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Man shot, killed during suspected vigilante attack on homeless encampment, court records say

Will James
Friends and supporters held a vigil on Dec. 4, 2020, for a man who was shot and killed in an attack on an encampment in Tacoma.

Update: The Pierce County medical examiner's office has identified the victim of the shooting as Patrick N. Shenaurlt, 38, of Parkland, and ruled his death a homicide. The cause of death is multiple gunshot wounds.

A man who was homeless was shot and killed during a suspected vigilante attack on a Tacoma encampment last week, according to court documents and witnesses.

Tacoma Police arrested a 33-year-old man on Dec. 3 on suspicion of second-degree murder in the shooting that evening. He was released from Pierce County Jail on Dec. 6 after posting $50,000 bail. Police said they're continuing to investigate.

The alleged shooter told police he and a friend entered the encampment on South M Street and Sixth Avenue seeking to confront someone who’s homeless over a theft. The man said his friend started hitting tents with a stick or club, so he "separated himself" from the attack.

A man, later identified by the Pierce County medical examiner's office as Patrick N. Shenaurlt, then exited a tent with a BB gun to confront the man hitting tents, according to court records.

The suspect told police he thought Shenaurlt was holding a handgun. The suspect said he unholstered his own handgun and shot Shenaurlt.

Witnesses in a nearby home told police they heard three or four gunshots. Shenaurlt ran off, but police found him near the scene and tried to provide medical help, according to court records. He later died.

As police were trying to help Shenaurlt, the suspect approached and identifed himself as the shooter, court records say. 

Friends of Shenaurlt, 38, said he was either Black or mixed race. The suspected shooter is white, according to jail records. KNKX is not naming the suspect unless he is charged with a crime.

"With the investigation ongoing, that process needs to play out further before charging decisions are made," said Adam Faber, a spokesman for Pierce County prosecuting attorney Mary Robnett.

The medical examiner's office ruled Shenaurlt's death a homicide and said the cause was multiple gunshot wounds. A medical examiner's ruling of "homicide" only means the death was caused by another person, not necessarily that it was a crime.

Advocates for unsheltered people held a vigil for Shenaurlt the evening after the shooting at the encampment, a line of tents on a grassy strip between the sidewalk and the road just outside The Evergreen State College’s Tacoma campus.

Candles traced a path several hundred feet down South M Street and Sixth Avenue — the path witnesses said the confrontation took before Shenaurlt was killed.

Vicky Swims Under, who lives in the encampment, said she was treated for a concussion after the attacker hit her tent with a stick or club, striking her in the head. She said another woman suffered a broken arm, which was in a sling.

"I just don’t want to close my eyes," Swims Under said, "because I’m afraid they’ll come back when everybody’s gone. They’ll probably do this again."

Swims Under said she knew Shenaurlt for several years from the streets of Tacoma, and he would periodically visit her camp to check on her. He had a reputation for being confrontational and quick to anger and could also be fiercely defensive of people he cared about, she said.

The Tacoma Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness called the incident "an attack by housed people on the residents of a homeless encampment."

"We understand the tensions that exist in neighborhoods where people experiencing homelessness establish encampments," the coalition said in a statement. "However, these tensions cannot be used as a justification for acts of violence, but rather as a clarion call to individuals, organizations and local, county, and state officials to take the necessary steps to ensure that there are safe, warm, and dry housing options for all people."

Rebecca Parson, an activist with the group Tacoma Housing Now, said, "The narrative is always about fearing violence from houseless people, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about violence from housed people on the houseless."

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.