A 38-year-old man who stabbed two of his neighbors to death and tried to kill another while living in a transitional housing apartment complex in Vancouver was sentenced to 66 years in prison Friday.
Dustin L. Zapel did not react when Clark County Superior Court Judge John Fairgrieve handed down the sentence. Zapel, like everyone else in attendance at the hearing, wore a face mask due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fairgrieve said he recognized he was essentially delivering a life sentence, but the amount of damage Zapel’s crimes caused the community was tremendous.
“The damage will continue generationally” for the family and friends of the victims, the judge said.
Zapel opted not to speak when given the opportunity.
A jury convicted Zapel in March of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of first-degree attempted murder. Jurors also returned a special verdict, finding that he was armed with a deadly weapon when he committed the crimes.
The convictions stem from the murders of Thomas West, 42, and James Olsen, 55, in the early morning of July 16, 2017. Zapel and his victims lived at the Central Park Place Apartments, 1900 Fort Vancouver Way.
According to court records, on the night of the murders, arriving officers found West and Olsen’s bodies in the apartment complex’s courtyard. Surveillance cameras caught the attack, which police said appeared to be unprovoked.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Anna Klein said during trial that Zapel was wandering around the common areas of the apartment complex at 1:20 a.m. when he came upon West in a smoking area. Zapel then stabbed West 26 times, according to the prosecutor. Next, he attacked Olsen, stabbing him 18 times.
David Garner stumbled upon the grisly scene, and Zapel tried to attack him, but he escaped and called 911. This was the basis for the attempted-murder charge.
Neither the prosecutor nor Zapel’s defense attorney disagreed that Zapel stabbed to death West and Olsen. Instead, the case rested on Zapel’s state of mind. Klein said Zapel “acted with premeditation to stab two men to death and to chase after a third man and attempt to stab him. He had been thinking about what it would be like to kill someone.”
Klein reiterated that stance Friday. She said she recognized Zapel’s mental health issues, but his long-standing desire to kill could not be ignored.
“These were very brutal murders, very brutal attacks,” Klein said.
Defense attorney Jeff Sowder previously argued that premeditation is different than intent, and the two concepts should be considered separately. Sowder also said Zapel has a long history of mental illness.
On Friday, Sowder requested the judge impose a sentence at the lower end of what was required by law, arguing that his client’s mental health should factor into the punishment.
In a lengthy letter to the judge, Zapel’s father, Mike Zapel, said his son’s life had been on a downward path for some time. Years ago, the father said, he sent a letter to Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik saying that if his son didn’t stay on his medications, then he shouldn’t be “out in society.”
However, Mike Zapel questioned the conclusion that his son premeditated the murders.
“A person premeditating a murder would never do it where there are cameras. Only a person of ‘diminished capacity’ would do illegal actions of any kind in front of cameras,” the father wrote, noting that his son lived at the apartments for up to seven years and knew about the surveillance system.
Lily Isaacson, West’s sister, told the judge her brother lived to the best of his ability.
“He was a simple man without want of material things,” Isaacson said.
West frequently tried to raise people’s spirits, including neighbors at Central Park Place, and would likely forgive his murderer, “because that’s the kind of man he was; always choosing peace and grace.”
John Marick, Olsen’s brother-in-law, spoke on behalf of Olsen’s entire family. Marick said Olsen was a Portland native who served in the U.S. Navy for two decades. Olsen was described as having a warm heart and genuine kindness.
“We each had a different relationship with him, but none of us will ever see him again,” Marick said.