Death's Door: Unlocked and Loaded

A Seattle music luminary was shot and killed after attempting to enter the wrong motel room. His alleged murderer claims it was self-defense.

Kino Gomez got into Twisp the afternoon of July 17, his Dodge Ram pickup rolling into the parking lot of the Blue Spruce Motel off Highway 20 in Okanogan County. Sun warmed the Methow Valley, where mining and orchard farming have given way to a growing arts, recreation, and tourism industry. Out-of-towners line the streets of neighboring Winthrop, with its historic-themed storefronts and nearby posh resorts, while century-old Twisp (pop. 950) is morphing into a colony of visual artists, a wide spot of still life and tranquillity.Of course, there was that day someone strangled a man and stuffed him in a closet. But that was 40 years ago, the most recent homicide in Twisp. "There's the usual substance abuse, a little domestic violence, burglaries, nothing really major," says the town's easygoing police chief, Rick Balam. "We don't have murders."Gomez, 57, a squat figure at five feet four inches and 150 pounds, with a graying trimmed beard and cropped dark hair, hopped down from his truck that Friday and went into the motel office, an American flag flapping at its doorway. He checked in, got a key, and pulled his truck up to Room 7, where he unloaded his gear. A second vehicle containing Gomez's traveling companions, a family of four that included one of his co-workers, pulled in before settling into Room 4.A Seattle resident and road engineer for the King County Department of Transportation, where's he's worked since 1991, Gomez and the family had spent the day driving along the scenic North Cascades Highway. They planned to overnight in Twisp, then in the morning move on to the rangelands of Chelan County. Gomez had promised to teach the co-worker's son how to shoot a BB gun Gomez had bought. He might let the son shoot a real gun too, he told the boy, according to his father. And Gomez came prepared: Among his gear was a Rock River AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, with which he hoped to pick off a few coyotes in the foothills. He also had 250 rounds of ammunition and two 40-caliber Glock 27 handguns, which he wore in a Belly Band, an elastic belt-and-holster device that can be concealed under clothing. That night, stripping to his skivvies, he'd wear the gun belt and both Glocks to bed.Tom Pfaeffle and his wife Valarie got to the Blue Spruce after dark; Gomez had already gone to sleep in Room 7. The 49-year-old Pfaeffle, an instructor in audio production at the Art Institute of Seattle, also operated a widely respected recording studio, The Tank, next to his home in the woods of Black Diamond. He'd been a sound engineer for some of America's most popular musicians and groups, including Nirvana, Heart, B.B. King, and the Black Crowes.The Pfaeffles had been with friends, one of them celebrating a 50th birthday, at nearby Sun Mountain Lodge. But the shaded resort perched in the amber hills outside Twisp was too pricey, the couple felt. So around 10:30 p.m., they drove the 13 miles to Twisp and the $55-a-night Blue Spruce.A trim, balding, goateed man in a shirt and summer shorts, Pfaeffle was given the key to Room 8. It was located at the far end of a one-story gray building with eight units; a matching building with a blue tin roof faced it across the parking lot. He pulled up to a series of four doors in a wide alcove—Rooms 6 and 7 facing straight ahead, Rooms 5 and 8 off at angles to the left and right. "We think he was told his room was on the end," says Chief Balam. "Room 7 looks like it's on the end when you drive up." As Valarie waited in their black BMW roadster, Tom got out and put the key to Room 8 into Room 7's door, which began to open.Gomez rose from the bed. Though he had helped design and build some of the King County highways that Pfaeffle drove over, road engineer Gomez was meeting sound engineer Pfaeffle for the first time. They apparently never exchanged a word, nor clearly saw each other's face. The extent of their introduction that quiet eastern Washington night two months ago was a bullet that came tearing out of Gomez's door before striking Pfaeffle in the torso.Valarie saw Tom stagger backward and turn. She couldn't understand what was happening. "Oh, fuck," Tom said, holding his right side as blood ran down his shorts. "I've been shot." Mortally wounded, the father of four died two hours later in an emergency room.Did Gomez just wake up and recklessly pull the trigger before realizing what was happening? Or did he see someone coming into his room and, feeling threatened, lawfully fire in self defense?The answer could mean the difference between a life of freedom or one spent in prison.Pfaeffle had been having an especially productive year at his Black Diamond studio. "Things are cooking along," he wrote in his last blog entry, June 22, at thetankstudio.com. "Just finished Dog Leg Preacher's full length 'Abscess.' The record kicks. Check it out on the bands [sic] site.Finishing tracking Seattle's own 'Lorpan' and about ready to start a full length with northwest