Tommy Le’s family, joined by their lawyers, discuss autopsy results. Photo by Daniel Person

Cops and Conduct

Tommy Le Was Shot Twice In the Back, Autopsy Shows

The family says the results show a pattern of deception around what led to Le’s death.

An autopsy report released by Tommy Le’s family Thursday shows that the 20-year-old was shot by a King County Sheriff’s deputy twice in the back and a third time in the back of his hand.

Jeffery Campiche, a lawyer for the Le family, says the autopsy results prove the Sheriff’s Office account of Le’s fatal confrontation with Deputy Cesar Molina in June is false. Specifically, the Sheriff’s Office has said that Le was shot as he approached deputies with an object in his hand and refused to follow orders to stop and drop what he was holding.

“There are no scenarios where you would shoot someone in the back because they are attacking you,” Campiche said during a press conference at his downtown law offices. Campiche was surrounded by Le’s family, many of them in tears as the new revelations were released. Campiche said the family had received the autopsy report late last week.

Campiche said the fact that Le was shot in the back feeds into a pattern of the Sheriff’s Office being misleading about what happened in the early morning hours of June 14 in Burien, (the city of Burien contracts with the Sheriff’s Office for police services.) The initial press release sent out by the Sheriff’s Office said deputies were responding to calls about a man—later identified as Le—menacing people with a knife and screaming that he was “the creator.” It did not specify what Le was holding when he was shot, and the press release led to media reports that Le was approaching deputies with a knife.

The Le family says representatives from the Sheriff’s Office told them Le was holding a knife when they were informed of his death, as well.

However, there was no follow up in the media about Le’s death until the next week, when Seattle Weekly asked the Sheriff’s Office directly what Le was holding when he was shot. The Sheriff’s Office then said Le was in fact holding an ink pen that was mistook for a knife. On Thursday, Campiche said the Le family did not learn that Tommy Le was holding a pen until it was revealed in the media.

Even after the Sheriff’s Office acknowledged Le was holding a pen, it insisted Molina acted within reason, in part because Molina didn’t know Le was only holding a pen, and because Le was approaching Molina, other deputies, and neighbors when shot.

“The deputies were between the suspect and the residents who were still outside,” a press release sent June 23 read, describing the moments before Le’s death. “Both deputies eventually used their Tasers but to no effect. As the suspect continued to advance on the deputies, Deputy Molina fired several times and the man was hit and fell to the ground.”

With the autopsy in hand, Campiche declared the official narrative dead on Thursday: “Tommy was not shot charging police officers with a weapon.”

A toxicology report also showed that Le had no drugs or alcohol in his system (though the Sheriff’s Office told Crosscut the toxicology report did not test for LSD or mushrooms; detectives are still waiting on results from tests looking for those substances). The family did not rule out the possibility that Le was suffering a mental health crisis at the time of his death, though they say he had no history of mental illness. He also didn’t have a criminal record.

Along with releasing the autopsy and toxicology reports, Campiche announced that the Le family planned to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff John Urquhart. In a notice of claim, the Estate of Tommy Le says that it will ask for “not less than $10,000,000” for compensatory damages and “not less than $10,000,000” for punitive damages.

Family members said at the press conference that as Buddhists, it was especially painful for Le to be described in the media as having attacked a deputy with a knife.

“They just informed me that my son tried to attack a deputy with a knife, and I could not fathom Tommy would do that,” said his father, Hoai Le, through an interpreter.

Family described Le as a voracious reader.

“We’d always go to the library,” said his cousin, Missouri Le. “We’d also go to Barnes and Noble. We didn’t buy books there, but we did read there.”

Campiche said that when he visited Le’s home, he found open copies of The Count of Monte Cristo and Faust in his room.

Le, 20, was scheduled to graduate from a high school diploma program at South Seattle Community College the day he was killed.

After the shooting, Molina was put on administrative leave. According to a Sheriff’s Office press release, he attended a critical incident stress debriefing and met with a mental health professional. He also met with a psychologist, who cleared him to return to work on June 30, 16 days after the shooting. Then, on July 7, Molina struck a pedestrian in Fife as he drove home in his patrol vehicle following his shift. According to the police report, the pedestrian, identified as James Taitano, was standing in a dark stretch of the roadway when Molina hit him; Taitano was thrown into another lane, where he was hit and dragged by a second vehicle. Molina was again put on administrative leave; the Sheriff’s Office says he is now back to work.

Urquhart declined to comment on the Le case Thursday. Through a spokesperson he said: “The investigation isn’t complete yet, and the inquest has not yet occurred. Therefore it would be irresponsible to comment at this time.”

The Le family came to the United States from Vietnam in 1991. Campiche said that part of the reason they are filing a lawsuit is to “vindicate the rights” that led them to come to the U.S.: “The right to be free from excessive violence.”

dperson@seattleweekly.com

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