Her state trooper dad was murdered in the Tri-Cities. She’s going to carry on his legacy

Saunders’ family WSP legacy lives on

Megan Saunders is about to embark on a career honoring the memory of her late father, Trooper James Saunders. She's set to join the Washington State Patrol's government and media relations department.
Up Next
Megan Saunders is about to embark on a career honoring the memory of her late father, Trooper James Saunders. She's set to join the Washington State Patrol's government and media relations department.

Megan Saunders didn’t get much time with her father.

She was only 2 when the veteran state trooper was murdered during a traffic stop in Pasco.

But in the two decades since that awful night, Megan hasn’t forgotten him — far from it.

In fact, she’s about to embark on a career that honors his memory.

Megan is joining the Washington State Patrol’s government and media relations department this spring after she graduates from the University of Washington. It’s the same agency her dad, James, was part of.

“I feel really, really blessed that it all worked out,” Megan said in a phone interview from Seattle. “I’m just really excited for what the future holds.”

James Saunders, 31, was fatally shot at 9 p.m. Oct. 7, 1999 after pulling over a pickup at Road 28 and West Lewis Street in Pasco. The trooper for nearly nine years was part of the state patrol’s Kennewick detachment.

His killer, Nicolas S. Vasquez, drove off, but was caught after a 26-hour manhunt. He’s serving a life sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

Members of the Washington State Patrol salute as the family of slain trooper James E. Saunders arrive in Kennewick for his memorial service in October 1999. JACKIE JOHNSTON AP

Although Saunders’ life was cut short, he made a mark in the Tri-Cities, leaving behind a legion of friends and admirers.

About 3,000 people attended his memorial service in Kennewick. Among them were 2,000 law enforcement officers from around the country, plus then-Gov. Gary Locke and the chief of the Washington State Patrol.

Friends talked about his towering height, his good humor and his selflessness.

“In these days of, ‘What’s in it for me?’ or, ‘It’s not my fault,’ it was truly a pleasure to know Jim,” a supervisor said at the service.

megan with dad.jpg
Megan Saunders with her late father, Washington State Patrol Trooper James Saunders. Courtesy of Megan Saunders

Saunders also was devoted to his family. Along with toddler Megan, he and his wife, Billie, were expecting a baby.

A son, Jim, named for the father he never got to meet, was born about four months after Saunders died.

Saunders’ wife and kids stayed in the Tri-Cities for a time, eventually moving to the Seattle area.

In this Oct. 7, 2000 file photo, Billie Saunders holds son, James Jr., 7 months, and Megan, 3, during a memorial for her husband, WSP Trooper James Saunders, who was killed on duty a year before. At right is Gloria Browning, his grandmother. Tri-City Herald file

Billie made sure her kids knew their dad through stories and memories, said Megan, adding that “she did a great job of keeping my dad’s legacy alive.”

James Saunders’ state patrol colleagues also were a strong and steady presence, showing up for birthdays, graduations, Megan said.

“It’s hard to fill that void of not having my dad, but they’ve been there for me,” she said.

The patrol wouldn’t have it any other way, said Capt. Monica Alexander, who’ll be Megan’s boss.

“When a trooper is killed, it’s a terrible thing for all of us. I remember exactly where I was when I heard he was killed. Even if you don’t know him, you’re connected to him,” said Alexander, whose husband graduated from the academy with Saunders.

Megan Saunders High School graduation.jpg
Megan Saunders said her late father’s Washington State Patrol colleagues have “done a great job of being there for me” after his death. Some are pictured here at her high school graduation. Courtesy of Megan Saunders

Although Alexander has a personal connection to the Saunders family, Megan earned the position on her own merits, Alexander said. She had to meet all the job requirements, nail an intensive interview and pass a polygraph test and a background check.

With Megan, “we’re getting an exceptional employee,” Alexander said.

And one who understands and values the state patrol’s mission.

As a communications coordinator, Megan will blog and manage social media, among other duties.

She’s set to graduate from the University of Washington with a degree in communication at the end of March.

Jim Saunders high school graduation 2018.jpg
Jim Saunders, in the cap and gown, with his mother, sister and extended Washington State Patrol family at his high school graduation. Courtesy of Megan Saunders

Her younger brother also attends the school — he’s a freshman. Megan said he hasn’t yet settled on a major.

Megan starts her new job in April. It’s a busy time, an exciting time.

And a deeply meaningful one.

“(My father) dedicated his life to the patrol. It was a really, really big part of his life,” she said. “I’m grateful they offered me this position — that I’m able to work for the same organization as my dad and carry his legacy on.”

Sara Schilling writes about what makes the Tri-Cities home, including cool people doing cool things. She also pays special attention to children’s education, schools, health care and the arts. She grew up in Kennewick and attended Seattle Pacific University.