artist 'Random Manor.' Atomic Bride also released their CD which was mixed and mastered here at the tank. Back to work!"He was a mentor to many during his 30 years producing and recording young artists. A quote from Pfaeffle's Art Institute bio emphasized his teacher-student focus: "Teaching audio engineering gives me a very rewarding and gratifying feeling knowing that my personal experience and knowledge is being shared and passed on to tomorrow's professional engineers and producers."In his obit, his family would note that "Tom lived, breathed, and dreamed audio," and loved sushi, biking, and his wife and kids dearly. One of the bands he recorded, Kay Kay and his Weathered Underground, said in a MySpace post that "Tom not only embodied the best of the human spirit's ability to be a selfless and unconditionally loving person, but he was a master of his craft." He fronted the money for one of group's DVDs, "and there is absolutely zero percent cliché when we say we wouldn't be here without him."Pfaeffle, who grew up in Des Moines, Wash., and graduated from Mount Rainier High School in 1979, was a shaggy-haired guitarist with a band called the Bolders. But he found his niche at the control board, which required an ear for pitch and rhythm and the creative know-how to turn ideas into sounds. Since his death, his 6-year-old studio has been temporarily taken over by associates, who did not want to comment beyond what they've posted on the studio Web site: "Tom is no longer with us and we're left with a mission to carry on as he would have wanted us to...with enough volume and force for Tom to hear us wherever he is."As for Gomez, his attorney, Mike Haas of Omak, calls the accused "a really decent guy," and an acquaintance who asked not to be named considers him "a good man." She wouldn't say much more, nor would others when contacted for this story.Gomez lives in a modest home in a high-crime area in south Beacon Hill. Married in 1980 and divorced amicably in 1992, Gomez has no children and no known criminal record. "What he did was random, without a motive," says Chief Balam, who thinks the facts are clear about the first murder in his town since 1968. But he may never understand it, he says. "How do you get into a person's mind?" he asks.In a brief interview, Gomez, who earns $98,000 a year and is free on $100,000 bail, told Seattle Weekly, "There are always two sides. It is still tragic for me too." He hasn't read any of the news stories about the shooting or seen reader comments, he says, but "one of my co-workers says people are ready to hang me. They weren't at the alleged scene of the crime. But I was, and it's not the way they say."As for the guns he fancies, only his attorney would answer. "There are two Washingtons, if you will," says Haas. "Attitudes divide at the Cascades [liberals to the left, conservatives to the right]. In terms of Kino's firearms interest, he belongs to the right side of the state."Attorney and former King County deputy prosecutor Steve Graham of Republic (in Ferry County) agrees. "In north-central Washington," he says, "it is not seen as being unusual for a person to carry a gun, or even more than one gun as Gomez did. And jurors come into court with strong notions of self-defense that can be shocking to outsiders."Though two empty beer cans would be found later in Room 7 by investigators, Chief Balam remembers Gomez seeming calm and alert, with no indication of alcohol or drug impairment. Earlier that day, Gomez and the family in the second car—the father, Linh Nguyen, also works at the King County DOT—had stopped for dinner in Winthrop. After checking into the Blue Spruce, they chatted awhile in Room 4, making plans to drive to Chelan the next day, where Gomez would show the family his favorite hunting area. Gomez returned to his room around 8:30 p.m, police were told by Nguyen (who declined to comment for this story). He said Gomez typically retires and arises early.Neither Nguyen nor Gomez would explain why Gomez wears his guns to bed. Okanogan County sheriff's detective Mike Murray says records show Gomez has a current state Concealed Pistol license and owns 15 handguns. Haas says his client has a "personal safety issue" and is also an avid hunter. He indicates that Gomez wore his guns to bed that night out of concern: The lock on the motel door was broken.Officials apparently agree. Okanogan Chief Deputy Dave Rodriguez reports he tried Pfaeffle's key in the lock of Gomez's room. "The key did fit in the lock mechanism and would turn the handle of the unlocked door," he states in a report. "I then attempted to lock the door to see if the key would work on a locked door knob, but the lock mechanism would not turn into the locked position." Because of the broken lock, Gomez told investigators, he slid a chair under the handle before going to bed, bracing the door "like they do in the movies."When Pfaeffle arrived shortly before 11, Gomez was in a deep sleep. Valarie Pfaeffle (who chose not to comment for this story) told police Tom "stuck the key in and the door opened." Someone shot her husband twice, she said, according to an interview she