Seattle police are looking for possible ties between Saturday’s fatal shooting of veteran Officer Timothy Brenton in the Leschi area and the torching nine days earlier of four police vehicles at a city maintenance yard.
Both were “very well-planned and targeted attacks,” police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said Monday as officials continued to investigate the shootings of Brenton and officer-trainee Britt Sweeney, who suffered minor injuries.
Police officials said Brenton and Sweeney, who came under fire while sitting in a parked patrol car, didn’t appear to be specifically targeted, but were stalked because they were police officers.
Assistant Chief Jim Pugel said the department has been flooded by tips, including some from people saying the shootings and Oct. 22 arson at the maintenance yard on South Charles Street were related.
“We don’t have any connection between this and the Charles Street arsons,” Pugel said. “It would be reckless if we didn’t look at any connection, that was again an attack against police property. It was bold. Because it happened contemporaneously with this, it would be foolish if we didn’t look at it.”
Pugel confirmed that officers are focusing on people who have a history of threatening police.
“We don’t have anything we can arrest on,” he said. “Quite frankly, officers are nervous” about their safety because “there’s nothing to explain why this occurred.”
Pugel said investigators still are reviewing video from the officers’ in-car camera to see if it can help lead them toward a suspect.
The maintenance-yard incident, which remains unsolved, occurred at 714 S. Charles St., near Qwest Field, only a few miles from the site of Saturday’s shootings at 29th Avenue and East Yesler Way.
The arson involved a “considerable amount of time planning and executing,” Whitcomb said. He said he was basing that conclusion on the extent of the destruction and evidence that hasn’t been disclosed publicly.
That incident took place about 5 a.m., some 12 hours before a rally to protest police brutality in the Pioneer Square area.
News reports at the time said fliers were left at the maintenance yard referring to the rally and citing the case of a King County sheriff’s deputy accused of assaulting a teenage girl in a SeaTac holding cell Nov. 29, 2008. The deputy was fired Sept. 9 over the beating, which was captured on surveillance tape.
Police haven’t confirmed the reports of the fliers.
Three Seattle police cars and an RV used as a mobile precinct were torched in the maintenance yard, where police, fire and other city vehicles awaiting maintenance work are stored.
Workers at the yard saw a suspicious-looking man walking through a parking lot. As they tried to talk to him, flames began erupting from the police cars, and the man ran.
He was described as 6 feet tall with a slim build, and was wearing dark clothing and possibly carrying a backpack.
Rave Parks, organizer for the Pioneer Square rally, said Monday that Seattle police have not spoken with him or others involved in the event about the Leschi shootings or the arson. He said his group does not condone violence toward police.
Police are asking for the public’s help in the arson and shootings, Whitcomb said.
Whitcomb said the close timing and sophisticated nature of both attacks warrant scrutiny.
“So we can’t rule anything out and we can’t rule out the fact that someone intended to find and kill [police] on Saturday, and they had a plan that was very orchestrated, and they performed this murderous plan,” he said.
But Whitcomb cautioned there is a sharp difference between damaging police cars and killing an officer.
The Saturday attack occurred as Brenton, 39, a field-training officer, and officer-trainee Sweeney were parked in the 100 block of 29th Avenue, discussing a recent traffic stop. Sweeney, 33, was in the driver’s seat; Brenton was in the passenger seat.
Police said a car, described as a small, light-colored sedan, possibly a Toyota, pulled up alongside soon after 10 p.m.; someone inside opened fire.
Police say the driver then backed up and turned around before driving away. The maneuver suggests the driver didn’t want to go past the patrol car’s dash-mounted camera.
The move was risky because it gave Sweeney time to get out of the patrol car and return fire, Whitcomb said.
In a briefing Monday morning before the Seattle City Council, Interim Police Chief John Diaz said the shooter apparently watched the earlier traffic stop conducted by the two officers, then ambushed them.
Witnesses told police they saw a car matching the description of the sedan near where the stop occurred, Pugel said.
In his briefing, Diaz said the sedan pulled so close to the patrol car that it blocked the driver’s door of the officers’ car.
“This was a hit on law enforcement, a hit on government, not this particular officer,” Diaz said.
Footage from all cameras from patrol cars in the vicinity Saturday night is being examined for clues. Cameras from local businesses and red-light cameras also are being examined.
“This was a profound tragedy, a shock to our senses,” Diaz said. “It’s a family.”
Pugel said police are searching for a vehicle struck by Sweeney’s gunfire, but he didn’t know where the vehicle was hit.
Investigators have questioned one man in connection with the shootings, but police are only calling him a “person of interest.”
The department has reorganized several divisions since the shootings, bringing in detectives from other parts of the department to help the homicide unit and having the SWAT team working patrol.
David Gomez, the assistant special agent in charge of the Seattle office of the FBI, said the bureau has opened a routine investigation into the shootings. He said agents and supervisors are culling informants for leads.
Pugel said investigators would pour through each officer’s personnel files, but noted there is “nothing to say this was a direct attack” on the officers.
Brenton, a nine-year veteran who lived in Marysville, was a married father of two children, an 11-year-old girl and a 8-year-old boy.
Sweeney, of Seattle, worked as a personal trainer before attending the police academy and joining the Police Department. She had been in field training for only about a month.