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Thursday, June 30, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Suspect "wanted to kill," acquaintance says

Seattle Times staff reporters

Two days before Newport High School tennis coach Mike Robb was shot to death while driving in West Seattle, the 18-year-old suspected of killing him was walking around a nearby neighborhood with a shotgun and said that he "wanted to kill a white man," an acquaintance said yesterday.

The acquaintance, Greg Triggs, also 18, said he took a box of shotgun shells from the suspect, Samson Berhe, who was with a friend who also was armed with a shotgun. Triggs said he briefly kept one of the shotguns.

Triggs said Berhe "was always talking crazy like that." He said he didn't take the threats seriously or call police.

"I tried to stop (something) from happening," Triggs said, explaining why he kept the shells. "I didn't really think he'd kill anybody."

Meanwhile, police yesterday said a spelling error in a court document may explain why officers questioned and released Berhe Sunday evening even though there was a warrant for his arrest. Berhe's last name was misspelled in the document.

An hour after that encounter, Robb died from a shotgun blast to his face while behind the wheel of his car in an industrial area along the Duwamish River.

Robb was white and Berhe is black.

That run-in on Sunday with police may not have been Berhe's first brush with officers that day. Another neighbor said yesterday that two officers questioned and released Berhe and another boy Sunday morning after he discovered they had broken into a nearby vacant home, where they had apparently been sleeping and partying. The officers decided not to arrest the pair for burglary or trespassing, said Brad Rogers, who owns the vacant home.

"Under the circumstances, it seemed like the reasonable thing to do at the time," said Rogers, who knows Berhe from the neighborhood and was, ironically, an acquaintance of Robb's. "The officers took down their information and told me that if they come back, they would haul them away."

Police yesterday refused to comment on Rogers' account.

Rogers lives across the street from Triggs, who said that on Friday he saw Berhe and another boy walking around with shotguns. Triggs said he confiscated a box of shotgun shells and one of the guns from Berhe, but ultimately returned the weapon later that day after "he kept coming back and hassling me about it." Triggs kept the shells, which were taken into evidence by Seattle police yesterday.

The slaying occurred almost directly west of the neighborhood, down a steep and heavily wooded hillside.

Triggs' 46-year-old mother, Kelly, said Berhe was troubled. "He'd get all drugged up and say he was the Messiah," she said. "He'd say he wanted to see what it was like to kill someone."

No criminal charges have been filed against Berhe, who turns 18 today. The Seattle Times, which generally does not name juvenile suspects, is naming Berhe because prosecutors have said they plan to charge him today as an adult.

According to police and court documents, Berhe was questioned Sunday evening with a friend about a burglary of a home three houses to the south of the Triggs' residence and just a few blocks from the scene of the shooting. Berhe's friend was arrested on suspicion of burglary and Berhe was allowed to go.

"The suspect did indeed have an outstanding warrant for a property crime," according to a statement issued yesterday by the Seattle Police Department. "However, the last name on the warrant had a different spelling than the suspect's actual name. This is why officers were not alerted to the warrant during previous contacts."

"Our officers did contact the suspect, but there was no reason or probable cause to arrest him," the statement said.

The statement makes no mention of Rogers' claim that police had questioned Berhe and a companion earlier on Sunday. During the afternoon contact with police, according to a report, Berhe "sloughed some shotgun shells on the street." But police said yesterday that owning shotgun shells is not a crime.

Berhe allegedly shot the 46-year-old Robb in an apparent random attack as Robb was driving along West Marginal Way Southwest just after 7 p.m. Robb's car was found on the railroad tracks with the flashers on, and police said they were unsure how the two interacted and what led to the shooting, but friends of the victim said they thought he may have stopped to help Berhe.

Berhe was arrested the next day at noon after Seattle police found him on a barge in the middle of the Duwamish River, not far from where Robb was shot. He was later booked into the King County Juvenile Detention Center on investigation of homicide after a witness identified him from a photo montage, police said.

According to court papers, Berhe's family cooperated with police, saying they were afraid of him. They led detectives to a tree that he had used for target practice last week.

The outstanding warrant on Berhe — which had his last name misspelled as "Berne" — was issued after he failed to appear in court on 2002 juvenile charges for taking a motor vehicle without permission and attempting to elude police. In that case, court documents show, Berhe was a passenger in a vehicle stolen by another man. Berhe told police he'd gotten into the van with his friend even though he knew that the vehicle had been stolen because he saw that the ignition had been "punched."

Prosecutors yesterday amended the 2002 charges to correct the misspelling of Berhe's name.

After a juvenile court hearing on Tuesday, in which a judge found enough evidence to hold Berhe on investigation of murder, Deputy Prosecutor Mary Barbosa said prosecutors had not been able to find the earlier charges against Berhe in their initial search either.

Robb was a popular tennis coach at Newport High in Bellevue and a nationally known tennis umpire who made three trips to the U.S. Open. He was shot two miles from the West Seattle home he shared with his wife, Elsa Robb, a French teacher, and his 1-year-old daughter, Louisa.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com. Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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