The King County Sheriff’s Office says it was not trying to deceive the public when it put out a press release last week about a fatal officer-involved shooting in Burien. That release seemed to obscure the fact that the man killed by a deputy was brandishing a pen and not a knife at the time of his death.
The fact that Tommy Le, 20, was holding a pen when he was shot and killed by Deputy Cesar Molina only came to light on Thursday when Seattle Weekly asked the Sheriff’s Office for details about the shooting; the case was more than a week old at that point. The initial press release put out by the office the morning after the shooting only indicated that witnesses reported Le had chased them holding a knife and that he refused to follow officer instructions to “drop what he was holding.” No follow-up press release was ever issued to clarify what, exactly, that object was.
However, Sgt. Cindi West says the office was not purposely obscuring the facts of the case, but instead blamed it on a mixture of a chaotic crime scene, vacation scheduling, and human error.
First, the chaotic scene: In 911 audio released by the Sheriff’s Office Friday, witnesses were unclear about what Le had in his hand. One man, who said Le chased him in the street, told a dispatcher: “I don’t know if it’s a knife. It just looked like a pointy … It could have been a screwdriver, it could have been a knife, it was clearly something he was intending on harming someone with.” Another 911 caller identified the weapon as a knife, and told the dispatcher he’d fired his handgun at the ground as a warning shot to keep Le away from him. “I felt threatened, I felt my life was in danger,” he said. As was widely reported, Le was acting bizarrely. In addition to chasing people, he kept yelling, “I’m the creator.”
The Sheriff’s Office, which Burien contracts with for police services, says 10 patrol units responded to the call, with Molina and two other deputies arriving first. As they were gathering witness statements, the witnesses saw Le and pointed him out to the police. Molina and Deputy Tanner Owens approached Le and told him to drop what he was holding. They say Le “was making stabbing motions.” Both deputies used their Tasers, but they didn’t affect Le. “Detectives are unsure why the Taser had no effect. It least one of the probes stuck the suspect. Others may have missed or they may have been too close together to incapacitate the suspect,” the new press release says.
“As the suspect continued to advance on the deputies, Deputy Molina fired several times and the man was hit and fell to the ground,” the Sheriff’s Office said in the Friday press release.
The Sheriff’s Office said Friday that they searched Le’s residence, which was nearby, and found knives. West says detectives are investigating the possibility that Le had a knife during the initial incidents but had returned them to his residence before confronting police.
West, the only media representative with the Sheriff’s Office, says she went to the scene that night, but was going on vacation the next day so left most of the public information work to her fill in, Sgt. Jason Houck. It was Houck that sent out the press release—bearing the headline “Deputy shoots man claiming to be ‘The Creator’”—which leaves vague what Le was holding.
West says she does not know how much information Houck had when he wrote the release, but pushed back on the suggestion that the release was purposely misleading.
“We [release] what we know for sure. … I don’t think he would intentionally leave it out if we knew 110 percent this guy had a pen,” she says.
The release led to reporters saying definitively that Le had a knife, despite the fact that the release does hedge on that fact.
As for why the Sheriff’s Office did not proactively clarify the information when it knew more, West says when she returned to work on Monday there were no inquires about the incident from media. While West wouldn’t speculate, the lack of interest was likely due in part to the media’s focus on another officer-involved shooting that occurred on Sunday, that of Charleena Lyles by Seattle police. With no media inquires, she says, she did not seek any updated information until the Weekly contacted her about it on Thursday.
“When you emailed yesterday it was the first time I went to find out” if there were any updates, she says. “I dropped the ball. I probably should have figure out if this was all handled.”
In the new press release, West says the shooting will be reviewed.
“The shooting is under investigation by the Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Unit. The completed investigation will be sent to the Prosecutor’s Office to determine if criminal charges are warranted. The shooting will be reviewed administratively by the sheriff’s Office Administrative review Team. There will be an inquest. The Sheriff’s Office will conduct a Use of Force Review Board. The Office of Law Enforcement Oversight will review all administrative actions taken by the Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Urquhart will forward the case and all reviews, including the results if the inquest, to the FBI for federal review.”