Questions linger in months after lethal shootings
January 18, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Gunshots interrupted the summer hubbub at Lake Sammamish State Park just after sunset last July 17. The picnics and twilight dips in the lake clamored to a halt as a fistfight escalated into a firefight.
In the six months since gunfire pierced the summer night, the lethal shootout at the packed Issaquah park has defied easy answers. The investigation remains open, but tips to the King County Sheriff’s Office dried up not long after the incident.
Now, King County Medical Examiner’s Office reports, court documents, and accounts from law enforcement officers and park rangers offer a glimpse at the chaos inside the park amid the firefight and the ensuing investigation.
Yang Keovongphet, 33, a Laotian immigrant and a Kent resident employed in manufacturing, and Justin Cunningham, 30, a native Seattleite and a mechanic, died in the shootout.
Investigators hope ballistics tests help determine the shooter or shooters. Sgt. John Urquhart, sheriff’s office spokesman, urged observers to hold off on speculation until the investigation concludes — despite reports identifying either dead man as a shooter.
The investigation timeline remains uncertain, because the process has slowed as the state crime laboratory toils to process evidence in the case. The results could remain unavailable until almost a year after the incident.
The long backlog at the understaffed and underfunded Washington State Patrol crime laboratories means evidence needed for upcoming trials or to charge jailed suspects receives more immediate attention.
“It’s not like ‘CSI’ by any stretch of the imagination,” Urquhart said. “It just doesn’t work that way.”
Shootout leads to single arrest
The sheriff’s office closed the park for 24 hours after the July shootout to scour for clues.
Investigators recovered four guns from a vehicle and in the brush near the shooting scene — including a handgun discovered near Cunningham’s head — and at least 20 spent cartridges from .40-caliber, .45-caliber and 9 mm handguns.
The team also discovered a magazine containing ammunition inside Cunningham’s left front jeans pocket.
The shootout injured a 20 year-old North Bend man, a 22-year-old Seattle man and a 16-year-old Renton boy. Police said another man had been stomped in the fracas and suffered facial injuries.
Officers later made a single arrest tied to the case — a firearm possession charge for David Keowongphet, a cousin of the slain Keovongphet.
The widow Keovongphet left behind, Sann, said she had seen the cousin fire into the air amid the clash. Prosecutors said the cousin could not possess firearms due to prior felony convictions.
Keowongphet is due to be released in December from the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton after serving a sentence for unlawful possession.
Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff for county Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, said prosecutors had yet to decide to file additional charges related to the incident.
“None of those conclusions have been made in our office, because the sheriff’s office hasn’t closed out its investigation,” Goodhew said.
In September, the Seattle Police Department probed a possible link between the Issaquah incident and a lethal Seattle shooting, but the investigation has not led to any arrests in the park shootout.
Officers face ‘scene out of a bad movie’
Issaquah Police Officer Tom Griffith happened to be on a routine patrol inside the park at dusk July 17.
The officer and some park rangers had stopped near Sunset Beach just as popping noises echoed across the 514-acre park.
In the split second before a phone call alerted a ranger to the shootout, Griffith thought the sound might be leftover firecrackers from Independence Day, either elsewhere in the park or across the lake in South Cove.
Griffith and the rangers hopped into patrol cruisers and roared to the Tibbetts Beach picnic area.
The longtime officer parked in the lot near the beach, grabbed a rifle from the car trunk and headed in the direction of the lakefront.
The crowd surged from the beach as Griffith and park rangers charged into the melee.
“We pulled into the south beach parking lot there, and it was just like a scene out of a bad movie with literally hundreds of people yelling and screaming, running away from the water toward the parking lot,” he recalled.
The initial officers on the scene encountered 15 to 20 people “still going toe to toe, yelling and screaming at each other, ‘Your bro shot my bro!’ ‘No, you shot first!’ and that kind of stuff,” Griffith said.
Officers pulled the groups apart and held people on the ground at gunpoint.
Then, a parkgoer approached Griffith, pointed out another man on the periphery and said the man had a gun.
