Memorial tonight for Tri-Cities trooper murdered 20 years ago. For many, the loss will never fade

It was an early fall evening and Trooper James Saunders was out patrolling the roadways around the Tri-Cities.

He stopped a pickup just off Highway 395 in Pasco, and radioed in to dispatchers a description of the truck and the license plate.

Less than a minute later, Saunders was shot multiple times as he approached the driver.

A witness tried to call get him help but it was too late.

That night, the 31-year-old became the 26th Washington State Patrol trooper to die in the line of duty. Three more have died in recent years.

Monday marks the 20th anniversary of Saunders’ death.

Trooper James Saunders AP Photo AP

A memorial service is planned at the same place and time where he was killed.

The spot — on Road 28 between Lewis and Hopkins streets, in front of the Hillcrest-Bruce Lee Memorial Center — is marked by a bench and granite slab engraved with Saunders’ likeness.

Troopers and other officers plan to start gathering at 8:30 p.m. before the speakers and prayer session at 9 p.m.

Pain ‘until we die’

While it has been two decades since Saunders’ murder, what happened on Oct. 7, 1999, and in the days and years afterward remain fresh in the memory of many law enforcement members.

“I think for those who were around and working in this region when Jim was murdered, we think about him all the time,” Trooper Chris Thorson, spokesman for District 3’s Benton and Franklin counties, told the Tri-City Herald.

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Trooper James Saunders was killed Oct. 7, 1999, on Pasco’s Road 28, between Lewis and Hopkins streets, near the Hillcrest-Bruce Lee Memorial Center.

He was stationed in Kennewick as a trooper cadet just two months before the shooting.

“I experienced all the emotional pain and suffering that all of us went through,” he added. “None of us will forget, even after we’re retired. We will carry it with us until we die, that’s how painful it was.”

Killer serving life

Saunders had been a trooper for nearly nine years when he was shot. He’d joined the Kennewick detachment in 1996.

His killer, Nicolas Solorio Vasquez, then 28, drove off that night, but was caught after a 26-hour manhunt.

He eventually pleaded guilty to aggravated first-degree murder, and is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

Nicolas Solorio Vasquez was escorted past law enforcement officers into a Franklin County courtroom in August 2001 for his guilty plea to aggravated first-degree murder. He got life in prison for fatally shooting Washington State Patrol Trooper James Saunders on Oct. 7, 1999. File Tri-City Herald

A Mexican national, Vasquez, now 48, had been deported from the United States three times and was mistakenly released on bail for a Franklin County drug charge two months before he gunned down Saunders.

In 2002, he tried to go back to Mexico to serve his prison term on the murder.

Nioclas Solorio Vaquez.jpg
Nioclas Solorio Vaquez convicted in 1999 shooting death of Washington State Patrol trooper Jim Saunders in Pasco.

His request was denied because his home country does not have an equivalent sentence. The maximum sentence possible in Mexico is 50 years.

Shock, denial and anger

Saunders’ wife, Billie, was 29 and pregnant when her husband died.

Four months later she had a boy and named him Jim Jr. after the dad he never got to meet. The couple’s daughter, Megan, was 2 1/2 at the time.

“It was an absolutely devastating loss for his family,” said Thorson. “I can’t really think of words to really describe it ... but just absolutely devastating is what comes to mind.”

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

“A lot of us (in law enforcement) were in shock, denial, went into anger, and then I think, eventually after the funeral and everything, a lot of troopers had depression about the incident and were still in disbelief about it,” he added, “I think it’s fair to say there was still a lot of emotional pain from his state patrol family.”

Tri-Cities residents and businesses rallied around the Saunders family and the state patrol.

Thorson said it was an “absolutely amazing” show of support, and still continues in the community 20 years later.

Changes at state patrol

After Saunders’ death, the state patrol started teaching cadets at the academy to approach stopped vehicles from the right passenger side, instead of walking up on the driver’s side, he said.

That puts more space between the trooper and the driver, as well as increases the trooper’s safety by not being near the lane of traffic.

The Kennewick WSP detachment also received a large donation to buy VHS cassette in-car cameras, which were installed long before the rest of the agency went to an in-car system, said Thorson.

A granite slab engraved with the likeness of Washington State Patrol Trooper James E. Saunders sits in front of the Hillcrest-Bruce Lee Memorial Center in Pasco, just a few feet from where he was shot to death during a traffic stop on Oct. 7, 1999. File Tri-City Herald

This past spring, Megan Saunders embarked on a career that honors her dad’s memory.

The recent University of Washington graduate was hired to work in the state patrol’s government and media relations department.

Her new boss told the Herald earlier this year that Megan earned the position on her own merits with an intensive interview, a polygraph test and a background check.

“I can’t understate how proud we are to have recently hired her, and we are very excited to do that,” said Thorson.

29 fallen Washington troopers

While Saunders was the 26th trooper to die while on duty, he was only the third in the state patrol to be fatally shot.

The state patrol hangs a picture in every bureau of the last trooper killed. Saunders’ picture was up for more than 12 years.

Washington State Patrol Trooper James E. Saunders’ academy classmates perform a 21-bell salute during a memorial service on the 10th anniversary of his death. The salute is an alternative to a 21-gun salute. Saunders was shot multiple times on Oct. 7, 1999, after stopping a truck at Road 28 and Lewis Street in Pasco. File Tri-City Herald

Then, in February 2012, Trooper Tony Radulescu was shot to death during a traffic stop in Kitsap County.

He was followed by Trooper Sean O’Connell, who was killed in May 2013 when his motorcycle collided with a truck in Conway.

In August 2015, Detective Brent Hanger died after suffering a heart attack while on assignment in Yakima County.

Kristin M. Kraemer covers the judicial system and crime issues for the Tri-City Herald. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years in Washington and California.