Cover photo: first vigil for Jesse Sarey at the site of his murder, July 10, 2019, Auburn, Washington. Photo by Violetta Trushkov.
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
- Elie Wiesel
It is a tragedy that I must share my personal story of the murder of my foster son Jesse Sarey by officer Jeff Nelson of the Auburn, WA police department, May 31, 2019. My foster son Jesse was the 19th person in 2019 killed by police deadly use of force in the state of Washington since implementation of Initiative-940 (I-940). He was 25 years old.
Jesse came to live with me when he was 11 years old, his younger brother was already living with me and aged out of my home at 18 years old after nine years living with me. Jesse’s family came to America from Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge Regime to escape being killed after being in a refugee camp for six years. Jesse was the first generation to be born here. The elders are heartbroken that life in America has been a difficult journey for their children. Jesse is a by-product of the school to prison pipeline, mental health and foster-care systems. He is amongst many foster children who aged out and entered into a life of homelessness.
An undated childhood photo of Jesse Sarey. Courtesy of Elaine Simons.
My foster son was a funny and sweet young man who was suffering a mental health crisis on May 31st, 2019. On this tragic day when Jesse’s life was taken, Auburn Police were dispatched under the impression that Jesse was a possible violent or extremely agitated suspect, but in reality he was sitting calmly enjoying a warm summer-like day eating ice chips leaning against the ice machine, where he would lose his life. The police were called to the scene to address him, but at no time was a mental health response team called to de-escalate the situation. Within 37 seconds of contact, my foster son Jesse was killed; another unarmed BIPOC/API* person having a mental health crisis, killed by police.
An undated photo of the Sarey family. Courtesy of Elaine Simons.
Death is no stranger to me. I have experienced some of life’s ugliness and the crippling effect it has on a person’s soul. In my over 25 years as an homeless advocate I have personally known over 42 people who have died.
This officer, Jeff Nelson, also killed Brian Scaman (white), the brother of Dawn Yancey in 2011 and Isaiah Obet (South Pacific Islander) in 2017. Nelson is now charged with second-degree murder and first-degree assault in the May 31st, 2019 killing of Jesse Sarey (Cambodian). The first officer to be indicted under I-940 came into fruition.
No human being should die this way. We need to be unified and not divided by showing our support for the cause of exposing and eradicating the wrongful practices and crime administered by law enforcement mostly targeting BIPOC/API throughout our country and state. Jeff Nelson is only the third officer to be indicted for taking the life of a civilian in Washington State and the first under I-940.
An undated photo of Jesse Sarey. Courtesy of Elaine Simons.
Ten days earlier in Auburn, WA, Enosa “EJ” Strickland (Samoa/ Hawaian) was also killed by the police, as he was waiting for a ride from his parents. Our two families were united in our shared pain and loss. I first met them at a celebration for Jesse’s 26th birthday on July 10th, 2020. Families impacted by police violence often hold memorial events on their loved one’s birthday and date of death. We held this at the site of his killing. Our friendship was forged from the shared experience of losing our sons to police violence. To this day his mother Kathleen and I have a special bond. Also at this candlelight memorial was Katrina Johnson, the cousin of Charleena Lyles (African American), a pregnant mother who was killed by Seattle police in 2017, and Andre Taylor, the brother of Che Taylor (African American) also killed by Seattle Police 2016.
Elaine Simons and the Jesse Sarey family at the Kent Regional Justice Center for the arraignment of officer Jeff Nelson
September 7, 2020, Kent, WA. Courtesy of Elaine Simons.
All of our families are united by this shared loss.
In 2016, Renee Davis and her unborn child Massi (Native American), the sister and nephew of Rose Davis were also killed by Auburn police on Muckleshoot Tribal Land. Lives cut short to yet another brown person including baby Massi.
In 11 years, eight people were killed by deadly police force in Auburn, WA. Three of those victims were killed by officer Jeff Nelson.
A vigil for victims of police homicide in Washington state. Courtesy of Elaine Simons.
