07/01/2005

Police report typo allows suspect to go free just hours before alleged slaying

By GENE JOHNSON
Associated Press Writer

SEATTLE- A typo proved tragic for Michael Robb.

The popular high school tennis coach was driving down a Seattle street when he stopped his car - possibly to help a young man waving him down. He was killed seconds later by a shotgun blast in what prosecutors say was a racially motivated slaying.

The teen charged in his death, Samson Berhe, had been questioned by police several times during the previous week - including just three hours before the shooting, about a nearby burglary. Officers repeatedly checked their records for outstanding warrants, but nothing came up. They let him go.

But Berhe DID have an outstanding arrest warrant - for car theft in 2002. However, his last name was spelled as "Berne" in a police report, an error police say is the reason officers could not take him into custody before the shooting last Sunday.

"It's incredibly unfortunate. That goes without saying," police spokeswoman Debra Brown said Thursday. "The department did everything that we could to deal with this individual."

Prosecutors filed a first-degree murder charge against Berhe on Thursday, his 18th birthday, the same day as Robb's memorial service.

Robb, 46, married and the father of a 14-month-old daughter, was white. Berhe is black.

Charging documents said Berhe had often spoken to his neighbors about killing white people. A friend, Raymond Valencia, told detectives that Berhe had said, "I got to shoot a cop or shoot a white person, you know, before I leave this world."

A neighbor, Anna Bell Perkins, quoted Berhe as saying, "I'm going to kill all the white people" - a threat he had made at least a dozen times. She said she saw him with the shotgun outside his home Sunday morning.

Police on Thursday released a timeline of several contacts with Berhe in the days before the shooting. On June 19, officers took him to Harborview Medical Center for evaluation after his mother reported him to be suicidal; she told officers his doctor had recently taken him off unspecified mental health medication.

Police took him to Harborview again on June 22, after he was accused of hitting one of his brother's friends but doctors determined he was not in need of treatment. On June 23, his parents refused to pick him up, saying they were afraid of him. He was released to Child Protective Services, a state agency.

On the day he was killed, several witnesses reported seeing Robb's Volkswagen Jetta come to a stop in the center lane of an industrial Seattle street. A young man approached, pulled a shotgun out of a bag and fired nearly point-blank into the open driver's side window, the witnesses said.

A nearby resident said the shooter had been standing by the side of the street, agitated and possibly yelling to himself, a few minutes before the car pulled up. Robb's friends and family told detectives he would have stopped to help someone who waved him down.

After the shooting, the young man ran toward the Duwamish River. A search failed to turn him up. But Berhe was spotted the next day on a barge in the river and arrested.

During interviews with detectives Berhe called them "all you haters" and "all you (expletive) white people," charging papers said. He refused to answer questions, but instead made faces, spit and drooled. He flexed his biceps and challenged detectives.

Robb coached the varsity girls tennis team and junior varsity boys team at Newport High in Bellevue outside Seattle. He was also a tennis umpire who had previously worked the U.S. Open.

Berhe, who did not have a lawyer, was being held on $1 million bail pending his arraignment July 7. He would face a standard sentencing range of 25 to 31 years if convicted.

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