Auburn officer found guilty of murdering Jesse Sarey years after his death

Jun 27, 2024, 1:23 PM | Updated: 2:14 pm

Photo: Auburn Officer Jeff Nelson in midst of his murder trial....

Auburn Officer Jeff Nelson in midst of his murder trial. (Photo courtesy KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy KIRO 7)

Auburn Police Department Officer Jeff Nelson was found guilty on Thursday of murdering Jesse Sarey, five years after his death. Nelson was found guilty on two counts: second-degree murder and assault.

The City of Auburn responded to the verdict via a news release, saying a state certification hearing by the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission has been scheduled where the commissioner will decide if Nelson’s certification should be denied, suspended or revoked.

“The City of Auburn respects the verdict reached by the jury in this tragic situation,” stated the release.

The city went on to say it has “worked tirelessly over the years to earn and maintain the trust of our community.” The city then urged the public to keep its reactions peaceful and legal.

Jesse Sarey shot to death in 2019

In 2019, Sarey was reportedly having a crisis and was allegedly throwing garbage, banging on store windows and kicking cars in an Auburn shopping area. Nelson stated Sarey failed to comply with arrest, leading to a fight where Nelson was seen on surveillance video punching Sarey numerous times in the head and upper body. Nelson then drew his gun and shot Sarey in the torso.

After Sarey fell onto the pavement, Nelson tried to fire his gun again before it jammed. The video then shows Nelson clearing the round, racking another bullet and firing a second shot into Sarey’s head.

Sarey’s family told The Associated Press (AP) he was the son of survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia and became homeless after aging out of foster care.

The case is the first of its kind in Washington as Nelson was the first police officer in King County to face murder charges and his case was also the first to be prosecuted under I-940, a police accountability measure passed in 2018.

“Today is making history in the state of Washington,” Sarey’s foster mother said to a crowd of Sarey supporters in August 2020. “The first police officer in 30 years has been arrested and charged.”

Previous coverage: First-of-its-kind murder trial against Auburn police officer set for early 2022

Trial starts in May 2024

However, Nelson’s trial didn’t begin until May 2024. But before opening statements could begin, Judge Nicole Gaines Phelps had to rule on a complaint from the defense about a juror. It was revealed the juror had been communicating with Sarey’s foster mother.

The juror was replaced with an alternate and the prosecution began opening statements. Prosecutor Angelo Calfo told the jury it was a case about an unnecessary death.

“It’s a case about a police officer who did not follow his training, who acted unreasonably. It’s about a police officer, Jeff Nelson, who unnecessarily shot and killed a homeless person named Jesse Sarey. A person who was unarmed,” Calfo said.

However, Nelson’s attorney, Emma Scanlan, told an opposing version of what happened. She told the jury that Sarey had reached for Nelson’s gun during the struggle and grabbed a knife from his front pocket. She contended Nelson thought Sarey had the knife and Nelson feared for his life.

On Monday, Nelson and Scanlan rested their case without calling Nelson to testify in his own defense.

Former Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist told KIRO Newsradio the decision for Nelson not to testify meant one of two options.

“Either the defense feels very confident about the prosecution’s weaknesses, or the defense is very worried about how their client will present. The defense has no obligation to put on testimony or evidence. The burden of proof is entirely on the prosecution,” Lindquist said.

But the defense did call two witnesses — a records custodian and an expert on the holster.

However, at the start of the trial, Scanlan told jurors they would hear Nelson testify, making his lack of testimony risky, according to Lindquist.

“Jurors have different expectations for a police officer. Additionally, the defense told jurors in opening that the officer would explain what happened,” Lindquist said.

On Thursday, closing arguments were heard.

“The issue here is whether Officer Nelson had the right to defend himself when Mr. Sarey grabbed for his firearm and ripped his knife off his uniform,” Nelson’s attorney Emma Scanlan told the jury.

The prosecution claimed Sarey was not a threat, that he was unarmed, non-aggressive and never had control of the officer’s firearm or his knife. Prosecutor Calfo said Nelson made a choice.

“Time distance and cover. He could have kept distance. He could have created distance. He could have used his training. And that scene we saw where the defendant is sitting next to Mr. Sarey who is bleeding to death, would not have happened,” Calfo said.

Trouble with the jury

Judge Nicole Gaines Phelps dismissed two jurors. Twelve were initially seated to hear the case, along with two alternates. The alternates were excused, but their service was not complete until a verdict was reached.

On Wednesday there was a shakeup in the trial after two jurors were accused of improperly discussing the case outside the chamber where deliberations were supposed to be happening. Two King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office employees said they overhead the jurors’ conversation. The employees then testified in court on Wednesday.

While the court was discussing the matter, KIRO Newsradio learned the jury had reached a unanimous decision Tuesday on one of two counts — either the second-degree murder charge or the assault charge. KIRO Newsradio does not know which, or why the prosecution and defense weren’t notified of that decision.

Judge Nicole Gaines Phelps asked the jury foreperson if he believed the jurors could still reach a unanimous verdict on both charges. His answer was “Yes.”

Nelson has history of using force

On Thursday Nelson was found guilty of murdering Sarey. However, Sarey’s death was not Nelson’s first.

Prior to fatally shooting Sarey, Nelson killed Isaiah Obet in 2017. Obet was acting erratically, and Nelson ordered his police dog to attack, as reported by The AP. He then shot Obet in the torso. Obet fell to the ground, and Nelson fired again, fatally shooting Obet in the head. Police said the officer’s life was in danger because Obet was high on drugs and had a knife. The city reached a settlement of $1.25 million with Obet’s family just days before Nelson was charged in Sarey’s death.

In 2011, Nelson fatally shot Brian Scaman, a Vietnam War veteran with mental issues and a history of felonies, after pulling Scaman’s vehicle over for a burned-out headlight. According to The AP, Scaman got out of his car with a knife and refused to drop it; Nelson shot him in the head. An inquest jury cleared Nelson of wrongdoing.

Contributing: Martha Bellisle, The Associated Press

You can read more of James Lynch’s stories here. Follow James on X, or email him here.

Julia Dallas is a content editor at MyNorthwest. You can read her stories here. Follow Julia on X here and email her here.

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Auburn officer found guilty of murdering Jesse Sarey years after his death