Man charged in Westfield mall shootings pleads not guilty

Barry Lee Saunders Jr., charged with the Nov. 22 shooting death of a teen at Westfield Southcenter mall, pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of second-degree murder and first-degree assault.

Saunders, 21, of Tukwila, entered his plea at the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. He is being held at the Regional Justice Center jail. Bail has been set at $1 million.

Saunders was captured in Portland on Nov. 26 by Portland police officers, working with Tukwila police.

Killed in the crowded mall on Nov. 22 was Diaquan Jones, 17, of Seattle. He died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen.

The first-degree assault charge stems from a second youth who was injured in the shooting: Jermaine McGowan, a 15-year-old Seattle boy who was with Jones at the mall. McGowan was wounded, but recovered at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

“We’re just wondering why this had to happen,” said Suga Chambliss, a great aunt of Jones, in an interview with reporters after the arraignment. “He (Jones) was a young kid just growing up.”

Several friends and relatives of Jones were in the courtroom. A few wore T-shirts with a large photo of Jones.

King County prosecutors charged Saunders on Nov. 25 with second-degree murder and first-degree assault. If convicted, he would face between 18 years and 25 years in prison.

The shooting apparently stemmed from an altercation involving several individuals from two distinct groups, according to charging papers, although prosecutors aren’t going so far at this point to call the groups gangs.

Deputy Prosecutor Scott O’Toole said investigators had yet to determine if the shooting had any gang connections.

“That’s unclear,” O’Toole said in an interview with reporters outside the courtroom Monday. “All of the investigation has not been completed.”

Witnesses identified Saunders in mall-surveillance photographs as the shooter, according to charging papers.

David Gehrke, the Des Moines attorney for Saunders, said his client plans to claim self-defense.

“Barry’s little brother and his brother’s friend were jumped,” Gehrke said in an interview after the arraignment. “Our defense is self-defense. His little brother was on the ground and being beaten and he called his brother for help.”

Gehrke said Saunders is being held in isolation at the jail because Saunders has received threats to his life and might be a target for retaliation.

The slender Saunders did not speak Monday before Judge Brian Gain. Gehrke entered the not guilty plea for Saunders. Saunders then signed the papers with the not guilty plea.

Saunders is slated to return to court for a Dec. 22 hearing when a trial date could be set. Attorneys also could ask for the hearing to be delayed.