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Senate panel hears dramatic testimony about Tiffany Hill’s killing

Sen. Lynda Wilson sponsors bill calling for electronic monitoring, alerts

By , Columbian staff reporter
3 Photos
Bullet holes are seen in van in the parking lot of Sarah J. Anderson Elementary School on Nov. 26. Tiffany Hill was shot to death after picking up her children at the school.
Bullet holes are seen in van in the parking lot of Sarah J. Anderson Elementary School on Nov. 26. Tiffany Hill was shot to death after picking up her children at the school. (nathan howard/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Melissa Nelson heard gunshots from her classroom at Sarah J. Anderson Elementary School and saw the lockdown alarm on her computer confirming there had been a shooting.

“I immediately knew it was Tiffany Hill,” the second-grade teacher told members of the Senate Law and Justice Committee Thursday in Olympia.

“I remember looking out the window and seeing an ambulance drive away,” she said. “I knew she was in that ambulance before I had any information, because I knew her history and I knew what was going on with her family.”

Nelson was one of a half-dozen people who provided sometimes heart-wrenching testimony about Hill, who was killed Nov. 26 by her estranged husband in front of their three children outside the Hazel Dell school in November.

Keland Hill fled the scene after shooting his wife and mother-in-law. Following a brief police pursuit, he killed himself with a single shot to the head.

The six who testified Thursday supported electronic monitoring legislation sponsored by Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, that would allow victims to receive real-time notification via smartphones if their abusers, wearing bracelets, are nearby.

The legislation, Substitute Senate Bill 5149, is expected to be discussed by the Law and Justice Committee next week and could be forwarded to the full Senate for consideration.

Wilson said this is the third session in which she has sponsored the bill, which she renamed “The Tiffany Hill Act.”

In 2018, the Senate approved the bill, but it stalled in the House. Last year, it failed to make it out of committee.

Wilson briefly recounted how Hill was shot after she picked up her kids from school and got into her Toyota Sienna van.

“Her kids were in the back seat,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “When I heard of this tragedy, I just sank in my seat.”

Wilson said electronic monitoring and victim notification is used in several states and in New Zealand. In Illinois, more than 500 domestic violence victims rely on this technology, she said.

“Most live in fear of their lives, every day of their life,” she said. “Tiffany said to many on several occasions that she thought her husband would ultimately kill her. Sadly, she was right.”

Ten years of abuse

The shooting was the tragic culmination of 10 years of abuse, several friends told the Senate committee Thursday.

“My wife, Karina, and Tiffany were like sisters,” Isaiah Knight said. “They quickly forged an unshakable bond and were inseparable.”

Hill eventually confided in them about her abuse, he said. After her husband was arrested and jailed for domestic violence on Sept. 11, Knight said, he and his wife tried to support their friend, including installing cameras at her home outside northeast Vancouver.

Hill regularly checked the county jail’s online roster to see if her husband had been released, he said.

“She wasn’t sleeping, she wasn’t eating,” he said. “Everyone who loved her watched helplessly as this once-vibrant woman withered away from constant fear and anxiety. She always told us, ‘He’s going to kill me. It’s the only way he’ll stop. I know that’s going to happen.’ ”

Knight said that on the day Hill died, he and his wife were home and quickly learned of the shooting from phone calls and Facebook posts.

“No one knew who it was, but everyone feared for Tiffany and the children,” he said. “For as long as I live, I will never forget the look on my wife’s face when she said: ‘It was Tiffany, it has to be. He finally did it.’ ”

Knight said he and his wife went to the school to comfort Hill’s children.

“What I will remember the most are the wails of indescribable agony from their children as the detective told them their father had killed their mother and then killed himself,” he said.

The Knights were given temporary custody of Hill’s three children. They sent their own children to his parents’ home in Oregon for the Thanksgiving weekend, he said, so they could devote their full attention to Hill’s traumatized children.

“Every night, overwhelmed with fear that his father would come back and shoot him and hurt us, Tiffany and Keland’s young son slept in our bed, sobbing himself to sleep while his sisters slept together in the other room, refusing to leave each other,” he said. “All we could do is hold them and love them while stifling our own grief.”

Ongoing strain

Rene Sundby, president of the Sarah J. Anderson PTA, said she and Hill grew close through their work at the school.

“Tiffany was also a board member, but most importantly, she also was my good friend,” Sundby said. “We spent many hours together at that school.”

Sundby said she learned about the history of domestic violence after Hill received a no-contact order against her husband following his Sept. 11 arrest.

“On Sept. 12, I became a survivor of domestic violence by learning her secret,” she said. “She shared with me the secret that he had abused her and had been doing it for 10 years. In North Carolina, he had been arrested for attempted murder, for strangulation.”

Sundby said she and others have been deeply affected by Hill’s death.

“Everyone around them who shares their secret now has become a survivor,” she said. “We are all trying to navigate the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from that day and the months before.”

Nelson said she, too, continues to experience trauma from Hill’s death.

“If I hear sirens at the end of the school day and I’m alone in my classroom, I end up crying hysterically,” she said. “I can’t be alone in my classroom without music on or another person in there.

“This is not the way a school environment is supposed to be. This is not a way to live. But this is the way that we have to live because this bill has not been passed. And we will forever remember Tiffany Hill and love her and care for her, and we will keep fighting for this as long as we have to,” Nelson said.

Police, prosecutor testify

Tanya Wollstein, a Vancouver police detective assigned to domestic violence cases, walked senators through a chronology of events leading to Hill’s death and strongly endorsed the proposed legislation.

“The monitoring and live victim notification proposed in Senate Bill 5149, the Tiffany Hill Act, would have provided Tiffany critical information that might have saved her life and prevented her children from becoming orphans,” she said.

“This type of monitoring has the potential to save many other domestic violence victims from death or serious injury at the hands of their abuser,” she said. “I believe that it’s our duty to provide these victims, who have already suffered greatly, every reasonable chance to leave their abuser.”

Lauren Boyd, the Clark County prosecutor assigned to Keland Hill’s case, also testified in favor of the bill.

“Tiffany’s story is tragic,” she said. “This is what victims of domestic violence look like. This is what victims of domestic violence go through.”

Because of the constitutional right to bail, those charged with domestic violence and related offenses can be released from jail, Boyd said. In Keland Hill’s case, he had a high bail but was able to get out, she said.

Boyd said surveillance video indicated that Keland Hill waited in the back of the school’s parking lot for 30 minutes.

“This technology would have allowed Tiffany to know that he was here, know that she needed to take actions to be safe,” she said.

James Schrimpsher, Algona police chief and vice president of the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police, said the technology would allow authorities to set up electronic exclusion zones for an offender wearing an electronic bracelet.

“This technology is not 100 percent foolproof, but it is good,” he said. “Shouldn’t we be doing all we can do to protect the most vulnerable?”

Columbian staff reporter