Benveniste, whose daughter was shot and killed at a Redmond party last February, discusses the tragedy and its aftermath. Police, residents focus on community safety.
Eight months after Claire Thompson, a 20-year-old Sammamish native, was fatally shot at a Redmond house party, Diane Benveniste gathered with her husband, son and her deceased daughter’s friends in a room at the King County Courthouse in Seattle.
They watched as 22-year-old Cornelius De Jong IV of Redmond pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter on Sept. 17 and was sentenced to 27 months in prison.
“I’m still wounded so it’s hard for me to talk about it,” Benveniste said last week. “It was an accident and I understand that, but the bottom line is — and this goes to community education — these kids cannot be drinking and having guns. It’s the same thing as drinking and driving; we don’t teach them about drinking and guns, but we should.”
The recent shooting threat at Skyline High in Sammamish also affected Benveniste, who feels that kids need to look inside themselves, feel they’re not superior to anyone else, stop bullying others and get along with others.
“It’s such a weird thing that’s going on in my heart right now,” said Benveniste.
She knows that Thompson would be right beside her with those thoughts of caring for others.
“She was the kindest person there ever was. She took care of kids, she babysat special-needs kids, she was the girl you’d want to have around your kids — and I want more people to be like her,” Benveniste said.
Redmond Police Department Community Outreach Facilitator Jim Bove said that since the shooting, Cathy Peters, who resides on Education Hill — where the crime occurred — resurrected that area’s neighborhood watch program. Bove had a meeting with about 35 families from that neighborhood and they discussed safety tips, getting ahold of the police if another violent incident should take place and “the importance of looking out for one another,” he said.
“Usually people are a lot more interested in circling the wagons as a community when something like this goes on,” said Bove.
Gun safety has also come to the forefront following the shooting.
“So many people have handguns, and it’s their right,” Bove said. “Hopefully, they’re smart in their handling of them — not being careless with it. It’s not a toy, which this case proves that.”
Added Benveniste: “What I really would like to see is the law changed around concealed-weapon permits, and that’s something that I want to take on. I’m still working on getting the strength back to do that; for me, getting my youngest daughter to college was a big deal.”
She feels that nobody should receive a concealed-gun permit if they’ve had a prior run-in with the law regarding alcohol. De Jong IV’s criminal history shows five misdemeanors from November 2008 through February 2010 for driving under the influence, minor in possession and/or consumption of alcohol and driving with a suspended license.
According to King County Prosecutor’s Office charging papers released in February, police said De Jong IV acted recklessly when he fired what he thought was an unloaded gun through a wall and struck Thompson in the neck on Feb. 12. The charging papers said De Jong appeared drunk after the incident and refused a breath test.
De Jong IV, who pleaded not guilty to first-degree manslaughter in February, has already served five months jail time, which will count toward the Sept. 17 sentence, said Dan Donohoe of the King County Prosecutor’s Office. He was originally held at the King County Jail in Seattle and was moved to the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton on Sept. 21, according to the Department of Corrections Office.
Thompson’s parents weighed in on the sentence, gave recommendations and concurred with the idea of reducing the charge. Benveniste, however, was surprised that De Jong IV’s parents weren’t at the sentencing to hear Thompson’s family speak about the tragedy and its aftermath.
“I didn’t want him in jail for a long time. It was an accident, he’s somebody’s son — I have a son the same age,” said Benveniste, who noted that De Jong IV received his GED (General Education Development) certificate while in jail. “It could happen to anybody, but what just can’t happen to anybody is the carelessness behind it. Kids need to learn early that you can’t be careless; it’s a privilege to have a gun, it’s not your entitlement and that’s the challenge.”
According to current court documents, De Jong IV’s plea deal for the lesser second-degree manslaughter charge notes that within 30 days after his release he must contact the Redmond High principal to arrange to speak with students about the incident and how it’s affected him and others.
“By the time he does this, he’s going to be a man,” Benveniste said about talking to Redmond High students. “He’s still a boy in my mind, but he needs to talk to these kids peer to peer, if you will, (and say) ‘Hey, I was in your chair three years ago and look what I did — I’m stupid, here’s why… It’s not cool to drink, it’s not cool to sling a gun, it’s not cool to be this guy that gets you in prison.’”
For 18 months after his release, the documents say, De Jong IV cannot possess or consume alcoholic beverages or non-prescription drugs and must enter and complete alcohol- and substance-abuse treatment.
If De Jong IV violates these terms, he may face an additional penalty, the documents note.
Over on Education Hill, resident Paige Norman said everyone was shocked about the shooting, even though the house where it took place was the site of numerous problems involving police and aid cars over the years, she and Bove said.
“There were a lot of questions by the neighbors as to what the police were going to do about it, what we as a neighborhood could do to prevent it from ever happening again,” said Norman, who has lived on Education Hill since 1987. “The answer to all of those questions is just basically be aware of people that don’t belong in our neighborhood and get to know our neighbors better. We were a fairly friendly neighborhood to begin with, but it’s brought us just that much closer again.”
The group of neighbors arranged a potluck dinner during National Night Out on Aug. 7, a day designed to heighten crime- and drug-prevention awareness and strengthen neighborhood spirit and police-community partnerships.
Since the shooting, the family who owned the house moved and put it up for sale (it hasn’t sold yet), and Norman said she and her neighbors feel safer and relieved with that scenario.
Norman said neighbors were watchful about the goings-on in their area before, but now they keep tabs on what’s happening around them even more.
“Nobody wants to be that nosy neighbor that’s calling in on your neighbor every 10 seconds because something’s going on,” Norman said. “In this case (the shooting), we probably should have called a little bit more often.”