‘All hell broke loose’ during state park shootings
July 20, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
Lake Sammamish State Park shootings leave two men dead
In the fading summer light, some picnickers and parkgoers thought the pops echoing through Lake Sammamish State Park on July 17 sounded like fireworks.
But seconds later, the crowd unwinding at the packed Issaquah park recognized the noise as something else: gunfire.
The shootings at a picnic area near the lakefront left two men dead and four others injured after gunshots shattered the summer Saturday evening. The shootings occurred at about 9 p.m. — just after sunset settled over the lakefront park and visitors started to load coolers and lawn chairs into car trunks, as the dusk closing time neared.
Chaos ensued in the moments after the shootings, as parkgoers scrambled for cover in vehicles and park buildings. Someone barricaded himself or herself in a restroom.
By the time the shooting stopped, a 30-year-old Seattle man, Justin Cunningham, and a 33-year-old Kent man, Yang Keovongphet, had been killed. The gunfire injured another four people, three men and a juvenile male.
The shootout stemmed from a dispute between rival groups picnicking in the park — a coincidence, police said. The groups set up about 200 feet apart near Tibbetts Beach, a popular lakeside destination. Members sipped beer and fired up grills for a picnic. Police said one of the groups celebrated a birthday.
Investigators later said several people in both groups had gang connections. Many had brought guns to the crowded park.
Members from one group approached the other gathering at about 9 p.m. and taunted members of the other group. The insults escalated into a fistfight. Someone pulled out a gun and fired a warning shot into the air.
“Then all hell broke loose,” King County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. John Urquhart said.
Local law enforcement agencies received several 911 calls from terrified people inside the park, and a gunshot could be heard in the background as a park ranger called the Washington State Patrol to report the incident, Trooper Cliff Pratt said.
Police cruisers from four agencies — the state patrol, sheriff’s office and police departments from Issaquah and Bellevue — raced through the park gates moments later. Issaquah Officer Tom Griffith, on patrol in another part of the park, headed to the scene after hearing gunshots.
Issaquah officers helped secure the scene in the frantic moments after the gun battle. Police Chief Paul Ayers said they detained some people for questioning and performed first aid on one of the wounded men. Medics transported the injured men to hospitals in Seattle and Bellevue.
Investigators later recovered four guns, including some from a vehicle and another from brush near the shooting scene, and 25 spent cartridges.
Though police detained a half-dozen people at the park, no arrests had been made by July 19. The cause also remained elusive in the days after the shootings.
“It could be as simple as a gang rivalry, but we don’t know that for a fact,” Urquhart said.
Police cordoned off Northwest Sammamish Road as flashing lights from emergency vehicles blazed in the darkness. The lockdown stranded more than 100 people scattered at beaches and picnic areas inside the park. The parkgoers had nothing to do but wait.
Dawn Hilliker and her teenage sons attended a high school graduation party for a family friend before gunfire erupted elsewhere in the park. Through the greenbelt separating the picnic areas, the shots sounded like fireworks.
Hilliker had been packing her car as police descended on the park. The incident marred a day spent gathering around a roasted pig and watching friends perform skits.
Hilliker said she did not feel unsafe in the hours after the shootings, as police searched the park for suspects and evidence.
“It was under control the entire time, so there really wasn’t a cause for concern,” she said.
Traffic started to trickle down Northwest Sammamish Road just before 11 p.m., after police searched some vehicles and gathered information from every driver. The lockdown kept the Hillikers inside the park until almost midnight.
Hilliker said the incident made her hesitant to return.
“Will I go again? Probably not,” she said the day after the shootings. “Would I take my family there again? Definitely not.”
Investigators combed for evidence at the closed park the day after the shootings. The sheriff’s office had about 40 people scouring the park — at times on their hands and knees — in the picnic area and nearby brush. The team also included sheriff’s office and Seattle Police Department bomb-sniffing dogs brought in to detect spent cartridges. The sheriff’s office helicopter — Guardian One — thudded in the air above the park.
Though the cause remained unknown, early indicators point to bad blood between rival gangs as a possible cause. The trigger for the argument before the gun battle also eluded investigators, though detectives continued to interview group members and witnesses.
Urquhart said alcohol could have been a factor in the incident. Both groups brought “lots of beer” to the park, he said.
Rules allow alcohol in designated areas of some state parks, including the now-bullet-scarred picnic area at Lake Sammamish State Park.
The rival groups — including the shooting victims, friends, family members and children — had many members of Asian descent, Urquhart said. Police described Cunningham, the Seattle man killed in the gun battle, as white. Investigators believe he shot Keovongphet before another participant killed him.
The shootings raised concerns about gang violence — a creeping problem in Seattle — reaching beyond the city to the Eastside.
“We have not had any gang-type activity” since he joined the Issaquah Police Department as chief in July 2007, Ayers said.
He also urged caution about drawing conclusions about gang activity as a cause before the sheriff’s office has completed its investigation.
“It certainly could be the case, but they haven’t reached that conclusion yet,” Ayers said.
Sandy Mealing, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, said the shootings marked the first such incident to occur in a state park in recent memory.
Regulations allow firearms in Lake Sammamish and other state parks, as long as the owner has a concealed-weapons permit and obeys park rules. Discharging a firearm is prohibited in state parks.
Lake Sammamish State Park employees met with a ranger trained in counseling and a psychologist contracted by the agency to aid park employees after tragedies.
“We’re all doing OK,” Park Manager Rich Benson said July 19. “I wasn’t directly involved until a few minutes later, so I feel a little less impacted by it than those that were directly involved. It’s quite different when you’re there and your adrenaline is pumping and emotions are going.”
Employees — including the rangers on duty July 17 — reported for work the next day to assist investigators and to conduct routine maintenance.
The state parks agency defers to local law enforcement in criminal cases. The park reopened to the public at 6:30 a.m. July 19.
“Some of our other park staff, they were there as it occurred, and they are all dealing with it as expected,” Benson said.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reporter Chantelle Lusebrink and intern Elizabeth DeVos contributed to this report. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.
Shootings echo ’92 incident
The shootings at Lake Sammamish State Park on July 17 echo a similar incident that happened 18 years ago.
A man firing from a car wounded a 22-year-old Seattle man in a gang-related shooting at the park April 6, 1992. Police then described the incident as the first drive-by shooting on the Eastside.
The incident came in retaliation for another drive-by shooting in Seattle.
The assailant fired a semiautomatic weapon at a crowd of picnickers, hitting the Seattle man in the shoulder.
The shooting stemmed from a feud between Asian gangs. Police later arrested two Seattle men, the shooter and the driver, at a Beacon Hill apartment. The wounded man recovered from nonlife-threatening injuries.
Then-Lt. Sue Rahr — the current King County sheriff — served in the anti-gang unit at the time, and participated in the investigation.