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Closing arguments heard in 2015 killing in Vancouver

Man accused of being getaway driver, driving force in fatal robbery

By , Columbian breaking news reporter
Published: July 15, 2019, 8:44pm

Both the defense and prosecution agree about who pulled the trigger and which getaway car was used in the November 2015 shooting death of a precious metals dealer at a downtown Vancouver shop. From there, closing arguments Monday in a Renton man’s murder trial centered on whether he was driving the getaway car and how much he facilitated the shooting.

Jurors will begin to deliberate the answers to those questions Tuesday.

Thomas Phillip Leae, 25, is charged with murder, robbery and rendering criminal assistance, all in the first degree, in the Nov. 25, 2015, death of Bentley Brookes, 58, of Camas. The shooting took place at Brookes’ place of work — Pacific Bullion Precious Metals, 701 Main St.

Leae’s girlfriend — Ailiana Siufanua, 18, of Des Moines — shot Brookes in the face while robbing the shop. Following the shooting, Siufanua and Leae fled. They were spotted five days later, driving a stolen Honda Civic on Interstate 5 in Glenn County, Calif., by a California Highway Patrol officer.

At the end of a 40-mile, high-speed pursuit, the stolen car left the road and struck a tree, according to The Davis (Calif.) Enterprise. Siufanua died in the crash; Leae broke a leg.

Surveillance footage of the robbery revealed that a woman, later identified as Siufanua, shot Brookes, then shoveled coins and random valuables from the store’s display cases into a bag and pocketed cash from a drawer before fleeing.

She was later identified by her own parents, from surveillance photos of the robbery.

Leae was apparently not in the precious metals shop during the murder and robbery. In Washington, a person can be charged with murder if a first- or second-degree robbery results in homicide. Clark County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kasey Vu told jurors Monday that the information presented at trial — including testimony from nearly 30 witness — did not amount to direct evidence that Leae was guilty as an accomplice.

There was, however, ample circumstantial evidence that Leae committed the robbery and murder through his influence over Siufanua, Vu said.

“He was the only one to have an opportunity to convince his girlfriend, this gullible 18-year-old girl, to commit this horrible crime,” Vu said. “He knew exactly what he put her up to. He knew exactly what he was doing.”

Defense attorney Tony Lowe spent much of his closing arguments — considerably shorter than Vu’s — reminding jurors that simply being present at a scene does not amount to being an accomplice. He discussed areas of Vu’s case that, he said, lacks clear evidence.

“None of that undeniably means, on this day, that he was the driver,” Lowe said. “There’s nothing that establishes that he knew what she was going to do.”

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Video surveillance from the shop showed Leae conducted a transaction Nov. 12, less than two weeks before the shooting. On Nov. 18, additional footage reveals he made another transaction, this time with Siufanua standing behind him and studying the tiny store’s layout, Vu argued.

“It was not an innocent visit,” Vu said.

On the day of the shooting, footage from a C-Tran surveillance camera, which was presented during trial, showed the stolen Civic driving southbound on Main Street before the bus turned at Eighth Street. A time stamp on the footage read 11:17 a.m., within minutes of the incident at the shop, located one block away from where the bus turned.

A witness reported seeing the Civic parked directly in front of the corner of Seventh and Main streets. The same witness reported that, while he couldn’t get a good view of the driver’s face, the driver appeared to have an Afro hairstyle and facial hair. The description partially matches Leae.

“Obviously he pulled up to a corner and parked in a fashion meant for a quick getaway,” Vu said. “That should indicate to you that the defendant is the getaway driver.”

Courtney Brumitt, a desk clerk at a Motel 6 in Kalama, said she checked Leae into a room Nov. 26. She testified that Leae had blood on his hand, which concerned her.

While items from the shop were located from the crash scene in California, the gun used in the shooting was not recovered. Lowe contended that it was possible someone else was driving the Civic and that Siufanua acted on her own accord in shooting Brookes and robbing the store.

“There’s no evidence that he knew about the murder,” Lowe said of his client.

In his rebuttal statement — granted to prosecutors but not defense attorneys — Vu said that the handgun might have been tossed from the Civic during the high-speed pursuit. He said Lowe’s argument that Siufanua, with no criminal record and seemingly no access to firearms, acted on her own was “preposterous.”

“The person that introduced her, that led her to the coin shop, was her boyfriend,” Vu said.

Deliberations are scheduled to begin Tuesday morning.

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