Friday, August 29, 2008

This Hurts

I've been out of town the last few days. I see the world hasn't changed any since I've been gone. This sickening story comes out of West Seattle...

West Seattle murder case: “My last fight for my brother”

August 26, 2008 at 10:06 pm

In Crime, West Seattle news, West Seattle people

Three people were murdered in West Seattle in 2007. Two of the three people arrested in those three cases are still awaiting trial — but if a hearing downtown tomorrow goes as expected, one will enter a plea rather than facing a jury. The suspect is 45-year-old Brian Sheridan Walsh; the victim was 44-year-old Harold Benjamin (”Benny”) Reside, a West Seattle native, developmentally disabled and using a wheelchair, viciously beaten to death in his Cal-Mor Circle apartment in April 2007. His sister and brother-in-law have been involved with the case against Benny’s alleged killer every step of the way since - and today, on the eve of the expected plea hearing, they sat down with WSB to tell their story:

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Pam Reside Leach fought for her little brother Benny Reside all his life, which means most of hers.

She fought the kids who tormented her little brother — known then as “slow,” but not too “slow” to keep him from graduating from West Seattle High School in special ed — kids mean enough to pick him up and dump him in trash cans.

She fought to help her brother find his way as an adult — “a really kind, gentle person who had the odds against him,” as a family friend describes Benny — including helping him find that Cal-Mor Circle apartment after their mother’s death in 2001 led to circumstances keeping him from staying in the family home.

Now, she is fighting to ensure justice, on his behalf, in the form of appropriate punishment for the man accused of killing him.

The call came on what until that moment was a lazy Sunday morning in the West Seattle home Pam shares with husband Jeff Leach: April 15, 2007.

“I had a cat on my lap, had my cup of coffee … and then my cell phone rings, maybe 8:30, 9 am, which was unusual. I answer, and it’s his neighbor” — someone Pam knew from her many visits to look in on her brother at Cal-Mor — “She says, ‘I think you should know, your brother’s been murdered’. I wanted you to hear it from us first.”

According to court documents that lay out the case, it happened hours earlier, around 3 am, in Cal-Mor Circle apartment 609, where Walsh had been staying with Benny for about half a year.

The court documents refer to a story told by the lone witness, Craig Steele, who had been in the apartment with the victim and suspect, and also had been beaten that night (which his roommate, at another location, had called police around 3:18 am to report):

At about 0405, Steele called 911 and said police needed to get over to Reside’s residence because there may have been a potential murder there. … Steele indicated that he, Reside, and Walsh had been drinking and were intoxicated. While there, Walsh became angry at Reside, accusing Reside of being a drain on the welfare system. Steele said the verbal argument between Walsh and Reside quickly escalated into violence. Walsh began punching Reside. Steele tried to (stop him). Walsh began assaulting Steele, punching him repeatedly in the face. Steele said he thought Walsh was going to kill him. He decided to flee. As he did so, Steele said he saw Walsh ‘getting really brutal with Ben’.

Police found Benny Reside dead, “with visible head trauma,” according to the court documents. They found Brian Walsh “hiding in some bushes … a couple blocks away,” with “blood on his hands and clothing.”

He also was in possession of Benny’s wallet and cell phone, which factored into the first-degree charges filed against him. He has been in the King County Jail since that day, 16 and a half months ago, bail set at one million dollars.

And for all that time, Pam and Jeff Leach have been “living with murder,” as Jeff put it today. “A summer of murder,” this has been, he says, hard for those around them to comprehend, as they continue to live with details of the case, proceedings in the case, decisions to make.

Going back almost to the first day, there have also been the small details — the two kittens that Benny had been keeping in his apartment; they of course came to the Leach home after Benny’s death. One of those kittens, Oscar, is still there; the other one died after a car hit her — and that launches Pam into one of the stories she shares about her brother.

“He first named it Felix, and then it turned out to be a boy, so he changed it to Laura. Like Laura from ‘General Hospital’.”

“I thought it was Laura Ingalls,” interjects Jeff.

“Well, her too.” And the mood turns. “Police couldn’t get the cats out of the apartment” after the murder, Jeff recalls. “They were so traumatized,” Pam adds. “They had to go in with nets to get them, they wouldn’t come out for days.”

“They saw something really bad,” Jeff says.

There is no question that, as murders go, this one was “really bad.” Again, from the court documents:

Initially beaten in the head by Walsh’s fist, the suspect also used the base of a brass lamp and the broken ceramic shards of the body of this lamp to repeatedly lacerate and stab the victim’s face, head, and neck. The electrical cord of the lamp was found wrapped around Reside’s neck and was used to strangle the victim. Shoe marks on Reside’s neck and torso indicate that the suspect stepped or stomped on the victim. The bones in Reside’s neck and ribs were fractured and his liver was lacerated.

That is where that particular court document, known in the news business as “the charging papers,” ends. That is where Pam and Jeff’s fight begins, and soon it may be over.

They will go downtown to King County Superior Court tomorrow afternoon, for a hearing at which they say a plea bargain will be presented. Walsh — who has no known serious criminal history — is expected to plead guilty to second-degree murder.

