Slain trooper leaves lasting legacy

By Paula Horton, Herald staff writerOctober 4, 2009 

Billie Saunders says a prayer every time she sees a trooper alongside a road making a traffic stop.

The biggest concern for the 39-year-old mother of two is that the trooper stays safe and gets to go home at the end of his shift. She knows how it feels to be the wife of a Washington State Patrol trooper who never came home.

On Oct. 7, 1999, her husband, Trooper James E. Saunders, 31, was shot multiple times at point-blank range when he stopped a pickup near the intersection of 28th Avenue and Lewis Street in Pasco.

His slaying had a significant effect on the Tri-City community, law enforcement, the state patrol and his family. And his absence continues to be felt 10 years later.

"There are days that are still difficult," said his widow in a phone interview last week. "You wish you can change things. You wish you could turn back the clock."

In her first interview since her husband's death, Billie Saunders said she couldn't have gotten through the loss without the support of the Tri-City community and the state patrol.

"Of all the communities you could have lived in to have such a horrible thing happen, they were just amazing," she said. "And the patrol has been an amazing, supportive family to us. I can't even begin to explain how much they meant to us."

Remembering Saunders

The Saunders family, which moved to the west side of the state about five years ago, will be back in the Tri-Cities this week for the annual memorial.

Trooper Saunders' sister is also expected to attend, as well troopers who went through the state patrol academy with Saunders. He had been a trooper for 81/2 years.

An Honor Guard ceremony will start at 9 p.m. Wednesday -- the time Saunders was shot -- at the memorial site in Pasco.

Trooper Saunders was the 26th trooper killed in the line of duty and the last trooper death the agency has had, said state patrol Chief John R. Batiste.

"Thank God it's been 10 years since we've lost another trooper," he said. "It was a very hurtful day for the agency. ... It was the first fatality we had had in six years. It was very shocking to the agency."

Batiste said Saunders was well liked and well trained. And his death was personal for the chief, who recruited Saunders to be a trooper. Batiste said Saunders made a great first impression, had a "charming attitude" and appeared to be "a very intelligent man and who would indeed be a great state trooper."

Saunders sailed through the hiring process and worked with Batiste in Wenatchee before being assigned to Grand Coulee and then the Kennewick detachment in 1996.

Law enforcement officers know the dangers of the job, and they're trained to deal with the unknown. Still, having a fellow officer killed -- especially a friend or one who works in the same community -- brings home just how dangerous the job can be.

"All of us know when you go to work that it may be your last shift," said Richland police Capt. Mike Cobb, who considered Saunders a good friend. "But none of us go into work thinking that it will be the last shift. A death such as Jim's makes it go from theory to real super quickly.

"One of the things his murder did point out is the risks men and women in law enforcement face in every traffic stop," Cobb said.

More officers are injured or killed making traffic stops or going to domestic violence calls than doing anything else because they respond to so many of them, he said. But officers report to duty every day because "we know we have a very important job to do ... and that is to stand between the bad people -- like the man who murdered Jim Saunders -- and our families."

Saunders' death also showed that sometimes even the best training can't prevent tragedy.

"One of the major outcomes that can be attributed to Jim's death is a reminder that we have a dangerous job," said state patrol Sgt. Freddy Williams. "Jim tactically did everything right. He followed the best tactics of the era, ... but even doing everything right you can still be involved in a situation that costs you your life."

Trooper safety

One change the state patrol implemented after Saunders' death was teaching troopers to approach from the right side of a vehicle instead of the driver's side during a traffic stop.

Walking up on the right puts more space between the trooper and the driver and increases the trooper's safety because he or she is not near the lane of traffic. Troopers have a greater risk of being run over during a traffic stop than being shot, Williams noted.

But Williams, who was the defensive tactics instructor at the academy when Saunders was killed, said he's not sure it would have made a difference if Saunders had approached the pickup from the right.

"We don't know where the suspect had the gun prior to Jim walking up to the car," he said.

