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Sept. 21, 2021

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Driver convicted in fatal pursuit after 2015 Vancouver gold shop homicide

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Thomas Leae, pictured at his arraignment in December 2015, was convicted Friday of second-degree murder in connection with a fatal crash in Dunnigan.
Thomas Leae, pictured at his arraignment in December 2015, was convicted Friday of second-degree murder in connection with a fatal crash in Dunnigan. (Fred Gladdis/The Davis Enterprise file photo) Photo Gallery

WOODLAND, CALIF. — A Washington man involved in a fatal car crash while fleeing authorities after the 2015 death of a precious metals shop employee in Vancouver was convicted of second-degree murder in the crash, a jury ruled Friday following a weeklong trial in California.

Thomas Phillip Leae of Renton also was convicted of evading police and vehicle theft in connection with the Nov. 30, 2015, pursuit into oncoming freeway traffic that ended with a crash and his girlfriend’s death.

Leae and his girlfriend, 18-year-old Ailiana Siufanua of Des Moines, were wanted in connection with the robbery and shooting death of Bentley Brookes, a 58-year-old Camas man who worked at Pacific Bullion Precious Metals, 701 Main St., in downtown Vancouver when a California Highway Patrol officer spotted their stolen Honda Accord speeding southbound on Interstate 5 in Glenn County.

A 40-mile, three-county chase ensued, with Leae driving south in the northbound traffic lanes from the California towns of Arbuckle to Dunnigan with the car’s lights blacked out. In Dunnigan, the Honda left the freeway and struck a tree, causing fatal injuries to Siufanua.

Leae, 23, reacted to the guilty verdicts by putting his hands over his face, untying his ponytailed hair and untucking his dress shirt, then retreating to an inmate holding area before Judge David Reed even dismissed the jury.

Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 6, with Leae facing at least 15 years to life in state prison.

Prosecutors sought the second-degree conviction under the “implied malice” theory of the law, arguing that Leae, who had been involved in a prior pursuit and crash, knew his reckless driving behavior was dangerous to human life yet acted with conscious disregard to that fact.

Jurors apparently struggled with that concept during their deliberations Friday afternoon, sending Reed a note requesting additional instruction on implied malice.

Later, they declared themselves deadlocked 11-1 on the murder count, which prompted Reed to have the attorneys in the case deliver additional arguments on that aspect of the law.

Deputy District Attorney Deanna Hays said Leae didn’t have to specifically intend to kill anyone when he made the dangerous decision to drive into oncoming traffic.

“Everybody knows a high-speed head-on collision is deadly. We know that from common sense,” Hays said. Each passing car that swerved from his path was a warning sign, and “he didn’t care if someone died.”

Defense attorney John Sage disagreed, saying his client was trying to help, not harm, Siufanua when he took the Dunnigan exit, believing they would escape from the authorities who wanted to capture them.

“He’s trying to get away from the police,” Sage said. “That doesn’t rise to the level of malice.”

The jury then left the courtroom to continue its deliberations, reaching a verdict a few minutes later.

In addition to his Yolo County conviction, Leae has a warrant for his arrest in connection with the gold-shop homicide, for which he allegedly served as the getaway driver after Siufanua shot and killed the victim. He is expected to be extradited to Washington following his sentencing.