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Spokane

Once dazzled by guns, gangs, teen now looking at life in prison

Sun., Aug. 27, 1995

Kenneth “Junior” Comeslast is one of those kids prowling delinquency’s dark corners, yearning for status and respect and powerful toys, like lowrider cars and booming stereos.

At 15, he’s a gangly kid dazzled by the excitement of the gangs and guns spreading like a virus in his northeast Spokane neighborhood.

But there’s another side to Junior, known to friends and relatives: The shy, stuttering boy with peach-fuzz skin who tears up his girlfriend’s cigarettes because “they’re bad,” reads Ninja Turtles comics in a backyard treehouse and zealously guards his shoe box collection of miniature G.I. Joes.

That Junior is proud of his Native American roots, a Sioux bloodline the family claims it can trace to Sitting Bull.

He tells people he hopes to be a police officer one day and doesn’t want to wind up behind bars, like his estranged father and his brother.

“He’s just one of those kids on the bubble,” a former teacher says. The bubble burst with a crack of gunfire.

Shortly before 2 a.m. on Aug. 9, a gunman squeezed the trigger of an SKS semiautomatic assault rifle, spraying bullets into a group of teenage girls on the front porch of a Hillyard home.

Two girls were shot in the back of the head. They died instantly. A third was shot in the side and survived.

Spokane police arrested Junior for the “gang-related” shootings and prosecutors have filed the stiffest possible charges: two counts of aggravated first-degree murder.

A judge will decide on Oct. 13 if Junior should be prosecuted as an adult, in which case he would face a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole.

That fact hasn’t sunk in.

“How long is life without parole?” Junior asked his mother, Sharon Comeslast, after a court hearing two weeks ago.

“Son, that means you never get out of prison,” she said.

Later, Junior asked, “When do I get out on electronic monitoring?”

His mother could only shake her head.

If the shooting never happened, Junior would be in South Dakota right now, living in a Native American boarding school near the Black Hills.

A brother went there and returned changed for the better - vowing to end his head-cracking gangster ways and concentrate on school and basketball.

Junior asked his mom to send him to the same reservation and she agreed, hoping the experience would work its magic a second time.

Instead, the boy sits alone in N-1, a concrete-and-cinderblock cell in the Spokane County Juvenile Detention Center. The window in the steel door is plastered with paper, allowing no one to look in and keeping Junior from looking out.

To pass the time, he twists tissue into crude artwork and makes boats out of milk cartons, floating them in his stainless steel toilet.

On the outside, people who know Junior are puzzled.

He has only one criminal conviction - second-degree burglary - for stealing two frozen turkeys from a refrigerated railroad car near his home in May 1994. His mother turned him in and he pleaded guilty.

Other arrests followed, but there is no record of violence.

There also is no evidence he actually joined a gang. Close friends say he turned away drugs and alcohol like unwelcome guests. He knew the girls on the porch that night: One of those killed was his girlfriend’s cousin.

David Kirkman, the Juvenile Court investigator assigned to Junior’s case, says he’s not the kind of boy he’d suspect in a double slaying.

“I wouldn’t have picked Ken. It’s a mystery as to why he’d be involved in this kind of offense.”

The closest that family members get to explaining the bloodshed is their suspicion that older boys in the poor neighborhood sucked Junior into delinquency, rewarding him with fancy sneakers and expensive sports jackets, and indulging his adolescent fascination with guns.

“My brother wants to be somebody,” says Duane Comeslast, 17.

Duane’s head is shaved and he is wearing a Nike sweat shirt to match his spotless high-top basketball shoes. He sits in a tiny basement bedroom at his cousin’s house, decorated with an Indian mural he painted himself. Rap music sends tremors through the walls.

“The gangs were just flashing in his face,” Duane says. “This world today, with all the violence … How can a kid get by all that without going through it?”

Cousin Mike Burnley, 28, has it figured this way. Junior wasn’t getting enough love at home. And he didn’t have enough outside activities - like sports camps and powwows - to keep him busy.

“He knew what he was doing was bad,” Burnley says, “but he was curious. He wanted to see what this gang thing was all about.”

A long list of people tried talking him out of it.

Junior’s grandfather, Sam Moses of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, spoke to him a few months before the shooting, urging the boy to steer clear of gangs, drugs and the bane of many Native Americans - alcohol.

“Our world is rough right now and there are a lot of kids getting in trouble,” he warned. “Don’t follow the wrong trail.”

Junior’s trail has been rutted with hardship.

He was raised on welfare, by parents who didn’t work but who could. Home was an assortment of run-down rental houses and dingy motel rooms in Spokane and the Valley.

Sharon Comeslast had six children to raise and her own demons to conquer.

She carries a tragic past that began at birth - abandoned at the maternity ward by an alcoholic mother who died nine years later in a car crash. She never knew her father. She was raised by her grandmother and aunt on a Montana reservation.

At 12, she began seeing Kenneth Comeslast, a kickboxing ex-convict.

She claims he made her his personal punching bag. Six years later, she was seeking refuge in Spokane, where a sister lived.

Comeslast struggled to raise three boys on her own before falling for Gary Moses, her common-law husband of 12 years. They had three children of their own: Crystal, now 13; Joseph, 11; and Tammy, 10.

It was a big family on the jagged edge of poverty, but Junior seemed to grow up happy.

He’d swim in the river, play tag in the yard, shoot hoops with his brothers, climb a tree and watch stars at night.

Moses, who left Sharon Comeslast about two years ago, says he tried to be a positive influence on the older boys, infusing them with Indian pride.

But the streets were rough, and local gangs were like a protective second family.

Travis Comeslast, the oldest, fell the hardest.

Today, he is 19 and into the third year of a four-year commitment to a state juvenile institution - Green Hill School in Chehalis. He speaks with deep regret about his gang days.

“Back then, I thought it was cool,” he says. “It was getting the money and having the power. And the way people look at you. I got respect from some people, and others, they were afraid of me.”

Duane followed in his brother’s footsteps.

He and some 13-year-old friends created their own gang. They robbed and stole and peddled crack cocaine. He thought it was all worthwhile: He had money, a fancy stereo, plenty of girlfriends.

His change of heart came in the Dakota boarding school, with Indians for teachers. He was an eighth-grader with an attitude, but soon he was learning his native tongue and drumming ancient rhythms.

A year later, he returned to the same Spokane neighborhood and summoned the strength to resist the self-destructive lifestyle he once embraced.

“He was a whole different Duane,” his mother says.

Duane urged his younger brother to avoid the local gangs, telling him it was a dead-end road, ending in prison or death.

He thought Junior was listening. The murder charges came as a shock.

“I thought to myself, no way, not Junior. He’s the shy, scared type. He’s not interested in alcohol or drugs. He’s 15, but he still has the mind of a kid.”

In school, Junior was a slow learner who needed “special help,” Sharon Comeslast says. His reading and writing skills were tested last year at a third-grade level.

But teachers say he responded well to one-on-one instruction.

“He was a good kid who struggled academically,” recalls Tim Lorentz, who taught him in the fifth grade and again last year in a YWCA program for transient families.

The teacher was shaken by news of the Hillyard shooting.

“I feel like I let him down, that I was maybe too laid back with him,” he says. “You look back and say, maybe I could have spent more time with him. If this kid could have a positive influence around him daily, I could guarantee this wouldn’t happen.

“He’s just one of those kids on the bubble.”



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