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Seattle in grip of violence

A rampage that killed five prompts the city to confront a wave of often deadly gunfire.

June 01, 2012|Kim Murphy
  • From left, Karen Eides, Tim Torres and David Gordon kneel at a makeshift memorial outside Cafe Racer in Seattle, where four people were shot dead and a fifth injured on Wednesday.
From left, Karen Eides, Tim Torres and David Gordon kneel at a makeshift… (Stephen Brashear, Getty…)

SEATTLE — In a city known for its post-hippie vibe -- street fairs, vegan cafes and politics so earnestly committed to consensus that almost nothing gets done -- Seattle's violent spring has been a rough awakening.

This glacier-rimmed city that sees itself as an emerald refuge at the corner of a troubled country has been caught in a wave of often random gun violence that has claimed 21 lives since the beginning of the year--as many as in all of 2011.

Wednesday's rampage by a troubled gunman, which left four people dead in a northeast Seattle cafe and a fifth in a downtown parking lot, was the worst and latest. Earlier in May, a 43-year-old software engineer with his parents and two young children in the car was fatally shot in the head by a stray bullet. In April, Nicole Westbrook, a 21-year-old culinary student who had just moved to Seattle, was killed by a shot from a moving car as she walked home with her boyfriend.

And over the Memorial Day weekend, Ryan Burr, a middle school teacher's aide standing next to the Space Needle, was shot in the calf by a stray bullet fired during a nearby argument. Police said more than 60 rounds were fired across the city over the holiday weekend.

Although many of the drive-bys and crossfires that have fed the statistics since January have been gang-related, the fact that so many unrelated bystanders have been cut down has lent a sense of frightening randomness to the violence and left many here with their sense of safety askew.

"Seattleites, we are losing it," Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote Thursday, a day after the cafe shootings. He told of an email from Bush School -- one of several schools that went into lockdown after Wednesday's attacks -- reassuring parents that the man seen in a black running suit with a gun wasn't an attacker, just a jogger who wanted to be able to defend himself.

"This is what it has come to: Jogging with your gun," Westneat wrote. "But can you blame him? ... We are a city on edge. A city now in full-fledged crisis. The mayor, the police and the feds need to quit bickering, sit down like adults -- now -- and hash out what, if anything, they can do. Because the people at this point are literally being caught in the crossfire."

Even the police, while taking credit for the rapid, massive dragnet that rapidly identified and cornered the suspect in Wednesday's shootings, appeared bewildered by the sudden and steely bloodletting that broke out at a friendly neighborhood cafe.

"In my almost 30 years in this department, I've never seen anything more horrifying and callous and cold," Deputy Police Chief Nick Metz told reporters Thursday. "We as a police department, we as a city, we as a community really need to make sure that we are doing everything possible to never allow anything like this to happen again."

Mayor Mike McGinn called the shootings "an absolutely horrifying tragedy." He pledged to redouble efforts to deploy police patrols, encourage residents to cooperate as witnesses and address "the culture of violence ... in which people think it's OK to go out with a gun and settle a dispute."

The Cafe Racer, a popular neighborhood espresso bar frequented by musicians, artists and locals near the university district, was hardly a gang hangout. Neighbors said they went in frequently for good coffee, decent food and free music.

Ian L. Stawicki, a 40-year-old Seattle resident whose family said he had been suffering from mental problems, had been asked to leave the cafe several times over the last few weeks because of his loud, confrontational behavior.

On Wednesday morning, he returned and sat down, according to Assistant Police Chief Jim Pugel, who reviewed a surveillance video that captured the entire scene.

"It's very peaceful, some people are reading, others are sipping coffee. ... They're jocular, exchanging conversation," he said.

The barista, Pugel said, appeared to have "politely" declined to serve the gunman -- whom police have not officially identified as Stawicki -- at which point he looked around. As one of the patrons stood up to leave, the gunman pulled out one of his two .45 caliber semiautomatic handguns and opened fire.

A bystander Pugel described as "a hero" picked up a bar stool and threw it at the assailant. As the gunman turned and pointed his gun at him, the bystander threw a second bar stool, providing enough of a diversion to allow two or three people to escape through the front door.

The gunfire killed four, including two members of a local folk punk band, Joe "Vito" Albanese, 52, and Drew Keriakedes, 45. A cook at the cafe, Leonard Meuse, was critically injured but was expected to survive.

The violence continued half an hour later, police said, when the gunman fatally shot Gloria Leonidas, a mother of two from Bellevue, Wash., at a downtown parking lot. Then he took her Mercedes sport utility vehicle and drove to West Seattle.

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