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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Man sentenced to 112 years for Seattle Pacific shooting in 2014

Shooting suspect Aaron Ybarra is led to a court hearing at a King County Jail courtroom Friday, June 6, 2014, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
By Sara Jean Green Seattle Times

SEATTLE – A mentally ill man who killed one student and wounded two others at Seattle Pacific University in 2014 – a shooting inspired by the Columbine High School massacre a decade and a half earlier – was sentenced Friday to 112 years in prison.

“I wish I could take back what I did, but I can’t,” Aaron Ybarra said before he was sentenced.

Ybarra, 29, was convicted in November of premeditated first-degree murder, three counts of attempted first-degree murder and one count of second-degree assault after a monthlong trial. The charges all carried firearms enhancements as well as an “aggravator” because of the impact the shooting had on the entire Seattle Pacific University community, elements which added to the length of Ybarra’s sentence.

The state had recommended a sentence of about 112 years in prison, while the defense had recommended roughly 90 years.

“Over the past 2 1/2 years I’ve realized I damaged more than just innocent people. I damaged the community and even the world,” Ybarra said haltingly. He said he hopes he now gets the help he needs to “stop the throbbing in my head.”

Ybarra was armed with a 12-gauge shotgun when he drove to the campus on June 5, 2014 – the second-to-last day of classes – and killed freshman Paul Lee, 19, of Portland, on a sidewalk outside Otto Miller Hall and wounded a second man, Thomas Fowler, who was struck by pellets that passed through Lee.

He then tried to shoot a female student, but his shotgun misfired and she ran away, jurors were told.

Ybarra then walked into Otto Miller Hall, where he shot and critically wounded student Sarah Williams, then 22, as she walked down a flight of stairs. Ybarra pointed the shotgun at another student, but the gun misfired again and Ybarra was tackled by student-safety monitor Jon Meis.

Lee’s father and brother were in the Seattle courtroom for the sentencing. A video showing photos of Lee as a youth and young adult were played before the sentence was announced.

Ybarra’s guilt wasn’t contested during his trial after he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Jurors had to weigh whether they thought Ybarra knew at the time of the shooting that his actions were legally and morally wrong, or if he was legally insane.

Ybarra, of Mountlake Terrace, north of Seattle, testified that he was following a plan created by God, Satan and Lucifer, but on cross-examination admitted he was angry that Lee and three other students didn’t take him seriously or respect the danger he and his shotgun represented.

He told jurors he never intended to kill anyone, contradicting both entries made in his journal and statements made to police immediately following his arrest. He also discussed his obsession with school shootings and admiration for Eric Harris, one of two student gunmen responsible for the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.

Defense testimony also focused on Ybarra’s developmental delays through childhood, his battles with substance abuse and his treatment for mental illness – which included a failed attempt to have Ybarra involuntarily committed.

Prosecutors acknowledged during the trial that Ybarra is mentally ill, but insisted he was driven by hatred and anger, and understood that what he was doing was wrong. Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kristin Richardson told jurors Ybarra never mentioned God, Satan or Lucifer directing him to kill until months after the shooting, after he’d heard other inmates talk of “God’s plan” through jail ministries.

Instead, Richardson said, Ybarra opened fire at the small, private university “because he was angry at the world.”

The King County jury deliberated for a day and a half before returning the guilty verdicts against Ybarra. Afterward, jurors acknowledged that they believed Ybarra was mentally ill by the societal definition but that he didn’t meet the legal definition for insanity. They also said they placed a lot of weight on his journal entries and confession to police since they both showed his state of mind at the time of the crimes.

Nonetheless, jurors said the decision was difficult.

“It’s not easy to commit a man to prison for his entire life, especially when he’s mentally ill,” one juror said.