On that plea, the Leaches say, the prosecution and defense agree. The point of disagreement will have to be settled at sentencing — how much time he should face. They want the “high end” of the sentencing range, while his lawyer reportedly is insisting on the “middle range.” That might mean 15 years in prison, “not nearly enough for taking someone’s life,” as Jeff puts it, but more than they fear he would get if the case went to trial, given the unpredictable nature of juries.

Pam fears a jury would hear the circumstances of the case — three very drunk men, all with .3-something blood-alcohol levels, in a physical fight — and reduce the charge to manslaughter. “Maybe they would hear, ‘Three alcoholic guys, sitting around, they had it coming’ … (A manslaughter verdict) could mean he would get five to eight years, and I couldn’t live with that,” she says.

That, despite other evidence in the case, such as: “They charged (Walsh) with first-degree murder in the first place because they found (Benny’s) wallet and phone (on him), which means the death was caused in the commission of another felony,” Jeff explains.

“He made a call that night,” Pam elaborates. “He called somebody and said - something bad happened” - Jeff finishes the sentence, “And he said, ‘the f***er’s dead’.”

Pam: “He didn’t admit to killing him, just said ‘he’s dead’.”

They did not arrive easily at the decision to accept a plea bargain. They have some legal experts in the family — Jeff’s brother is a recently appointed appeals judge in Snohomish County, married to a lawyer who once worked as a prosecutor. “They said we had been really lucky to get (a plea bargain for) second-degree,” says Pam, before Jeff continues, “What he will plead to is what he did — a fight ensued, he could have stopped, but he kept going, and (Benny was) brutally murdered.”

And yet - there are aspects of what they have learned about the legal system, what they have seen, that continue to trouble them. We talk about public defenders, and how far they are obligated to go to defend their clients; part of what figured into the Leaches’ decision is the fact the defense hired specialists who they say were going to testify about how the suspect’s blood-alcohol level could have rendered him incapable of premeditated murder.

Alcohol, Pam rues, caused trouble for Benny even before that life-ending night. She could help him with so many things, but she could not stop him from drinking. Part of the problem, she recalls, is a system that had no good way to help a developmentally disabled person with a drinking problem; she recalls taking him to rehab once, and being turned away by someone who said the program wasn’t right for him, because he could not sit in lectures, take notes, take tests.

And yet, in his subsidized apartment (Seattle Housing Authority runs Cal-Mor), with Social Security disability, he got by OK - at least until the injury that put him in a wheelchair. “They had polished the floors in the building, and he slipped, and broke his pelvis.” He wasn’t a particularly beefy person in the first place — 5′9″ and maybe 112 pounds, says Pam — but the injury put him at further disadvantage. “We had just gotten him a motorized wheelchair that January,” she remembers, three months before he was killed.

So many questions, so many loose ends, remain for them - whether things might have ended differently if a social worker at Cal-Mor had still been there: “She knew what was going on, and they (the residents) knew she knew” — and of course, what might have been, had Benny not met Walsh at the (now closed) nearby Chuck and Sally’s Tavern at some point in the year before the murder. And clearly, it is still hard for Pam to accept he’s really gone.

“Benny gave Pam a purpose in life,” Jeff observes. “She shopped for him, even socks, and cat food.”

“I loved him,” she acknowledges. “He was important to me. Just because the rest of the world didn’t care …” Her voice trails off.

Though their parents are gone, and Pam says their sisters have kept their distance, there is another family member who has stayed close to the case, Jeff noted: “We have a 17-year-old son, Joey, who remembers Uncle Benny. He’ll be there (in court) tomorrow.”

“Knowing Benny made Joey a better, a more understanding person,” Pam adds, remembering what a soft touch her brother was for her son, and her sisters’ children, in earlier years, sometimes deluging them with treats.

The family friend who joined us midway through the conversation notes that Benny was one of the many people who are said to have “fallen through the cracks”: Too disabled to really live independently or hold a job, yet not quite enough to qualify for constant care; Pam tells the story of a group home he left, complaining the supervision was so lax, the housemates were awash in drugs, and he didn’t want any part of that.

Now, they have one last set of people to deal with on his behalf: Lawyers, a judge, a victims’ advocate, and of course the suspect, for whom no family members have come forward at any point during the case. “We think he’s from the Midwest,” Jeff offers. “Maybe a Gulf War veteran.” Pam says she tried a Web search to find information about him, but didn’t come up with much. They have seen him mostly through glimpses of a man in an orange jumpsuit, showing up for myriad brief hearings to sign papers delaying the case yet again — almost routine in such proceedings — various reasons, from DNA-evidence processing delays to a change in lawyers, that have stretched the case out over these many months, months during which they never thought of easing their attention to what would become of the man who took away Benny.

“You’ve always been his advocate,” Jeff smiles at his wife of 20 years.

“It’s my job,” she says simply, matter-of-factly. “I love him.”

And that is the truth behind every violently ended life: Even if it is not a headline-grabbing case, not one of those heart-tugging cases of an angelically innocent victim taken too soon — the victims all have people who loved them. Though maybe not all as tenaciously as this West Seattle couple facing the end of their final fight, for Benny.

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