Washington state blamed for fatal shooting spree at Jewish day care

Whenever Alan Stepakoff sees the large scar on the back of his son’s right leg, he’s reminded of the horror seven years ago that forever shattered his family’s sense of security.

Joshua, then 6, was one of five people shot when a gunman stormed into a day care at a Jewish community center in Granada Hills, Calif. Joshua was shot twice. One bullet hit him in the back, just missing his spine. The other tore through his leg.

The shooter, Buford Furrow Jr., was an ex-convict on probation in Washington state. The avowed white supremacist had been released from prison three months before the attack.

Afterward, Joshua needed counseling. Just the sound of helicopters overhead — a reminder of the police response — would send him to tears. Now headed into eighth grade, it’s still on his mind. He often writes about the experience for school assignments.

“It’s hard to know what kind of kid he would be like today or what our family would be like if we hadn’t had these events,” Alan Stepakoff said in a telephone interview. “I don’t drop him off for school without telling him I love him — ever.”

Stepakoff, 53, and the families of four other children harmed in the shooting think the tragedy could have been prevented if Washington’s prison system had more closely monitored Furrow, according to a $15 million tort claim filed Friday against the state Department of Corrections.

Corrections failed to adequately supervise Furrow — allowing him to accumulate weapons and prepare for the shooting spree, the families contend. The agency, they say, also was negligent for not obtaining Furrow’s psychiatric records and assessing his mental health, or paying closer attention to court records that detailed his close ties with hate groups.

“For us to be able to protect our family, we have to depend on our government,” Stepakoff said. “I’m hoping that this will make the government … hold up that trust.”

Corrections has been sued several times in recent years over offenders who’ve committed horrific crimes while under the department’s supervision. Last year, the state paid $6.5 million to the family of a Tacoma mother who died when an offender on probation struck her pickup while driving a stolen sport utility vehicle while under the influence of marijuana.

The Furrow claim seeks $3 million for each of the five young plaintiffs: shooting victims Joshua; Benjamin Kadish, now 12; and James Zidell, 13; and Joshua Kadish, 16; and Nathan Powers, 11, who weren’t shot but were severely traumatized.

The claim was filed within the statute of limitations for cases involving minors, which is three years from when they turn 18, said Mike Withey, the Seattle attorney representing the children and their families.

“By filing this claim … we hope to make sure this never happens again,” Withey said.

A Corrections spokeswoman declined to comment on the legal action Friday, saying agency officials had not yet reviewed the claim. The state has 60 days to respond before the plaintiffs can move forward with a lawsuit.

The case follows a lawsuit that the victims’ families filed several years ago against the manufacturers of the guns Furrow used. The lead plaintiff in that case was Lilian Ileto, the mother of Joseph Ileto, the postal worker Furrow gunned down minutes after leaving the community center. The suit was dismissed last year when Congress passed legislation exempting gun makers from liability in firearms-related crimes.

Furrow, a Thurston County man with a history of mental illness and affiliations with white supremacists, was on probation with Corrections when he bought several guns, including an Uzi and a Glock 9 mm handgun.

Furrow drove to Los Angeles and on Aug. 10, 1999, marched into the Jewish day care, where he shot five people: Joshua, Benjamin and James, a 68-year-old receptionist and a 16-year-old counselor.

Minutes later, Furrow gunned down Ileto on the street, saying later it was because of the Filipino American’s dark skin.

Furrow is now serving a life sentence at a federal prison in Marion, Ill.

Before the shootings, Furrow had served eight months in prison and time in a mental hospital after he had threatened a mental health worker with a knife. He told police he was a white supremacist who had been experiencing homicidal thoughts, yet was classified by prison officials as a moderate risk when he was released from custody, requiring midlevel supervision, according to records.

Corrections officials launched a review of Furrow’s case immediately after the shooting. Then-Corrections Secretary Joseph Lehman said in a departmentwide memo and in an interview with “60 Minutes” that the internal investigation showed Furrow’s probation officer, Patrick Gosney, had no sign that a domestic terrorist was on their caseloads.

Had department officials taken Furrow’s white supremacy ties into consideration, he would have been classified as a maximum risk, according to the claim filed Friday.

After the shooting, Lehman defended his agency, saying, “We were not aware of the extent of Furrow’s involvement with hate groups.”

Gosney said in a report that he knew of Furrow’s white supremacist orientation but was not aware that he was involved with a specific group, according to a department report.

Withey, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said such evidence was “easily discoverable” in law enforcement reports.

“Not only were there red flags, they were in their own files,” he said. “It’s like being told that Washington state allows its community corrections officers to be bamboozled by neo-Nazi, gun-toting nuts.”

One of the mental health workers Furrow attacked described in a presentencing report written by a Corrections officer how Furrow’s wallet contained an Aryan Nations membership card and other white supremacist paraphernalia, according to records obtained by Withey.

Furrow also had been briefly married to Debra Matthews, the widow of Robert Jay Matthews, founder of the neo-Nazi group The Order. Robert Matthews died in a gunfight with federal agents on Whidbey Island.

Furrow, who had no prior criminal convictions, had initially scored as a minimal risk to the public on a psychological test, but Gosney put him in the next-highest category because of the violent nature of the health worker attack, according to Lehman’s statements.

Furrow was required to contact his probation officer twice a month, with one in-person meeting at a Corrections field office in Olympia. According to the prison system’s investigation, the Corrections officer met with Furrow five times and spoke to him twice over the phone, which was more than required.

However, Gosney never visited Furrow at his parents’ Thurston County home, where Furrow was staying — and amassing his arsenal. Gosney also never called a third party, such as Furrow’s father, to verify how he was doing, nor did he make an attempt to search the ex-convict’s property.

The terms of probation for Furrow didn’t require he be searched unless the officer had “reasonable suspicion” the offender had violated probation by drinking alcohol or possessing weapons. During visits with his probation officer, Furrow seemed stabilized by his medications, presentable and polite, and did not raise grounds for suspicion, Gosney noted in his reports.

In the wake of the Furrow case, Washington probation officers have smaller caseloads and focus their resources on the highest-risk offenders.

In 1999, the Legislature passed the Offender Accountability Act, which created new risk-level categories for offenders on probation. It also gave community corrections officers more authority to modify terms of probation and sanction those who violate them. It went into effect a year after the Southern California shooting.

Improvements also were made to the background and psychological tests used to examine offenders.

Stepakoff, whose older son also was at the day care but in a different location that day in 1999, said he tried to shield his young son from the reasons for the shooting.

“To take a 6-year-old and tell him that people want to kill you because you’re Jewish, that doesn’t make sense. I didn’t want him to have a fear of his identity or of his religion,” he said.

“But he knew a lot more than we gave him credit for.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, USA
Aug. 21, 2006
Scott Gutierrez

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday August 22, 2006.
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