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Two years later, there’s still no motive for the shooting that left 4 dead in Tacoma

Peter Talbot (Tacoma) News Tribune

TACOMA - More than two years after a shooting in Tacoma’s Salishan neighborhood claimed four lives, why the alleged gunman, a young man with practically no connection to the victims, would have done it remains a mystery.

As the trial got underway with jury selection Thursday, pretrial motions filed by prosecutors show a central question coming into focus: Why was Maleke Pate identified as the suspect?

Pate was 22 years old when he was accused of walking up to a blue sedan parked behind a townhouse on Everett Avenue the afternoon of Oct. 21, 2021, and shooting three people in or near the vehicle. The fourth and youngest, 19-year-old Emery Iese, ran from the gunfire. Pate allegedly chased him to the front of the house where Iese fell and put his hands up in surrender before he, too, was killed.

The victims were Maria Nunez, 42; her son, lese; Nunez’s brother, Raymond Williams, 22; and Williams’ girlfriend, Natasha Brincefield, 22.

Forensic evidence points to Pate — the 9 mm pistol used in the shooting was found in his bedroom — but witnesses weren’t able to identify the gunman, and the witness closest to the scene provided a description of what he was wearing that was contrary to what others saw. According to prosecutors’ trial brief, Tacoma police closed in on Pate after they created a bulletin of surveillance-video images purporting to show him running from the area of the murders, and a school resource officer recognized him as a former student of Mount Tahoma High School.

Prosecutors have filed a motion asking Pierce County Superior Court Judge Susan Adams to admit the school resource officer’s identification of Pate as a non-hearsay statement but not as substantive evidence, arguing that it’s relevant to explain the effect the ID had on law enforcement and why Pate was focused on as a potential suspect.

“If this evidence is not admitted, it leaves a hole for defense to argue or the jury to infer that the State merely targeted a young, black man in a highly populated neighborhood, which is contrary to the evidence,” deputy prosecuting attorneys Sunni Ko and Lindsay Chenelia wrote.

Pate’s attorneys from the Department of Assigned Counsel, Travis Currie and Jane Melby, have indicated in court records they will put up a defense of general denial, so it’s essential for the state to prove to jurors that Pate was the shooter.

Doing that includes showing how law enforcement identified Pate as a potential suspect in a large neighborhood using only surveillance footage, according to prosecutors. With trust in law enforcement eroding over the past several years, the attorneys wrote, it’s become more important for the state to establish why police chose a certain route for investigation.

Prosecutors expect the trial to last three to four weeks. They have identified more than 70 people as potential witnesses, though not all will be called testify. The witnesses include 30 Tacoma Police Department employees, relatives of the victims and experts. The defense does not yet appear to have disclosed its potential witnesses in court filings.

Expert witnesses for the state include Pierce County’s chief medical examiner, Karen Cline-Parhamovich, another pathologist, a DNA expert from the Washington State Patrol’s crime lab, a ballistics expert and a videographer whom prosecutors have asked be allowed to present a PowerPoint compiling videos allegedly showing Pate fleeing the scene. Prosecutors said it would help jurors understand the defendant’s movements as he ran toward his residence.

Stakes are high for Pate. If convicted of just one of four charges of aggravated first-degree murder, he faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

‘You need to hurry here’

Hours before the quadruple homicide, prosecutors say, Nunez told her husband, Lauvale Iese, she was going to pick up their son from work at the Krispy Kreme outside the Tacoma Mall.

Emery Iese, one of seven of Maria Nunez and Lauvale Iese’s children, had graduated in June from Chief Leschi School near Puyallup, and he had plans to start college the next year. He was still living with his parents. At 3:10 p.m., he texted his father that Nunez was on her way to pick him up.

Family previously told The News Tribune that before Nunez and her son went home, Nunez said she needed to pick up some documents from the townhouse where her mother lived with Nunez’s brother, Williams, on Everett Avenue. It was the last relatives heard from her.

At 4:24 p.m., 911 dispatchers started getting numerous calls reporting gunshots in the area of East 44th Street and Everett Avenue. One of the callers lived in the Everett Avenue townhouse, and she later told police she saw part of the shooting unfold from her upstairs bedroom window.

“You need to hurry here. 4258 Everett Avenue in Tacoma, Washington,” the woman told the dispatcher. “There’s been a shooting.”

The woman had just gotten home from work at 4 p.m., according to court records, and she saw her friends talking in a parking area in the backyard. Nunez was reportedly in the driver’s seat, and Iese was sitting beside her. Williams and his girlfriend, Brincefield, were standing nearby. It was a common sight, the woman told police, so she went upstairs to play on her phone.

Twenty minutes later, she heard two gunshots and looked out her bedroom window facing the backyard. There, she watched as a man shot Nunez while she tried to get out of the car. Brincefield was already on the ground. The woman ran to a street-facing window, and she saw Iese on the ground near the sidewalk before the gunman walked up and shot him at an arm’s length.

Police officers arrived minutes after the 911 calls, records state, and the first to arrive located Iese on the pavement in front of the house. He immediately started CPR, then dragged the teenager behind a vehicle and continued his efforts after being told the suspect could still be inside.