The state patrol also has made it a requirement to "call out" all traffic stops -- giving dispatchers a stop location and vehicle information.

Before Saunders' death, troopers typically only called in their stops when dealing with a suspected drunken driver or some suspicious circumstances.

Saunders relayed information to dispatchers about the pickup he was stopping, which helped officers track down the shooting suspect.

Serving a life sentence

Nicolas Solorio Vasquez, a Mexican national, was arrested after a 26-hour manhunt and convicted in 2001 of aggravated first-degree murder. He's serving a life sentence, without the possibility of parole, at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

The 38-year-old Pasco man has been relatively free of infractions while he's been in prison. He works in the metal shop and took English as a Second Language classes a few years back, prison officials said.

After Saunders' death, the community raised money to put cameras into patrol cars. Saunders' car didn't have a camera, but investigators believe it could have helped them track down Vasquez more easily and provide answers about what happened that night.

Agencies installed cameras in many patrol cars with money from donations, grants and department funds -- and some now have upgraded digital camera systems -- but a lot of police cruisers on the road still don't have cameras.

Batiste said the shelf life on units bought for troopers' cars has expired, and there hasn't been money to buy replacements. Cobb said Richland police pulled cameras out of cars a few years ago because the maintenance costs were outweighing the benefits.

"Cameras in patrol cars don't really enhance safety ... it documents (vehicle) stops," Cobb said.

A decade passes

A lot has happened in a decade, and it hasn't been an easy road, Billie Saunders admits. Her daughter Megan, now 12, was 21/2 years old when she lost her father, and Billie was pregnant with a son, who was born four months later.

When her husband was killed, the couple didn't yet know they were having a boy, but Saunders said her husband used to joke that he knew it would be a boy. She found out he was right at an ultrasound a week after his death.

"It was bittersweet for sure," she said.

James Jr., named after the father he never got to meet, is now 9, goes by Jim and is a spitting image of his dad, she said.

"It's amazing," Saunders said. "He's a lot like his dad, which is an incredible blessing for me. When you lose the person you're supposed to spend the rest of your life with, it's a blessing to have that."

The family suffered another loss nearly two years ago when Lt. Dave Trunkey, a retired state patrol officer, lost his battle with cancer at 63.

Trunkey, who was Saunders' commander, was a good friend of the family -- sort of like a surrogate dad to them, Billie Saunders said.

And through each of her children's developmental stages, the grieving begins again, she said. Megan started seventh grade this year, and they're going through the process of talking about his death again, she said.

"It's a struggle," Saunders admitted, adding that her son is probably able to talk about it better than Megan because his viewpoint is different. "He knows what happened, but it's sort of difficult to explain because he didn't know him, which is really sad."

Saunders said helping each child through the process is really different -- and then there's her own grief.

"I have good days and bad days," she said. "Days when I think I couldn't do it and days when I say I have to do it because I have kids and we have to keep going."

Saunders said her husband, in addition to being an amazing father, was her best friend -- the person she turned to for everything. There are no words to describe that loss, she said.

"Our lives were changed forever on Oct. 7, 1999, and will never be what I had hoped or dreamed they would be," she said. "With that realization, I take each day that comes knowing that it will bring yet another challenge, one that I may or may not be ready for, but I continue to do the best that I can to honor Jim's memory and his legacy that lives on through his children."

In those early days and months, she said it helped having people encouraging them and praying for them.

"The Tri-Cities just wrapped their arms around us and lifted us up as much as they could," she said. "Obviously, they didn't know our pain, but what happened affected the entire community. ... That really did help a lot."

Batiste also said the outpouring of support the community gave to the state patrol since Trooper Saunders' death has been meaningful and is still felt today.

So does knowing the community pauses for a moment each year to pay its respects and bring awareness to the dangers that are out there every day.

"It's nice to know that even after 10 years, people are still remembering," Billie Saunders said. "He had a positive impact on the community. ... He's greatly missed. Greatly missed."

-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com

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