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Thursday, October 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Two arrested in death of street-tough youth advocate

Seattle Times staff reporter

Before Nicholas Helhowski became a well-liked young advocate for homeless youth in Seattle — before he was fatally beaten at a North Seattle bus stop spring of 2002 — he was a tough-guy street-punk, quick with his fists and fast with his mouth.

Now, two young men, also street toughs, are suspected of killing Helhowski.

Yesterday, Seattle homicide detectives arrested a 21-year-old transient and have forwarded charges to prosecutors against a 20-year-old man who is already serving time in state prison.

Prosecutors expect to file first-degree manslaughter charges against them next week.

"Nick was killed by the exact kinds of kids he had been hanging out with — and the same kinds of kids he was trying to help," deputy King County prosecutor Steve Fogg said this morning.

The news of the arrests came as welcome news, from the Capitol Hill advocacy group Helhowski helped run all the way to Mayor Greg Nickels' office.

Helhowski had changed from his Mohawk-wearing, street-kid persona, "Rooster," to an Americorps volunteer and member of a city youth advisory committee. His funeral on Capitol Hill last year drew junkies, uniformed cops and Nickels to stand side by side in the street.

"I'm thrilled for closure," said Elaine Simons, the director of Peace For The Streets By Kids From The Streets, the drop-in center on East Olive Way where Helhowski worked.

"But I look at it from all sides, that Nick Helhowski's family has been hurt so greatly, but now these two young men's families are going to be hurting."

Prosecutors say this time it wasn't DNA evidence or clever crime-lab science that solved the slaying. It was dogged, old-fashioned detective work.

Two Seattle detectives, Nat Gasperetti and Steve Kilburg, had been pursuing the case even as the trail seemed cold.

"Nat Gasperetti worked his tail off on this case," Fogg said today. "This was a very difficult case to solve."

Helhowski, who had moved to Seattle from his small home town of Hebron, Ind., only a year or so before, was on his way home to a transitional halfway house for homeless youth when he was attacked at the corner of North 85th Street and Greenwood Avenue North.

All police knew was that Helhowski had argued on the bus with two young men who got on the bus at Seattle Center with two or three teenage girls. They all got off at the stop, outside Blanchet High School, and the two men knocked Helhowski to the pavement. Helhowski's head hit the concrete and he died in the hospital three days later.

Detectives had been combing street-youth circles looking for leads, figuring someone would know who the two young attackers were.

Early last month, they found the girlfriend of the 21-year-old suspect, who told the investigators she watched the whole thing, authorities say.

Apparently, the 21-year-old man made a snide remark to Helhowski about some dried blood on Helhowski's shirt. Helhowski had cut himself while skateboarding several days before.

Helhowski told the man to mind his own business, and the pair spent the bus ride trading insults, authorities said.

After they all got off the bus, the two men repeatedly punched Helhowski, and he fell.

"Rooster never threw a punch," said Fogg.

Detectives learned that the suspects had lengthy criminal records and were known as street people.

Only a month after Helhowski's death, the 20-year-old man raped a homeless woman near the King County Jail in downtown Seattle. He was convicted of second-degree rape and is currently serving time at the state prison at Walla Walla, court records show.

Detectives interviewed him in prison two days ago.

Last night, a team of police staked out an apartment in Tacoma where the 21-year-old had been staying. They arrested him as he tried to jump off a balcony in his effort to escape.

Prosecutors say they now have plenty of eyewitnesses and other evidence that assures them the two men are the killers.

"This is not going to be a whodunnit," Fogg said.

Given the men's criminal records, they would be facing roughly nine to 13 years in prison if convicted.

Before last fall, prosecutors would likely be filing second-degree murder charges against the men under the felony-murder rule.

A Supreme Court case last year that invalidated the felony-murder law as it was then written. So manslaughter charges are the toughest that can be filed because authorities can't prove the two men intended for Helhowski to die.

The state Legislature earlier this year restored the felony-murder law, but it doesn't apply to crimes that happened before it was restored.

Nevertheless, Simons, the homeless-center director, says she wonders what Helhowski himself would think about the case.

"He probably would have said, 'Let's put out a hand to help them,'" she said.

"Where he was in his life, in his transition, he still wanted to be that cocky boy that he was. . . .But I think he would have wanted to sit down and talk to these boys. Yes, they did something horrible, and yes, we lost a friend and colleague, but these boys' lives are going to be impacted, too."

Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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