Iese, his mother and Brincefield were pronounced dead at the scene. Williams was taken to an area hospital where he died. The Pierce County medical examiner later found that all were shot in the head, and they died of multiple gunshot wounds.

Witnesses gave slightly differing descriptions of the gunman, according to the report of the officer who arrested Pate. The woman who was inside the townhouse said he was a slim-looking Black male about 6-feet tall, with a durag on his head, a white tank top and baggy blue jeans. Two houses south, two residents were on their porch when they heard 8-10 gunshots and saw a man chase Iese to the street. They said the gunman was wearing a black durag, a black tank top, dark shoes and blue or black basketball shorts.

A photo from a Ring doorbell camera of a suspect running from the shooting scene had been distributed to patrol officers, and one of the detectives who interviewed the two residents recognized that their description matched. He showed the picture to them, and both said it was the same person they saw shoot Iese.

Detectives collected more surveillance footage of the suspect walking to and from the murder scene, and on Oct. 25, a confidential bulletin was issued to law enforcement with two photos of the suspect and an attached video.

The next day, the person was IDed as Pate. Detectives researched his prior police contacts, and he was tied to 1822 E. Harper St., less than a half-mile from the victim’s residence. A SWAT team surrounded the duplex Oct. 29, and Pate was arrested. Inside, a search warrant yielded clothing in Pate’s dresser that prosecutors say matched exactly to what was seen on surveillance video.

Among other possessions, police collected as evidence Pate’s membership to a shooting range near Puyallup, the 9 mm Luger pistol that the State Patrol’s crime lab determined was used to kill the victims, and shooting targets of silhouettes with bullet holes through the heads.

Who is Maleke Pate?

Prosecutors expect Lauvale Iese, a pastor to an Eastside congregation, to testify that his wife and son did not know Pate and had never associated with him before the day they were killed. Investigators found no connection between Pate and the four victims, none of whom were associated with gangs or involved with drugs, according to charging papers. The incident also didn’t appear to police to be a robbery.

Pate does not have any criminal convictions, according to court records. Psychological reports describe a relatively typical upbringing. He was born in Seattle in 1999 and was raised in Tacoma, where he grew up as a middle child of six siblings. Court records show his parents filed for divorce in 2012, but Pate reported having a close relationship with his mother and father.

At Mount Tahoma High School, Pate played varsity football for the Thunderbirds from 2015 to 2017 as a wide receiver and in other positions, according to The News Tribune’s sports coverage. He was expelled from the school in his senior year and then finished high school in Oregon, where his father was working at the time. Asked about his expulsion by the psychological evaluator, Pate said he was taken out of school for his own safety but was vague on details. After high school, Pate reportedly attended some college at the University of Idaho.

Before his arrest, Pate most recently worked at a warehouse for about six months. He also reported working in construction and roofing.

Prosecutors want some jail phone calls admitted

It’s up to Judge Adams to decide what information will be admitted as evidence in the trial, and prosecutors have asked for her to make rulings on a number of issues, including Pate’s phone calls from Pierce County Jail and references to the court’s repeated inquiries into the defendant’s mental fitness to stand trial.

Police began listening in on Pate’s phone calls with his mother from the jail after he was booked, and prosecutors wrote in their trial brief that in two calls, the son and mother are heard coming up with his potential defense.

“Racking his brain, Pate came up with the gun belonged to one of mom’s many lovers,” prosecutors wrote.

On one call, Pate told his mother “they” have no evidence, saying that he told them the murder weapon wasn’t his, and his mother had people in and out of the house, so he didn’t know who had been there.

Pate told her his fingerprints weren’t on the gun, which is true, according to prosecutors. They wrote in the brief that a forensic analysis found Pate’s DNA on a revolver found next to the pistol and on an empty gun magazine, but the 9 mm pistol they determined was used in the shooting had no DNA on it.

The defendant also claimed in the phone calls that the person captured on surveillance footage wasn’t him.

“You ain’t got no actual face shot where I look you in your eyes on camera, that ain’t me,” Pate reportedly said. “There’s more than one Black person in this world that looks just like me.”

Prosecutors have asked that redacted recordings of the phone calls be admitted. Redacted were all references to Pate’s attorneys as well as irrelevant and unduly prejudicial statements.

The state also wants some of Pate’s statements in jail calls to be excluded as hearsay. According to the trial brief, Pate has told his mother and other family members that he has no memory of the date in question. In one call with his sister, he claims he had a prior mental breakdown. His sister reportedly disputed his mental illness, telling him any breakdown was due to him ingesting mushrooms. Prosecutors want to exclude those exchanges and any of Pate’s other statements about prior mental health diagnoses.

It’s unclear what details of Pate’s mental health, if any, will be allowed into the trial. He underwent five psychological evaluations and two 90-day terms of inpatient treatment at Western State Hospital before he was declared mentally competent in January, all of which prosecutors have asked to be excluded from the trial.

This story was originally published February 29, 2024, 5:30 AM.