gave to county Deputy Rob Heyen. Her husband staggered back to the car and lay down beside it on the parking lot, she also recalled.When the first officers from the small Twisp force arrived (later joined by county deputies and a state trooper), they secured the area, unsure if the shooter was a barricaded man intending more harm. They eventually got Valarie to safety, then were able to drag Tom by his heels to a secure area, where he was loaded into an ambulance. With Valarie riding along, he was then taken on a 38-mile run to Mid-Valley Hospital. He appeared to have internal organ damage, but was alive when he arrived at the emergency room in Omak.Hearing the gunfire, motel manager Nicole Skinner called 911 and then called Room 7. In a written statement to Twisp police, she said Gomez answered and she asked if he was OK. "I am not making any statements to anyone but the police. You need to call 911," Gomez reportedly responded. She had already called the cops, Skinner told Gomez, before asking again if he was all right. "I am not making any statements to anyone but the police. I am fine!" she recalls him saying before he hung up.When Chief Balam arrived, he phoned Gomez, who agreed to leave his guns in the room and walk out with his hands up. He was handcuffed and placed in a police car without incident. His pockets were searched, revealing several small knives, a pistol ammo magazine, and a wallet with $1,615—which his attorney says was simply a vacation wad. He was read his Miranda rights and chose not to make any statements. However, according to a Twisp police report, he made unprompted comments."How is the guy that I shot?" he asked.Alive so far, he was told."Do you know why he was trying to break into my room?"We don't know that he was, an officer said."Yeah, he was breaking in my room, that's why I shot him."Later, after Gomez spoke by phone with an attorney, an officer asked if he wanted to make any statement. He indicated he didn't, but police say he spoke anyway, again unprompted.Awakened by the sound of someone breaking in, Gomez saw the door open to the "full silhouette" of the intruder. Gomez responded "like it was automatic," he said, pulling out at least one handgun and firing. When the intruder disappeared, Gomez "came to my senses," he said, got dressed, then crouched with his guns in the bathroom, fearing another intrusion. He later responded to the phone calls and finally emerged at about 11:15 p.m. to be arrested.Pfaeffle, meanwhile, was fighting for his life. Deputy Heyen was at Mid-Valley Hospital shortly before midnight to interview Valarie. He noticed Tom in the emergency room, a flock of nurses and doctors working over him, and could hear Pfaeffle complaining about his back hurting from lying so long on the ambulance backboard. In the cafeteria, Valarie told Heyen that Gomez's door "opened as [Tom] put the key in."When the deputy and Valarie finished talking, a doctor and nurse came to their table. It was just past 12:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 18. They couldn't save Tom, the doctor said. Valarie, with friends, later returned home to Black Diamond, while Tom was taken to the morgue in Wenatchee.At the Twisp police station, Officer Ty Sheehan went into the interview room and told Gomez that his victim had died. "That is unfortunate," Gomez said calmly. Within the hour, he was driven to the Okanogan County jail and booked on a murder charge, while investigators continued to go over the crime scene, trying to answer questions that may decide Gomez's fate.The most important one, it appears, is whether the door was open or closed. "I think," says Graham, the Republic attorney who also practices in Okanogan County, "a self-defense case can be made." But "if the prosecutor can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the door was never opened to any extent, then any self-defense claim would fail."Three 40-caliber shell casings were found in Room 7. One bullet passed through the lock side of the door, and the second went into the hinge side and lodged in the jamb; a third went straight through a wall and into an adjoining room. (A man lying in bed watching a Mariners game was sprayed with plaster, but the bullet fell harmlessly onto the sheets next to him.)The casings were near the bed, which is to the right side of the door in Room 7. The door swings open to the left, making any entrant visible from the bed. Shots fired from the bed would go into the door at an angle, rather than straight on. Police evidence shows that one of Gomez's shots entered at a slant through the lock-side door jamb and passed through the outer edge of the door, about four feet up from the floor. That is presumed to be the bullet that struck Tom Pfaeffle.For the same bullet to leave such a trail—passing through the jamb and door at that matching angle—"the door had to be closed, period," says Chief Balam. If it had been swung open, away from the jamb, the door would not have been penetrated by the bullet, he adds. The angle of the second bullet that went into the hinge side also indicates the door was closed, according to an inspection report. An