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Trial starts for man charged in 2015 Vancouver slaying

A Clark County prosecutor told jurors Tuesday morning the defendant standing trial for murder wasn’t the person who pulled the trigger in the fatal shooting of a precious metals shop employee in 2015.

Thomas Phillip Leae’s girlfriend carried out the slaying, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kasey Vu said, but Leae is guilty of murder for the part he played in the deadly robbery.

“The key issue we have in this case is whether the defendant is responsible for the murder,” Vu said. In Washington, a person can be charged with murder if a first- or second-degree robbery results in homicide, he explained.

Leae, 25, of Renton is facing murder, robbery and rendering criminal assistance, all in the first degree, in the Nov. 25, 2015, slaying of 58-year-old Bentley Brookes of Camas.

Brookes worked at Pacific Bullion Precious Metals, 701 Main St., in downtown Vancouver.

Leae’s girlfriend, 18-year-old Ailiana Siufanua of Des Moines, shot Brookes in the face while robbing the precious metals shop; Leae acted as the getaway driver, court records state.

The couple fled and were on the lam for days before the stolen Honda Civic they were driving was spotted Nov. 30, 2015, on Interstate 5 in Glenn County, Calif., by a California Highway Patrol officer. A 40-mile, high-speed pursuit ensued, which ended when the stolen car left the road and struck a tree killing Siufanua, according to The Davis (Calif.) Enterprise.

Vu used his opening statement to establish that the couple were seen together in the days leading up to the shooting, in and around the precious metals shop, and laid out much of what is in court documents.

On the day of the shooting, Vancouver police responded about 11:50 a.m. to Pacific Bullion Precious Metals for a man down from a possible gunshot wound. They found Brookes lying on the floor in a pool of blood, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed in Clark County Superior Court.

Investigators downloaded footage from the store’s video surveillance that showed a woman, later identified as Siufanua, enter the store shortly before 11:15 a.m. She is seen approaching the store’s glass case counter, and Brookes meets her from behind the counter, the affidavit states.

Siufanua quickly pulls out a pistol and points it at his face. Brookes raises both of his hands, court records said.

“He comes around (the counter), 2 to 3 feet from her, reaches for the gun. She fires one time, hits him directly in the face,” Vu said, before pausing and slapping his fist into an open palm, breaking the silence of the courtroom. “He falls immediately to the ground.”

Siufanua then steps over Brooke’s body, and begins shoveling coins and random valuables from the store’s display cases into a bag; she also pockets cash from a drawer before fleeing, Vu said.

When police arrive and tape off the area, “they have no idea who did this,” Vu said. But the store’s surveillance footage quickly generated some leads.

Investigators reviewed footage from the weeks leading up to the shooting, and found pertinent activity Nov. 12 and Nov. 18. Leae came into the store Nov. 12 and carried out a transaction; he and Siufanua did the same Nov. 18, Vu said.

After releasing suspect photos of Siufanua to the public, her parents came to the Vancouver Police Department on Nov. 30, 2015, to identify her. They told police Siufanua had recently disappeared with her boyfriend, Leae, Vu said.

That same day, a California highway officer tried to pull over a Honda, occupied by Leae and Siufanua, for speeding southbound on I-5, Vu said. The car did not stop, and a 15 to 20 minute chase proceeded down the freeway, at times reaching speeds up to 120 mph, according to the prosecutor.

Vu said Leae drove the wrong direction on the freeway with the car’s lights off before losing control on a turnout for Dunnigan Rest Area, about 50 miles north of Sacramento, Calif. Leae broke his leg in the crash, and Siufanua died at the scene.

The officers in California called Vancouver police the next day, after speaking with Leae at the hospital. Local detectives traveled out of state to search the car for the murder investigation. Inside, they found numerous items from Pacific Bullion, Vu said.

“Silver dollars, coins, unique antique pieces, items of jewelry,” the prosecutor told the jury.

Vu said Leae helped rob the Vancouver shop, “or even put (Siufanua) up to it.”

During his brief opening statement, defense attorney Tony Lowe asked jurors to keep an open mind about the specifics of the law governing accomplice liability and how that law will be applied to the case.

Lowe also suggested there may have been another unidentified woman outside the precious metals shop when the shooting happened.

Leae’s trial continues Wednesday.


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