Family members of Jesse Sarey at a vigil on May 31, 2021, to commemorate the life of Jesse Sarey and mark two years since his death.

Trial of Auburn Officer Delayed, but Family of Jesse Sarey Continues Fighting

by Bunthay Cheam


Over 30 photographs of those killed by police sat on steps in the foreground of a press conference organized by the family of Jesse Sarey, a Khmer American man shot and killed by Auburn police officer Jeff Nelson in 2019. The press conference took place on the front steps of the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, Washington.

“Since 2018, there’s been 107 names added to the list that police have killed; Jeff Nelson added Jesse to that list so he needs to be held accountable,” said Kelli Saeteurn, a family member of Sarey.

Kelli Saeteurn, family member of Jesse Sarey, speaks at a courthouse rally in front of the Maleng Justice Center on June 3, 2021.
Kelli Saeteurn, family member of Jesse Sarey, speaks at a courthouse rally in front of the Maleng Justice Center on June 3, 2021. (Photo: Lisa Ahlberg)

The Sarey family was flanked by other families who have lost loved ones to police use of force, including the families of Iosia Faletogo and Giovonn Joseph-McDade.

Earlier, in courtroom 3F, a hearing took place regarding the trial, The State of Washington v. Jeffrey Nelson. The defense requested and was granted another continuance, stating that there were over 35,000 pages of discovery documents to process and over 1,000 audio/video files that the State has compiled and that because of this, the defense needed more time to prepare for trial. Another hearing is set for July 2021.

The trial has had a total of five continuances with the trial date revised several times, the latest of which was Oct. 2021. The latest continuance pushes the new trial date to Jan. 2022.

Officer Jeff Nelson’s indictment is the first for a police officer under Initiative 940, which took effect in Dec. 2019. This legislation changed the legal standard for criminally prosecuting police officers as it pertains to use of deadly force. Organizing and advocacy for this bill included the families present at the rally.

“Being a Young Man of Color should not be a death sentence, suffering from mental health should not be a death sentence, and yet here we are today …” said State Rep. Jesse Johnson, who represents the 30th Legislative District.

State Rep. Jesse Johnson (D-30), speaks at a courthouse rally organized by the family of Jesse Sarey on June 3, 2021.
State Rep. Jesse Johnson (D-30), speaks at a courthouse rally organized by the family of Jesse Sarey on June 3, 2021. (Photo: Lisa Ahlberg)

In the latest legislative session, Johnson introduced two pieces of legislation around law enforcement reform, both of which passed.

HB 1054 bans tactics such as no-knock warrants and chokeholds as well as reducing access to military weapons. HB 1310 sets new standards, increasing the threshold officers must consider before using physical force and prioritizing de-escalation tactics and less lethal alternatives.

Altar prepared for Jesse Sarey at a vigil on May 31, 2021, to commemorate his life and mark two years since his death.
Altar prepared for Jesse Sarey at a vigil on May 31, 2021, to commemorate his life and mark two years since his death. (Photo: Lisa Ahlberg)

Jesse Sarey was killed on Memorial Day weekend in 2019 in front of Sunshine Grocery in Auburn, as he struggled with Officer Jeff Nelson next to an ice machine. During the struggle, Officer Jeff Nelson drew his service weapon, fired once, striking Sarey in the chest and killing him. When he attempted to fire again, his gun jammed. After clearing the jam, he fired again striking Sarey in the head.

On Monday, May 31, 2021, a few days before the courthouse rally, Mr. Sarey’s family and other families of people killed by police gathered along with supporters to mark the two-year anniversary of Sarey’s death and commemorate his life at the place where he encountered Officer Jeff Nelson.

“This really hits home because this is nothing new that our AAPI and BIPOC communities have been suffering for years,” said Renton City Councilmember Kim-Khánh Văn at the vigil, who is running for the  King County Council seat in District 9, currently held by Reagan Dunn. “I ask you to hold us accountable … to protest, to hold vigils, to continue saying their names. To vote us out, to run for office.”

Family members of people killed by law enforcement pose at a vigil for Jesse Sarey commemorating his life and the two years since he was killed by Officer Jeff Nelson.
Family members of people killed by law enforcement pose at a vigil for Jesse Sarey commemorating his life and the two years since he was killed by Officer Jeff Nelson. From left to right: Sonia Joseph, Katrina Johnson, Kari Hart (mother of Jesse Sarey), and Po Leapai and Elaine Simons (foster mother of Jesse Sarey). (Photo: Lisa Ahlberg)

At the courthouse rally, speakers continued to connect police violence to wider systemic issues BIPOC communities face.

“My grandparents, mother and uncles did not flee Cambodia from the genocide to live in this modern day genocide,” said Kenysha Sarey, Jesse Sarey’s cousin.

Portraits of over 30 victims of police use of force dot the foreground of a courthouse rally organized by the family of Jesse Sarey on June 3, 2021.
Portraits of over 30 victims of police use of force dot the foreground of a courthouse rally organized by the family of Jesse Sarey on June 3, 2021. (Photo: Lisa Ahlberg)

“Asian and Pacific Islanders are perpetual foreigners, meaning whenever the U.S. has issues with an Asian country, we are the immediate targets of hate; we are seeing it play out now with COVID-19, we see it worsen with every deportation of someone from the AAPI community,” said Bothell City Council Candidate Han Tran. “The solution to hate and police violence is the same: Invest in the community. We need to make sure there are proper support systems, mental health services, drug and substance abuse recovery … and an alternative response to police.”


Editor’s Note: This article was updated on June 10, 2020, to remove part of a quote from Rep. Jesse Johnson that included an inaccuracy about Auburn Police officer Jeffrey Nelson, who shot Jesse Sarey. The quote implied that Nelson had killed a man during an arrest in Federal Way. This was not accurate, though officer Nelson did kill Brian Scaman in 2011 and Isaiah Obet in 2017 while serving with the Auburn Police Department. Rep. Johnson offered this clarification: “Yes, so I probably wasn’t as clear as I needed to be, but what I meant to say was that Officer Nelson had previously targeted a young man in Federal Way a year prior[:] Joseph Allen. Officer Nelson was assisting the [Federal Way Police Department] FWPD when he pursued Joseph Allen at a [Federal Way] Walmart. So the quote was he then came to Auburn the next year and that was when he killed Jesse Sarey; in addition to the other two men that he had killed prior.Rep. Johnson also said, in reference to Officer Nelson’s tenure with the two departments — in the original quote — that this should not happen and that it is “unacceptable in Washington State.”


Bunthay Cheam was born in the Khao I Dang refugee camp. He is a storyteller, activist, and lifelong resident of South Park.

📸 Featured Image: Family members of Jesse Sarey at a vigil on May 31, 2021, to commemorate the life of Jesse Sarey and mark two years since his death.

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