When Eric Sampson was about 13, he and a friend were caught stealing paintball guns from Lake Retreat, a camp and retreat facility in Ravensdale.
"We marched him back over there," recalled his mother, Darla Sampson. "He had to apologize and then work there at least a year free in order to pay his debt. He learned a valuable lesson from that."
In fact, Eric continued to work at Lake Retreat for several more years. "He was a very hard worker and they could depend on him," she said.
When he got his driver's license a few years later, he was thrilled. "He drove too fast, like many teenaged boys do," Sampson said. "He got a few tickets, and he paid them and moved on. He wasn't happy about them but he paid them."
Discontent with System
At some point, however, Eric's perspective on his traffic citations evolved into one characterized by frustration and even hostility. "He started to get what he thought were stupid tickets," his mother said.
Sampson recalls one instance when Eric decided to do a half-doughnut in the parking lot of Safeway in Enumclaw. It was later in the evening and there were no other cars around, but he was cited for reckless driving, she said. He received another reckless driving citation after burning out at a stop light and smoking rubber. "He was frustrated with the system and he just felt overwhelmed; it started to compound."
Eric wasn't able to pay all his fines, though he'd been working since he was 14. Prior to his death, he was working with friends on setting up a vehicle restoration business, Sampson said. Nonetheless, with regard to his fines, "he put his head in the sand like an ostrich and figured they'd go away. I tried to tell him it wasn't going away, but he was 19 and didn't want to follow his parent's advice."
It all caught up with him when Eric, 19, was driving through Buckley. A Buckley police officer ran Eric's vehicle plates, which turned up his outstanding warrants for the unpaid traffic citations.
Buckley Police Chief Jim Arsanto said Eric was compliant with the officer until the officer went to inform him that he would be arrested for those warrants. He drove off, Arsanto said, leading officers on a low-speed pursuit, with speeds reaching 5 to 7 mph over posted speed limits ranging from 25 to 45 mph depending on the location.
The pursuit wound through Enumclaw and eventually into the jurisdiction of the King County Sheriff's Office. Deputies who ran his plate located his vehicle near his Ravensdale home but he wasn't there; he was seen walking down the road carrying a machete and headed to a deputy's car, whose hood he reportedly slashed with the weapon, according to police reports.
Two deputies fired Tasers at him but did not appear to subdue him. Three deputies then fired multiple shots at Eric. They, along with a response team from the Maple Valley Fire Department, tried to revive him but couldn't.
Eric's official cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds, and the manner of death is homicide, according to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.
A Mother Reacts
"He was a good boy," Sampson said. "He had some problems but he was maturing. He was just out there, not hurting anybody. He was trying to work and earn money. He wasn't doing drugs. He didn't even smoke. He just didn't deserve to die like that."
Still, he should have taken care of those traffic citations, she said. And he shouldn't have run from the officer in Buckley.
Given the circumstances, Sampson said she wouldn't have blamed the deputies if they did fire one or two shots at Eric, but the number of bullets he took appears to be much higher. She said in her conversations with local police, they told her Eric was shot anywhere from 13 to 15 times.
Sheriff's Sgt. John Urquhart said this week he wasn't aware of the exact number but "a good number of shots were fired by the three deputies."
The King County Medical Examiner's Office has not released this information while the investigation continues.
"They didn't have to chase or hunt him down like that," Sampson said. "They knew where he lived. ... There are people raping and murdering and robbing banks--he just didn't pay his traffic tickets. There was no reason to shoot him as many times as they did. And that's my opinion even if this wasn't my son. He didn't have a gun. He wasn't able to shoot them or hurt them from the distance he was at. One officer should have been told to take the shot. Shoot him once or maybe twice if he didn't stop. But for three officers to load him full of bullets and say they tried to save him after--that is so absurd to me."
Compounding Sampson's grief and frustration was a note attached to Eric's record, indicating that he had previously made comments threatening to law enforcement.
Sampson paraphrased the comment as something along the lines of, now I know why people kill cops.
She believes that note influenced how the deputies responded to the standoff with her son and that had it not been there, the outcome may have been different. "It was a remark he made, and it's a question of freedom of speech," she said. "You should be able to express yourself and your anger without them reporting you as a danger. He wasn't out here making bombs. There is no stash of guns. He wasn't out there stalking cops. It was just one comment he made to a cop who stopped him and he told that cop how mad he was. ... I think the cop who put that in there should be accountable as well."
What's Next for Police
The three deputies involved remain on administrative leave. According to Urquhart, a general administrative investigation into the shooting is ongoing to see if the deputies followed the use of force guidelines in the department's general orders manual.
This is part of a larger investigation that is done anytime there is a fatal incident or a very serious use of force by deputies. "It is as big and broad and as in-depth as any homicide investigation we would conduct, even if police officers were not involved," he said.
One piece of evidence that won't exist in this case is any video recording of the encounter. According to Sampson, police told her that there was a police vehicle at the scene that had video equipment mounted, but it wasn't turned on as the equipment would only activate if the vehicle's siren lights were on -- and they weren't.
When the entire investigation is complete, said Urquhart, the case will go to the King County Prosecutor's Office; if the office needs more information, the Sheriff's Office will provide it.
Then a formal inquest will take place to provide all the facts to the public and the Prosecutor’s Office. "Everyone will testify under oath, and the family of the man who was shot will be represented by an attorney and have an opportunity to ask questions of anyone and everyone," he said.
"Then, and only then, we will have our shooting review board to see if the whole thing fell within policy," he said.
The Sheriff's Office hopes to wrap up the initial investigation in the next couple of weeks to send to the Prosecutor's Office, he said.
In the Aftermath
More than 200 family members and friends gathered for Eric's memorial service last weekend, including his high school teachers and youth pastors. "We've had awesome support from friends, family and our church community," Sampson said.
Having just lost her son, however, she continues to fight her own frustration with what she perceives as a poor response from law enforcement as well as questions over what more she could have done.
"Obviously he wasn't thinking straight," she said, fighting tears. "When you have a person not thinking straight, you have a counselor or a mediator. If you have someone standing on a ledge, you try to talk them down--you don't say 'jump.' This happened right across the street from where I live. They could have called me."
As a parent, the hardest part is never knowing what might have happened say, if she'd gone to pick him up that night. Or if she could have gotten there in time and stood between her son and the deputies. "He made bad choices and he's tried to make them right," Sampson said. "We did teach him better--we did hold him accountable to his bad behavior. But when they turn 19, they make their own decisions."