investigator also put a chair against the door, as Gomez had, and, pushing hard, could open the door only two to three inches.Yet "there's no question that the door was open," counters Gomez defense attorney Haas. His own investigation indicates Pfaeffle could have pushed the unlocked door forward against the chair enough to force it open by at least nine inches. That could allow Gomez to see a figure in the doorway and react.But if the door was open, how could the bullet hole in the door and jamb match up? Haas suggests the door may have opened, and then—due to the chair or Pfaeffle's reaction—closed again. Gomez could have seen a figure and fired after the door closed. "The ballistic evidence quite clearly shows the door was open," Haas argues. "I don't know why police have refused to acknowledge that."He notes that Valarie told a detective the door was "open." Furthermore, attendants for Aero Methow Rescue Service said that during the 35-minute ambulance run to the hospital, Pfaeffle mentioned he thought he'd been given the key to the wrong room and "when he opened the door, the guy inside shot him," an investigative report states.The defense attorney calls the shooting "a horrible accident." Okanogan County Prosecutor Karl Sloan calls it first-degree murder, due to the "extreme indifference to human life" shown by Gomez when he "created a grave risk of death" by his actions, according to charging documents. (A jury could instead issue a second-degree murder finding, and a manslaughter verdict is also possible; Gomez has pled not guilty). Sloan additionally charged Gomez with two counts of reckless endangerment: for the shot that went into the adjoining room, and for "creating the substantial risk of death" for Valarie, who was in the line of fire outside.These are points sure to be explored at Gomez's trial, currently set for October 13. Haas wonders if there might have been a fourth bullet as well, which possibly disappeared out the open door. "At least one shot was fired while the door was open," he says. "Until we have the autopsy results [so far not released], it's difficult to say what bullet killed the deceased."State law on justifiable homicide requires that there be "reasonable ground" and "imminent danger" to kill someone about to "commit a felony or to do some great personal injury." That's subject to interpretation. But even gun advocate Dave Workman, senior editor of Gun Week, says, "I have a hard time with this case. Shooting through a door typically does not constitute a case of self-defense."Justifiable shooting cases involving intruders usually include visual confrontation and verbal warning before firing. Workman recalls a Tacoma case in which a woman killed her estranged boyfriend by shooting through a door—but he was threatening to kill her, and she went free.Gomez has indicated he shot first and asked questions later. Says Workman: "Well, you just don't start blasting through a closed door." After reading through all the charging and investigative documents, Workman thinks all three rounds were fired "with the door closed.""A man trying to enter through a locked door to your room does not pose any imminent danger," says Graham, Ferry County's former prosecuting attorney. "But a man who has succeeded in pushing your bedroom door open does pose an imminent threat, in that he is about to be standing over you when you are lying in bed. I don't believe that it will be determinative if the door is open three inches or nine inches. The fact remains that once a door is opened, there is nothing standing between you and an intruder."It may be true Gomez felt he was in danger. But can such a deadly volley—without first announcing a warning—be justified? "If we can show the door was open enough to see a figure," says Haas, "in terms of self-defense, that's all we need.""If the victim had been some hoodlum shot dead, would people have a different attitude—you know, 'Thank God Kino's OK'?" Haas wonders. Nevertheless, he adds, "Mr. Gomez is truly grieving for the [Pfaeffle] family."Others are grieving for Tom as well. Two memorials were held, one at a church in Des Moines and another at the Moore Theater in downtown Seattle on August 13, where music filled the night. The program included a song from Queensryche, one of the bands Tom had worked with. Called "Silent Lucidity," it begins:Hush now, don't you cryWipe away the teardrop from your eyeYou're lying safe in bedIt was all a bad dreamSpinning in your head...Over in Twisp, the bad dream has been rubbed away. The damaged motel door was repaired, the broken lock fixed, and new, oversized numbers added above the door and to an outside wall. Today, when you drive up to the Blue Spruce Motel, you can't miss Room 8.randerson@seattleweekly.comThis story is based on interviews with witnesses, law enforcement, the accused, his attorney, and friends of the victim, as well as 62 pages of police, sheriff, and prosecutor investigative records and public documents.Editor's Note: This story has been corrected. Tom Pfaeffle worked with the band Atomic Bride, not Atomic Bridge.

 
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