The family of Tommy Le with attorneys.
The family of Tommy Le with attorneys. SH

The King County sheriff’s deputy who killed Tommy Le shot the 20-year-old student three times, with two shots entering him through the back, according to an autopsy report released by family members this morning.

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The other shot fired by deputy Cesar Molina in Burien on June 14 struck Le's left wrist. Le did not have amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, marijuana cocaine or opiates in his system, according to a toxicology report. He died at Harborview Medical Center.

Le’s family released the autopsy report during a downtown press conference announcing their intention to file a federal civil rights lawsuit over Le’s death. A tort claim notice, the first step to filing a lawsuit, states that Le did not present an “imminent risk of serious physical injury or death” to the officers or any other person. 

The notice also claims that the King County sheriff’s deputies misled Le’s family by telling them days after the incident that Le had attacked deputies with a knife. A press statement the day after Le's death reported that he attacked a homeowner with a "knife or some sort of sharp object," but did not state, as the Seattle Weekly later reported, that he only carried a pen when he was shot. The sheriff's office released an updated press statement on June 23 with that information.

“This intentional fabrication caused the Le family predictable needless emotional harm and humiliation,” the claim states.

(The tort claim shown to press, an early draft, also says that Sheriff Urquhart personally met with the family alongside sheriff's deputies days after the shooting. That is false. Urquhart did not meet with the family until July 7. When asked about this claim, attorney Jeffrey Campiche told The Stranger, "I don’t know how that sentence ended up in there. I took that out. I’m going to have to retract it.")

Chris Barringer, chief-of-staff for the Sheriff's Office, disputed that anyone from the department lied to or misled the Le family. Barringer told the Stranger that days after the shooting, deputies told family members that Le attacked a homeowner with a knife, not sheriff's deputies, as the tort claim notice asserts. Urquhart was also not present at that meeting.

"Certainly we weren’t trying to deliberately mislead the public," Barringer said. As for the discrepancy in the press releases, he added, "We dropped the ball."

The King County Sheriff's Office has not released police reports on the incident. Barringer said the office is waiting for additional drug tests for LSD and psilocybin mushrooms.

The estate of Le, represented by aunt Xuyen Le, seeks $20 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

“The sheriff’s office has yet to use the word 'mistake,' and that’s the word they should’ve used to start with,” said Campiche. “It was a mistake to kill this young man, a terrible mistake.”

Campiche spoke to press alongside Le’s father, mother, grandmother, cousin and two aunts. All of the family members present lived with Le, a Vietnamese-American student who was set to graduate from South Seattle College’s Career Link High School the day of his death. He wanted to be a firefighter.

Le’s father, Hoai Le, recalled speaking with a detective about his son’s death after coming home from work. “Shockingly, they told me my son had attempted to attack the police with a knife. I was so shocked,” he said through a translator. “I could not fathom any possibility that Tommy was capable of doing that.”

Le’s death occurred during a spate of fatal police shootings in the region that has raised questions about training and use-of-force among local law enforcement. Less than a week after Tommy was killed, two Seattle Police officers fatally shot Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant black woman. Later in June, Kent police killed Giovonn Joseph-McDade, a Green River College student.

According to a statement released the day after Le’s death, King County sheriff’s deputies responded to a call that the 20-year-old attacked a Burien homeowner with a “knife or some sort of sharp object.” After the homeowner took cover in his home, Le allegedly stabbed his door with the sharp object while saying he was “the creator,” the sheriff’s department reported. Sheriff’s deputies arrived at the home “at about the same time," the department reported. Two of the deputies deployed Tasers, with one hitting Le in the chest. That’s when Molina fired the fatal shots.

Nine days later, the sheriff’s department altered its story, telling Seattle Weekly that Le held a pen when he died. A new statement claimed that the deputies encountered Le after a victim pointed him out walking towards them about a half block away, rather than right outside the home. Sheriff John Urquhart later claimed at a community forum that the department believes Le discarded the knife and retrieved a pen at his home, about 10 houses down the street, during the time deputies took to arrive on the scene.  

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At the same community forum, Sheriff Urquhart said he would ask the FBI to take over the investigation. A spokesperson for the department told The Stranger today that the FBI declined.

“However they are monitoring it and our detective and their agent speak frequently,” said King County Sheriff’s Department Public Information Officer Cindi West. “They will review the completed investigation and consult with the U.S. Attorney’s office to see if federal charges are warranted.”

An inquest into the shooting, which is the fact-finding typically process used in King County after law enforcement uses deadly force, has not been scheduled yet.

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