In 2018, the cousin of Po Leapai, Iosia Faletogo (Samoan) was killed. Po says, “Justice for one is justice for all.” Iosia was the first police killing in Seattle, WA, post the ratification of I-940. The same month it passed was the same month Iosia was killed. In 2017, Giovonn Joseph-McDade (Pakistanian/African American) was killed by Kent Police. His mother Sonia Joseph was involved in the passing of legislation I-940 “which was designed to create a good faith test to determine when the use of deadly force by police is justifiable, it requires police to receive de-escalation and mental health training, and provide that police have a duty to render first aid,” which my foster son’s case is contingent on. Our friendship was solidified because of this law. One day in mid-winter of 2019, Sonia came to share her son's story with my art class at Foster High School in Tukwila, WA, as part of my Arts and Social Justice Program. Afterwards we went to have a late breakfast and I shared with her that my foster son's case was being reviewed under I-940 and I thanked her for her selflessness in helping to pass a law in which her son's case had no bearing. Her son’s killing fell on the wrong side of time when the law came into effect in 2018. It was passed in 2018 and Giovonn was killed in 2017. The law is not retroactive.
My foster son Jesse was the 19th person in 2019 killed by police deadly use of force in the state of Washington. This journey since that fateful day on May 31st, 2019, when my foster son Jesse was murdered has been a difficult one. He was misidentified at first as Pacific Islander and Mexican and an unknown, unhoused indigent. We always thought he was killed on June 1st, 2019, as that was when we were notified. We were notified by the Coroner’s office of Jesse’s death. Jesse was alone in the hospital without the comfort of his mother or family. Even in death, humanity was denied to him.
As our family comes to grips with the senseless killing of Jesse, many more families join this unique “family” of impacted people. This is a difficult system to navigate. Whenever we see on the news another person has been killed by the police our trauma is retriggered. We must keep alive the memories of all people who have suffered the same fate as Jesse and George Floyd. Only as a unified community, one unified voice, can we stop unjust travesties from happening to yet another family.
Elaine Simons (far right), foster mother of Jesse Sarey, and the family of Jesse Sarey with a banner for Jesse at Jesse's March, Auburn Police Department, August 4, 2020, Auburn, WA. Courtesy of Elaine Simons.
With the senseless killing of George Floyd by the hands of Minneapolis Police, we are once again reminded that excessive force by systemic racism is still not reformed in any way. When Mr. Floyd called out to his mother he was calling out to all of the mothers whose children died at the hands of the police.
We must continue to fight not just for Jesse but for every person of color whose neck is under the knee of a system which has been predicated on violence against API and Black, Brown and Native bodies since the American government has been established. In South King County the majority of people killed by police were BIPOC, which is partly due to gentrification and families being pushed south of Seattle.
I was devastated with the personal loss of my foster son, but also angered that so many people are being killed in this horrible manner. I am now a relentless mission to do right by him and other impacted families. With his biological family and supporters by our side we got a killer cop arrested and charged with second degree murder and first degree assault.
Our mission is to get Nelson convicted and put in prison. We have a long jury trial ahead of us. I call out to the good and honorable police whose careers have been tarnished by the evildoers amongst them to find the courage to stand with us in this journey to find justice for all citizens. We need you officers to join us on the right side of history. We need your protection not your violence. At Nelson’s arraignment, I had to testify that he be held on bail. It’s unheard of that someone charged for second degree murder and first degree assault to not be held on bail. As an art teacher working in juvenile detention with youth who do not have the luxury to make bail what kind of message are we sending to them - that he is above the law because he’s a cop? Many young people are being held for higher bail then Officer Nelson for lesser crimes. I was appalled by the dozens of police that showed up in support of a three-time killer. I noticed no lack of remorse from the defendant; looking at him was like looking into a soulless individual.
An art piece created by Elaine for her foster son Jesse Sarey. Courtesy of Elaine Simons.
What will it take for one’s moral compass to admit that “bad” cops exist just like “bad” people do in every facet of life and in every work place? The thin blue line needs to be broken. To break the code of blue we need to have your support.
I could have been consumed by hate. I chose to use my outrage to seek justice. I could not be complicit any longer. I have been working tirelessly on the frontlines telling Jesse’s story so he would not become just another unhoused young BIPOC/API murdered by the racist police system that exists in America. My foster son died for this cause.
There is a long murder trial ahead for justice not only for Jesse and his family but for all impacted families. We are united in this fight.
Thank-you for your love and solidarity.
“Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Our call to action is to sign this petition. The more people who sign this petition will show that the community at large is engaged and wants to see this officer, Jeff Nelson, who has taken three lives, be held accountable for his actions and hopefully prevent any other families' loss of a loved one at his hands.
*BIPOC/API stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Color / Asian Pacific Islander