for my son.”
Tommy Le’s mother, Dieu Ho, said, “My son was a very gentle and peaceful kid. He never got into fights. … He was very obedient and kind. He lived with his grandma for 15 years. He was 20 years old, [and he said to us] he wanted to move out and not live with Grandma anymore, so he could be an [independent] adult. That night, there was an incident. We don’t know what happened. He was out in the streets. And then we heard the police came. When we heard this, we know that our kid is only 120 pounds. A very slight person. Yet, [there were] two full-sized male police officers [who confronted him]. And then they shot my son.”
Le’s oldest brother Quoc Nguyen detailed the last moment he met with his brother. He said they were looking for nice suits for Le to wear at Nguyen’s wedding. “It’s unfortunate that we had to use that suit for his funeral,” Nguyen said, tightly.
“He wanted to make a positive change in this world,” said Nguyen. “That’s all I have to say. Thank you.”
The Le family is Buddhist and made an exception in appearing at the public forum to speak about Tommy Le. Buddhist funeral rites can last 49 days. Campiche said that the family requests privacy as they perform funeral rites for Le, but after the 49 days, they would likely be more vocal about what they want to come out from Le’s death.
At the end of the forum, Campiche read a statement from the family.
“We can all see it was a mistake. It was a mistake to shoot and kill Tommy. He presented no danger. … Since it was a mistake, please, please sit down and decide how the department can change its practices, its attitude, its way of doing business so that this mistake doesn’t repeat itself, so there’s not another unnecessary killing of a young person.”
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.