Griffith held the man until another officer could tear free, handcuff the man and place him inside a patrol cruiser.
Parkgoers face confusion — and fear
Police also chased a Ford sport-utility vehicle speeding from the park, because observers said shooters could be inside the vehicle. So, a police cruiser pursued the SUV, lights blaring and sirens screaming, to the Swedish Medical Center emergency room just outside the park gate.
The officer held the driver and passengers at gunpoint as ER staffers hauled a bleeding and injured man from the SUV inside for treatment.
“We knew there were guns there, but they were unaccounted for, so we’re assuming that everybody is a potential threat at this stage,” Griffith said.
Help started to reach the scene less than 10 minutes after shots rang out. The sheriff’s office and state patrol sealed park entrances.
“It was a very, very volatile situation,” Griffith said. “We were afraid that we were going to have more shooting, because by the time we got there, there were a lot of shots that had been fired.”
In the meantime, Eastside Fire & Rescue and Bellevue Fire Department medical personnel set up a staging area in the IHOP parking lot along Northwest Sammamish Road to await the signal to enter the park.
Griffith found people hunkered behind trees and beneath picnic tables as officers and rangers fanned across the scene.
“Of course, you can’t separate, necessarily, the good guys from the bad guys,” he continued. “They don’t wear a sign that says, ‘I’m a bad guy.’ Everybody is a potential threat at that point, until you can get the situation under control.”
Groups lob insults, then bullets
Yang and Sann Keovongphet came to the park for a picnic at about 6 p.m. The crowd, about 30 or 40 people strong, included Keowongphet’s ex-wife and children.
The cousin, Keowongphet, happened to be part of another cookout about 200 feet from the picnic. Members in both groups had gang ties — and numerous guns.
“I don’t think that they planned on meeting up out there,” Urquhart said. “It was more of a spontaneous dispute that arose.”
Just before dusk, Cunningham and Keowongphet ambled to the other picnic area. Keowongphet had come to say goodbye to his children.
The lakefront picnic area changed from a site for countless summer rituals to a crime scene in the moments afterward.
Sann Keovongphet said the fight started after about 10 or 15 “homeboys” approached the other gathering. The men started “talking smack” and strutted across the grass separating the groups.
Then, as Yang Keovongphet and Keowongphet attempted to intervene, the insults escalated and punches started to fly. Sann Keovongphet said the cousin fired into the air.
Yang Keovongphet collapsed facedown onto the ground, dead from a gunshot blast to the left shoulder and chest.
Officers and medics attempted to resuscitate Keovongphet and Cunningham in the frenzied moments after the shootings. The medical examiner’s office later said the men died at the scene from multiple gunshot wounds.
Investigators focused on possible gang ties as a cause early on, but a domestic dispute could be another reason for the shootout.
“The gang connection was not the catalyst for the shooting, from everything that we’ve heard,” Urquhart said.
Shootout dampens park attendance
Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission leaders sent counselors to meet the park staff after the incident, but Park Manager Rich Benson reported no long-term effects from the incident.
In the meantime, attention has turned to looming cuts to the state park system.
The gun battle prompted questions about alcohol and firearms at state parks — members from both groups consumed alcohol in designated picnic areas — in the aftermath, but the state has not changed park policies.
The state also allows firearms inside state parks, as long the owner obeys rules and does not discharge the weapon.
The lakefront park attracts more than 1 million people for outdoor recreation during a typical year.
Though attendance declined at the park after the incident, especially in the days after the shootout, Benson said the drop-off in attendance is easier to attribute to a cloud-cloaked summer than to the gun battle.
“Nobody came in and said, ‘Where did this take place?’ or anything else,” he said. “They just didn’t. I was a little surprised by that.”
Griffith said the shootings’ scale and scope do not compare to other the incidents in a 25-year career as a reserve and full-time officer for the Issaquah Police Department.
“We have a very transitory society. People come and go,” he said. “Yes, this is Issaquah, but people from all over come through here. Our own residents have problems and residents from other communities have problems. Wherever people meet and mix together, they bring their problems with them.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.