By Carolyn Bick
This story originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald
Tommy Le loved to cook and garden with his grandmother and do landscaping work with his father. He was friendly with his teachers. He loved to play chess. He had a curiosity that made him seek out deeply philosophical texts—a trait so unique that his local librarians knew him by name. And on June 14, 2017, the 20-year-old Vietnamese American student was going to attend his graduation ceremony at South Seattle College, where he had graduated from the College Career Link program just the day before.
But Le never got to attend that graduation ceremony. He never got to wear his graduation outfit. Generations of his family—some of them refugees—never got to see him achieve his dream of becoming a firefighter.
Instead, King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) Deputy Cesar Molina shot the young man twice in the back and once in the back of the hand in Burien on June 13, 2017. The shots to the back killed Le.
But the KCSO never mentioned the fact that he was shot in the back in any of the subsequent reports filed about the shooting. It also never mentioned that Le was likely falling to or on the ground when Molina shot him. Moreover, the KCSO’s initial press release falsely claimed that Le had a knife “or some other sharp object.” The KCSO also claimed that when deputies arrived on the scene, that Le began “advancing” on them. It is unclear how Molina could have shot Le in the back if Le had been coming towards Molina when Molina shot Le.
So, in 2018, the Le family launched a civil suit against King County and KCSO Deputy Cesar Molina, in which they said Molina deprived Le of his civil rights.
Thanks in part to apparent delay tactics by the defense, that suit dragged out for four long years. But on March 24, 2021, the Le family and their lawyers announced in a press conference that they had reached an out-of-court settlement for $5 million. This settlement, Le family lawyer Jeff Campiche, of Campiche Arnold, PLLC, said, is remarkable in that it shows “a degree of culpability” on both King County’s and Molina’s part.
But it appears that the KCSO continues to cling to the narrative that Tommy Le posed a threat, and does not appear to agree with what the settlement suggests—namely, the “degree of culpability.”
On the afternoon of March 24, a couple hours after the press conference, the Emerald received an internal email to KCSO employees from KCSO Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht. In it, Johanknecht said that “this case is not a reflection of how I view the actions of Deputy Molina in this incident” and that she “just spoke with Deputy Molina.”
“He made the tough decisions that sometimes must be made in our profession. Deputy Molina attempted using other means of protecting the civilians who called for help, before he fired his weapon that day,” Johanknecht said. She did not mention that Molina shot Le in the back and that he did so within minutes of arriving on the scene.
Of her talk with Molina, Johanknecht said, “I shared my appreciation of the difficulty of decision (sic) and actions he had to take. I also appreciate the teamwork all contributing members made that night to protect the residents of that neighborhood and the following investigative work.”
Johanknecht did not mention the fact that an independent investigation commissioned by the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight raised several red flags about this “investigative work” and took the KCSO to task in the way it handled the shooting and subsequent internal investigation.
Instead, she continued, addressing the email’s recipients: “I will remain steadfast in support of all of you.”
Johnaknecht also said that “[t]here was a willingness by our Risk Manager and Prosecutors to try this case in a court of law. The decision to proceed to trial is made in collaboration with the County’s Risk Management team and the Executive. We have to be mindful of the current public discussion on policing and how that critical evaluation could have a significant impact on any police trial, including this one.”
“Proceeding to trial at this time runs the risk of a verdict based on emotion, rather than facts,” she said, again appearing to disregard the many facts turned up since the shooting, as well as the fact that the KCSO originally put out false information, as referenced earlier in this story.
“I appreciate the ability to bring closure to this dispute. Most importantly for those of us involved in the mediation was insisting Deputy Molina be dismissed as a condition of the settlement,” Johanknecht said. She did not address this further, but appears to have been referring to the fact that “King County Sheriff’s Deputy Cesar Molina was dismissed from the lawsuit as a named party as a condition of the settlement,” according to a brief, three-sentence press release from the KCSO.
Johanknecht continued: “Rather than engage in a trial over the coming weeks, we can turn to the important work of continuing to provide excellent service to our community when they need our help.”
Shortly after the press conference, in a one-on-one interview with the Le family, Le’s older brother Quoc Nguyen said that the settlement certainly means that “the County has accepted some level of fault,” but it also brings his brother’s case “to light again.”
“Whether or not we can move on with some actual change in the King County [Sheriff’s Office], I think that will have to rely on the community for support. We are just one little family fighting for our brother’s justice,” Nguyen said. “In terms of having more transparency and better reform for police and accountability for their own fault—we need more people. We need the whole community.”
“These past four years, we’ve endured a lot,” Nguyen continued.
After a pause, he said: “It’s bittersweet, a little bit refreshing that we can kind of take this weight off our shoulders for a little bit.”
And just because the case is closed, in terms of a settlement, does not mean the Le family will let Tommy Le fade away, either at home or in the community.
“He is always a part of our home, within our hearts,” Tommy Le’s aunt Uyen Le said. “I think with the settlement … [we will make] some donations to what his passion was, and that will help him live on in memories and in honor of his name.”
One of those donations, Uyen Le said, will likely be to South Seattle College’s College Career Link program.
“He really enjoyed his time there. That is helping other kids, students—they could be his classmates—through that program, which we think is great: an alternative for kids who didn’t enjoy the traditional high school setting,” Uyen Le said.
Uyen Le also said that the family would continue to stay informed, and that she herself had received messages from police accountability activists and groups.
“We will continue to take part in that and stay in the fight for pushing for these changes. I know it is a big undertaking, and it takes many cases and, unfortunately, a family like ours, to bring this issue to light,” Uyen Le said. “Right now, times are changing, and there is actually more scrutiny.”