Shooting death of Wash. coach called avoidable

May 14, 2011 - 4:15 PM

AUBURN, Wash. (AP) — The small cul-de-sac of beige duplexes in this Seattle suburb gave every illusion of tranquility on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Thankful for the reprieve from Pacific Northwest rain, two women cleaned their cars. Their young sons shot water guns in the shaggy grass and dandelion thicket between their driveways. A few houses over, an Indian immigrant named Jaspal Mangat sat on her stoop. Kids played basketball in the street.

Even so, strife-weary neighbors knew the idyll was unlikely to last. The adjacent public housing complex and nearby trailer parks are filled with teenagers, and it seems hardly a weekend goes by that some aren't brawling or getting into public, profane arguments with their parents — either up the street, or outside the Boys and Girls Club, or right here in the cul-de-sac.

So it was with a mixture of frustration and alarm that residents called 911 that May 1 afternoon to report that yet another fight had broken out. But this one would end much differently — with a popular middle school coach dead; with his brother staggering on a front lawn, clinging to life; with a completely avoidable tragedy that devastated two families.

"It's a shame it did happen, but it had to happen," said Dave Maun, whose house faces the cul-de-sac. "It's been building up to this. It is not a safe neighborhood."

Shennon Shelton, 22, helped coach basketball and football at Cascade Middle School. He came from a big Samoan family with athletic brothers. One of his younger brothers, Danny, 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, is one of the University of Washington's most prized football recruits this year. It was a point of pride that promised a new future for the family. He may have escaped harm when the shooter's gun jammed, according to police filings.

The brothers lived in Samoa with their grandparents when they were young, but then moved to California and finally to Washington state. They lived with their mother and their uncle, who started a ministry — Auburn Samoan Nazarene Church. Their mother was church secretary, and Shennon Shelton also ran the sound system for the choir. Both he and his older brother, Gaston, a soldier at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord, mentored youth at the church.

On that Sunday afternoon, Gaston Shelton was visiting a friend, police say, when he tried to break up a fight. One of the aggressors, neighbors reported, may have been a 13-year-old black youth who lived in the cul-de-sac.

Mangat was still by her front door when Gaston Shelton walked down the short street, followed by other youngsters, and tried to find a parent to whom he could complain about the boy's behavior.

A few of those present turned on him, including the 13-year-old's mother and his 18-year-old brother, Olenthis Woods IV, Mangat said. Woods punched Gaston repeatedly, bloodied his nose and wailed on him with a bag of charcoal. The bag burst, sending briquettes and charcoal dust flying in the street.

King County bus driver Mary Hollis was resting in her second floor bedroom when she heard the commotion. She raised her blinds and looked down upon a mass of 20 to 30 people — a chaotic rumble in broad daylight. "They were really duking it out," she said.

Hollis and other neighbors immediately started calling 911, according to call logs obtained by The Associated Press under a public records request. It was 4:45 p.m.

Gaston soon left — with a message. "He was saying, 'I'm coming back, I'm coming back,'" Mangat recalled.

In the momentary lull, Hollis asked Woods what the fight was about.

"They jumped my 13-year-old brother the other day," she recalls him answering.

Woods surveyed the charcoal strewn about and apologized for the mess.

"I can clean it up," he offered.

Maun grabbed a broom and told him not to worry about it.

Hollis and Mangat walked to the end of the street, wondering why the police weren't there yet. It was about 5 p.m.

What they saw instead of a cruiser was a fearsome sight: Gaston Shelton in his bloodied white T-shirt leading a small crew of young men — his three brothers and a cousin — in a determined, shoulder-to-shoulder march back toward the cul-de-sac. Mangat, a 46-year-old hospital worker, raised her hands in front of them, palms out, and pleaded for them to stop.

"Just wait for the police," she said.

They passed as though she wasn't there. One had what Maun described as a "thousand-mile stare." Hollis heard one mutter, "Just show me which one it was."

The neighbors, more frantic, continued calling 911. A Valley Communications Center log entry at 5:02 p.m. reads: "(Reporting party) doesn't understand (why) the police dept haven't responded yet. RP is aware that several (neighbors) have been calling for quite some time."

The next entry came one second later: "GUNSHOTS"

According to court documents, Woods later told police that when he saw the Sheltons coming, he bolted into his house to grab his gun. The brothers and their cousin made straight for the door and kicked it open, according to Woods and some neighbors.

The pounding on the door reverberated through the neighborhood.

Woods came down the interior stairs to the threshold with his handgun in front of him, loaded and cocked. He saw two of them in the doorway and yelled for them to get out of the house. They complied, but as he started outside, he told police, Gaston Shelton took a half-step toward him. Woods shot him in the chest.

Shennon Shelton tried to grab Woods from the side. Woods shot him in the neck.

"Woods said that he would have shot more Samoans but his gun misfired," an Auburn police officer wrote in a probable cause statement.

Gaston staggered among the throng of people in front of the duplex. A red Ford Explorer pulled up; people tried to load the fatally wounded Shennon Shelton into it. In the melee, someone set off a canister of pepper spray.

Woods tossed the gun, ran behind his house and asked a neighbor to call 911. Police arrived, caught him and brought him to a local hospital to treat facial cuts he sustained in the fight. He was booked for investigation of second-degree murder and first-degree assault.

The bullet just missed Gaston's heart. His uncle, Pastor Steve Leau, said 200 people showed up at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle as he underwent surgery, and among them was UW head football coach Steve Sarkisian.

Students who loved Shennon Shelton wept and called him a great role model. The school is organizing a basketball tournament to raise money for his family.

"We're doing great," Leau said recently. "We forgive the one who did the shooting, and we ask the Lord to do the same."

About two dozen of Woods' relatives showed up for his bail hearing. His mother cried hysterically. His uncle, Mario Peterson, said Woods had been in trouble for minor things before, such as skipping school, but had been doing better recently. He had been spending a lot of time in a recording studio, working on rap music with friends, and he had earned his GED.

"This should not have happened," he said.

The cul-de-sac's neighbors agree: if only the police had arrived sooner; if only the brothers had stopped and waited; if only Woods and his family had behaved like adults when Gaston first appeared.

Woods has been released from custody while prosecutors review his self-defense claims and decide whether to file charges. The police have been driving into the cul-de-sac several times a day, sometimes parking and lingering, but Maun still fears what might happen next.

"After all the attention dies down, it's gonna happen," he said. "The retribution is gonna happen. You just know it."