Family Matters

Seattle Shootings: Six People Dead in One Day. What’s Behind the Violence?

Seattle's laid-back vibe has been challenged by a murder rate that already equals that of all of 2011. With schools on lockdown on Wednesday after shootings that left six people dead, including the suspected shooter, parents wondered how to explain the chaos to their kids

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Elaine Thompson / AP

Police investigate the scene where a man who was believed to have shot and killed several people later shot himself in West Seattle on May 30, 2012

Seattle is normally a pretty laid-back city, with its progressive vibe and coffee shops on every corner. But on Wednesday, one of those coffee shops became a murder scene.

At 11 a.m., gunshots rang out at Café Racer, a funky spot in North Seattle’s University District that hosts jazz bands, serves tofu dogs and cheekily proclaims itself home to the Official Bad Art Museum of Art — OBAMA for short.

Two men died at the scene, and a third man and one woman died at the hospital. Another man, the café’s chef, remains hospitalized. SWAT teams and homicide detectives rushed to the café on Roosevelt Way, and officers patrolled the area with their canine units, going door to door in search of the suspect. Detectives closed streets and urged businesses to lock their doors as they hunted for the shooter, identified hours later as Ian Lee Stawicki, 40, a tall, thin bearded man who his brother said was mentally ill. Late Wednesday afternoon, as the police closed in, Stawicki shot and killed himself on a street in West Seattle.

(PHOTOS: 6 Dead in Seattle Cafe Shooting)

Perhaps on another morning, the shooting — while tragic — wouldn’t have shaken the city’s chilled-out demeanor the way it has. But four miles away and a bit later on Wednesday morning, a married mother of two was shot and killed downtown in a parking lot next to Town Hall, a small performance venue where my son recently had a violin recital. Police believe the two shootings were related, but with Stawicki dead, it’s unlikely they’ll ever uncover a motive.

Town Hall, which sees itself as a community hub, canceled a scheduled talk on Wednesday night about another sort of violence. Terry McDermott, author of The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, had been scheduled to speak. In a statement, Town Hall promised to soon host “a program to provide an outlet for community discourse around violence, guns, and the string of incidents of which this is only the most recent.”

Indeed, Wednesday’s shootings were just the latest in a spate of local gun violence. Early Saturday morning, dozens of bullets rocketed into four South Seattle homes in what police suspect may have been gang-related violence. Later that day, a man walking near the Space Needle was struck in the leg by a stray bullet.

And in another incomprehensible incident, a father was struck and killed on Thursday by a random bullet as he drove his minivan with his two children, ages 5 and 7, and his parents, whom he’d just picked up from the airport. Justin Ferrari was a software engineer and youth water-polo coach who worked at the real estate website Zillow; his wife is a doctor. Ferrari’s parents had come to visit from California to take care of their grandchildren so the parents could take their first vacation since their kids were born. A friend, Brett Marl, who started a website to collect memories of Ferrari for his children, said the family had asked for privacy during this “very sad and raw time.”

(MORE: Ohio School Shooting: Why NIMBY No Longer Applies)

Officials have responded by issuing plans to increase patrols in high-crime areas. At a press conference on Wednesday, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn called for an “end to the wave of gun violence.” He pledged to tighten gun access, particularly for violent offenders, and to strengthen gun laws. But many of the incidents are happening in places where people have long lived, worked and played safely. The Space Needle, for example, is smack in the middle of the downtown tourist district. And Café Racer is located on a popular commercial strip between Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Even some city officials were dubious that stepping up the police presence would make a difference. “We’ve heard about these strategies before,” said Councilman Tom Rasmussen at a briefing by police that took place on Tuesday before the latest rash of violence. “What’s going to change?”

In the hours before Stawicki shot himself, Seattle police advised residents who live near Café Racer to stay inside and keep their doors and windows locked. Ditto for those in West Seattle, where officers found the abandoned vehicle that had been spotted driving away from the downtown shooting. Eight schools in the city were put on official lockdown, but countless others — including my daughters’ schools, less than two miles away from the café — implemented a similar policy known as “shelter in place.” Outdoor recess was canceled and exterior doors were secured, which served to generate some very interesting after-school conversations. “We had a recess and a half,” said my 7-year-old. “We had to come in, but our teacher said she wasn’t going to tell us why.”

That job was left to parents, who teetered between telling the truth and obscuring it. Coffee shops are Seattle’s lifeblood; how had reading a book or working on a laptop while nursing a latte become so dangerous? Unlike tragedy unfolding in faraway places, this was happening right down the block, making it harder to ignore. Some parents glossed over the day’s events. Others, like Mindy Sexsmith, provided some context to correct the rumors her first-grader had heard. “I am not sure that I should have told them as much as I did, but I would rather have them know a condensed version that I tell them than rumors on the playground,” wrote Sexsmith, mother of a second-grader as well, in an e-mail. “I did ask them not to tell their friends, as it was up to the parents to decide if they wanted to tell their own kids.”

I opted for a vague summary: There was a shooting, I told my kids, and their schools had wanted to make sure all the children stayed safe. Surprisingly, my daughters accepted my explanation without further questioning.

(MORE: Mount Rainier Shooting: Why Guns and National Parks Don’t Mix)

Other parents, like Jennifer Archer, willingly shared what happened, figuring it presented a good opportunity to talk about guns, which have played a major role in upending Seattle’s historically low murder rate.

Wednesday’s killings nudged this year’s murders to 21, the same number for all of 2011. “We need to put a stop to this — it’s too much,” Assistant Police Chief Paul McDonagh told the Seattle Times. He referenced two recent random shootings, including the death last month of Nicole Westbrook, a 21-year-old newcomer to Seattle who was gunned down while walking with her boyfriend. “It’s not just Nicole or Mr. Ferrari or other innocent bystanders. Our whole community is a victim in this. They’re tired of it, they’re upset, they want it to stop.” Why the uptick in violence now? No one knows. “If we knew, we’d be able to put a stop to it, and that’s the frustrating part,” Jim Pugel, assistant police chief of investigations, told the city council.

That’s also what makes it so unnerving. In the middle-class neighborhoods not far from Café Racer, word of the shooting spread via e-mail chains among parents. “Very freaky. My doors are locked!” wrote a friend of mine. Another commented, “I hear the heli!! Crazy!!”

“This current rash of shootings is unreal,” wrote a Seattle Times reader. “You’d think we live in the Afghanistan mountains with the Taliban next door.”

Tweeting what so many Seattleites were feeling, Web designer Matthew Inman wrote, “Today is one of those days where I feel like Seattle needs to rent a Batman.”