An explosive scene unfolded Wednesday afternoon after the jury in Thomas Leae’s murder trial handed down guilty verdicts on all charges.
Leae’s family members, seated in the gallery, began shouting at jurors as they were dismissed, becoming increasingly volatile as Clark County sheriff’s deputies attempted to usher them from the courtroom.
The Renton man was convicted in Clark County Superior Court of first-degree murder and first-degree robbery, both with a firearm, and first-degree rendering criminal assistance in the 2015 slaying of Bentley Brookes, 58, a precious metals shop employee.
Brookes, of Camas, was shot to death during a robbery at Pacific Bullion Precious Metals, 701 Main St., in downtown Vancouver. Leae’s girlfriend, Ailiana Siufanua, 18, of Des Moines carried out the shooting, according to prosecutors, while he drove the getaway vehicle. Siufanua was killed days later in a crash on Interstate 5 in Glenn County, Calif., while the couple fled from authorities.
Leae, 25, was already convicted there of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years, eight months to life in prison in Siufanua’s death.
“My brother’s already been sentenced for the crime he has committed!” a woman, presumably Leae’s sister, said, her voice rising as she challenged jurors.
“I would suggest that you not say anything,” Judge Gregory Gonzales interrupted, adding, “Let’s remove them, please.”
“You guys can go to hell,” the woman continued.
“Get the (expletive) out of here,” a man interjected from the gallery.
“I rebuke you juries, I rebuke you all! You made a mistake, you made a mistake! My son is innocent of this one!” another woman, presumably Leae’s mother, shouted.
The scene rapidly devolved, with Leae’s mother and sister yelling over each other, both saying Leae is already doing time in California.
On his way out of the courtroom, one man punched his open palm and shoved a chair seated at the prosecutor’s table.
“Why are you guys so rude to my son? That’s so mean! Get retrial, need real jury!” his mother continued. “You’re so mean. My son is innocent! He didn’t do this! This is a set-up case!”
Their outburst continued in the hallway for a short time after.
A visibly agitated Leae cursed at a photographer in the courtroom and told corrections deputies, “I’m ready to go.” He refused to speak further with the judge to set a sentencing date. When Gonzales asked how far out the parties wanted to set sentencing, Leae barked, “tomorrow.”
Sentencing was set for 1 p.m. July 24.
Jurors were escorted by deputies from the courthouse afterward.
The jury reached its verdict after deliberating for about 13 hours Tuesday and Wednesday.
During Leae’s trial, which lasted about a week, the defense and prosecution agreed on who pulled the trigger but were at odds over whether Leae was driving the getaway vehicle and how much he facilitated the shooting.
Surveillance footage of the Nov. 25, 2015, robbery revealed that a woman, later identified as Siufanua, shot Brookes, then shoveled coins and random valuables from the store’s display cases into a bag, and pocketed cash from a drawer before fleeing.
She was identified by her parents from surveillance photos of the robbery. Leae was apparently not in the shop during the shooting and robbery.
In Washington, a person can be charged with murder if a first- or second-degree robbery results in homicide, even if they were an accomplice.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kasey Vu told jurors during his closing argument Monday that there was ample circumstantial evidence that Leae committed the crimes through his influence over Siufanua.
“He was the only one to have an opportunity to convince his girlfriend, this gullible 18-year-old girl, to commit this horrible crime,” Vu said. “He knew exactly what he put her up to. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
Defense attorney Tony Lowe reminded jurors that simply being present at a crime scene does not amount to being an accomplice.
“None of that undeniably means, on this day, that he was the driver,” Lowe said. “There’s nothing that establishes that he knew what she was going to do.”
Video surveillance from the shop showed Leae conduct a transaction Nov. 12, less than two weeks before the shooting. On Nov. 18, additional footage showed he made another transaction, this time with Siufanua standing behind him and studying the tiny store’s layout, Vu argued.
A witness reported seeing the getaway vehicle, a silver Honda Civic, parked near the precious metals shop. The same witness reported that, while he couldn’t get a good view of the driver’s face, the driver appeared to have an Afro hairstyle and facial hair. The description partially matches Leae.
Items that were stolen from the shop were later located at the crash scene in California.