SEATTLE -- Seattle software engineer Justin Ferrari had just picked up his parents from the airport for a visit, his two young children in tow, when a bullet slammed through a window of the family van and into his head. Ferrari died in his father’s arms.
“He just happened to be in the wrong place, wrong day. But now in Seattle, they’re shooting everywhere,” said Massaret Habeti, who ushered Ferrari’s distraught mother and young children into her restaurant immediately after Thursday’s shooting.
Ferrari’s death was one of several cases of bystanders cut down by gunfire across Seattle in recent days, shootings that have brought the city’s long-simmering gun violence problem alarmingly home to neighborhoods across the city.
On Saturday, 33-year-old teacher’s aide Ryan Burr was waiting to cross the street near the Space Needle when a bullet — apparently aimed at someone else during an argument — struck him in the leg. The gunman fled into the crowds at the nearby Folklife Festival, underway at Seattle Center, where police later arrested a suspect.
“I never saw any fight that preceded this. I never even saw the person,” Burr, who was treated at the hospital and released, said in an interview. “What I heard was that somebody bashed the guy’s face with a skateboard, and it escalated from there.”
Police also were investigating four drive-by shootings early Sunday morning, including the case of a teenage girl who had to duck behind a dresser as a hail of bullets hit her bedroom.
That same night, a home invasion left a man with a life-threatening gunshot wound to the chest. And three people were arrested early Tuesday after multiple reports of gunshots fired at a park along Lake Washington.
These incidents happened in a city already reeling from a shooting April 22 in Pioneer Square, adjacent to the city’s downtown financial and shopping districts. In that incident, Nicole Westbrook, 21, a culinary student who had just moved to Seattle, was killed by a shot from a moving car while walking home with her boyfriend.
In all, more than 60 rounds were recorded in the city over the Memorial Day weekend, Deputy Police Chief Nick Metz said at a briefing for the Seattle City Council on Tuesday. “We’re absolutely much better than this. So this is really a sad thing to see,” he said.
The violence, especially in the case of Ferrari’s death, Metz said, has “created a great deal of concern throughout the city because of its randomness -- and the fact that it could have been just about anybody at that point in time.”
Violence appears random
Police suspect gang involvement in at least some of the shootings. Seattle, like most urban areas, has been troubled with gang violence over the years, but its overall homicide rate has been among the lowest in the country. The recent shootings, though — 15 murders so far, compared to 21 in all of 2011 — threaten to put a dent in Seattle’s record, City Councilman Nick Licata warned.
“If we continue at the rate we’re going this year, it’ll be about a 20% increase. Which is not good,” he said.
One of the most troubling features of the recent incidents is that on at least two occasions, police responding to incidents were greeted by hostile crowds who did not immediately allow officers to do their work. In one case, on May 16, medics were delayed reaching the victim of a shooting at a south Seattle fast food restaurant after several young men at the scene stripped off their shirts and challenged police officers to a fight.
There have been long-standing complaints, especially among minorities, about heavy-handed police tactics. The U.S. Justice Department announced in December that it had found a “pattern or practice of excessive force” in the department, though it did not find a clear pattern of bias. Federal authorities have been in discussions with the city for how to resolve the issue.
Tuesday’s City Council discussion dwelled heavily on the problem of getting citizens to cooperate with police to identify suspects and make arrests, and Licata suggested that reforms initiated as part of the Justice Department review could help improve the community’s perceptions.
“I think the sooner we move in with a strong and fair agreement with the [Department of Justice] and the community sees that, I think that’ll help give them confidence,” he said.
Police said they are already stepping up patrols, with a number of officers working overtime through the weekend, and are working with community groups and schools on anti-violence initiatives.
“We want to make it clear that we’re there, and if you’re going to be stupid enough to commit violence, you’re going to be arrested, and you are going to go to jail,” Metz said.
A father cut down
Ferrari’s death has pulled at the heartstrings of the city because of its chilling randomness.
A former Microsoft engineer who worked on Outlook Express, Ferrari, 43, had just picked up his parents from California at the airport; he was driving a Volkswagen van with them and his two children, ages 4 and 7. The family was stopped at an intersection in central Seattle at about 4:30 p.m. when shots rang out, one of which struck Ferrari in the head.
Police said the shot was apparently fired by someone who’d been in an argument with someone else nearby; the gun had been fired at the other person, but Ferrari was hit instead. No one has been arrested.
After Microsoft, Ferrari worked at the networking company Cisco, and most recently at the real estate website Zillow.
At a websiteset up to commemorate him, friends and family recalled his younger days in Turlock, Calif., and also his years as a youth water polo coach, a triathlon participant and an enthusiastic supporter of the arts in Seattle.
There was no way he could have avoided the shooting, said Habeti, who owns a nearby Ethiopian restaurant where Ferrari and his family occasionally came in to eat.
“He just passed by the shooting, and then he gets hit when there was crossfire,” she said in an interview. “He just got shot in the head, and he died instantly.”
She said she rushed to bring the rest of the family into her restaurant until police could do their work and things calmed down. “Grandmother and the kids, I just run and got them and comforted them and ... let them sit in my restaurant,” she said. “I was crying with them. It was really hard. Everybody was upset. ... He doesn’t deserve it.”
For his part, Burr said he had no inkling anything was amiss until he got hit — right at one of Seattle’s prime tourist attractions, the Space Needle, on the edge of a music festival that had attracted thousands of people downtown.
“I was really just enjoying a leisurely afternoon, I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be for quite awhile. I’d been reading a novel and I didn’t intentionally walk by the Folklife Festival. In fact, I kind of forgot it was even going on,” Burr said.
Police said the suspect in Burr’s shooting was tracked to the main building at Seattle Center, known as Center House, where he was arrested in possession of a gun. He admitted to being a gang member, they said.
The bullet hit Burr in the right calf, but he said doctors are hopeful there will be no permanent damage. All in all, Burr said, he is glad he didn’t see the man who shot him.
“Perhaps it’ll leave me less traumatized,” he said.