Harvard students host panel to discuss Jesse Sarey, a Cambodian American murdered by Washington State Police Jeff Nelson and his upcoming trial

The Harvard University Khmer Student Association and the Pan-Asian Coalition at the Harvard Graduate School of Education hosted a virtual panel, “Justice 4 Jesse,” on May 18 to discuss the life of Jesse Sarey, a 26 year old Cambodian American who was brutally killed by Washington State Auburn Police in 2019. The trial for his murder, State vs. Nelson, is being delayed to spring 2023, while Nelson is on paid leave according to the latest report by the Seattle Times. The family is asking for public support.

Jesse Sarey, 26. Photo courtesy by Sarey’s family.

Jesse Sarey was born in Seattle, WA. At 11 years old, he joined his 10 year old brother Torell. They were placed in foster care with Elaine Simons where Torell would live for the next 9 years. Jesse ended up in another foster home. “He died at a very young age and his family is still seeking answers,” said Simons, Sarey’s foster mother. “He was having a mental health crisis at the time. When Nelson took his life away, he also took away the opportunity for Sarey to turn his life around.”

Jesse’s mother came from Cambodia as child refugee in the 1980s with a family of 8 siblings after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. They lived in Oregon for a few years before they settled in Washington State. In Cambodian culture, it’s perfectly normal to have 12 or 13 people living in one household in a multigenerational family. Jesse Sarey entered into Foster-care due his un met needs. Simons described Sarey’s mother, Nga Kari Sarey, as her friend who cared greatly for her children. “Kari has been a huge part of our lives, she took care of all of us,” said Maryna, Sarey’s cousin.

Officer Jeffrey Nelson of the Auburn Police Department in a photo taken May 31, 2019, the night Jesse Sarey was shot and killed.Credit…via the Auburn Examiner

Simons went to Cambodia with Torell and his cousins, aunt and uncle, the memories that bring her joy. But when asked about what she thought about Sarey’s life, she responded “It sounds like I’m against the system, but for the majority of children, the foster care system ends up failing them. They ended up homeless and that was the case for Sarey. Where were they when Sarey was going through all this? The law has failed him.”

On the day of the killing, “instead of receiving mental health support that he needed that day, the police was called resulting in Jesse’s murder,” wrote the Khmer Student Association at Harvard College in press release.

Jesse’s older cousin, Steven Sarey, was contacted on the day of his death. He said it was the hardest thing to inform his aunt about what happened to Jesse. “I didn’t hear a response but just a very loud cry, I just felt pain,” he said.

Kolton, Jesse’s youngest brother, was with his mom when she received the news. He said, “I was very shocked. I couldn’t believe it. She wasn’t even over my dad passing away. That pretty much crushed her.”

Nga Kari Sarey’s husband had died one month before Sarey’s murder. She died of heartbreak two years after. “She basically gave up fighting,” said Simons.

The mother Kari holding Jess photo at his 1st anglesversary with his two younger brother Kolton and Torell. Photo by Violette Trushkov.

The killing happened in 2019, before George Floyd’s death, so the story was quietly forgotten. “We didn’t have the public attention like George Floyd did; however, when the movement around George Floyd happened, we saw that it was kind of giving us a vehicle to tell our story,” said Simons.

The family said they requested footage of the incident collected by investigators. King County eventually shared the videos to the family, which showed that Nelson attempted to arrest Sarey for disorderly conduct, but within one minute Nelson had shot him twice: once in the stomach and again in the forehead. Sarey was unarmed. Sarey later died that night at the Seattle Harbor View Medical Center.

Jesse’s family joined other family victims in a candle vigil. Photo courtesy by Sarey’s family

Jesse is the third murder victim of Jeff Nelson. He was finally charged by the King County Prosecutor Office after taking Jesse’s life for second degree murder and first-degree assault which he pleaded not guilty. He was arrested in August 2020 and was bailed out the same day for $500,000. Since then, he has been under home monitoring and on paid-leave while waiting for his trial for the last 18 months. The city of Auburn paid 4 million dollars to settle a wrongful-death suit filed by Sarey’s family, but there was still no punishment to his murderer. The city also paid 1.2 million dollars to another family victim, Obet, just one week before Nelson was charged with murder for Sarey’s death.

King County Superior Court Judge Nicole Gaines Phelps said last month that Nelson’s trial date of June 27 would be delayed to September or possibly early 2023, due to court caseloads and the complex legal issues involved in the Nelson trial. He would be the first police officer to be prosecuted criminally in the State of Washington for the use of deadly force under the new voters’ approved 2018 law Initiative 940.

Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell of Seattle said, “how do you prove malice? Removing malice in the statute was the important part of I-940. Officers are required to give space to allow the situation to deflate, de-escalation is important. 30% of police killings are victims who experience mental health crises.” According to the expert testimony in court documents, Nelson failed all the requirements under the new law I-940. Furthermore, according a separate federal court case against Nelson by Joseph Loren Allen, a long list of 65-incidents between 2011 – 2018 Nelson has used force during arrests, often for minor crimes.

A screenshot of “Justice 4 Jesse” virtual panel held by Harvard Khmer Student Associatio and Pan-Asian Coalition at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

66 people attended in the virtual event “Justice 4 Jesse” from across the U.S., including some journalists, community advocates, and other families of police killings. The event was co-sponsored by the Black Student Union and Comunidad Latinx at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Asian Pacific American Law Association at Harvard Law School.

The online petition “Justice for the Murder of Jesse Sarey” on change.org has collected over 5,000 signatures at the time of this report. You can find the petition at: change.org/p/justice-for-the-murder-jesse-sarey