Fatal Choices

Freshman's Death Devastates Dorm

Sanderson's death was likewise as shocking—but isolated. University District crime is a problem, but by far the vast majority of it is considered nuisance crime—shoplifting, graffiti, aggressive panhandling, blocking sidewalks. "There is no evidence at all that this is a trend," says Janine Brackett, executive director of the Greater University Chamber of Commerce. "We keep our finger on the pulse of the district, but there have not been any concerns that we have a real safety problem here. This was a sad, terrible but isolated incident."

Nonetheless, Sanderson's death devastated many of the 98 people who lived on his floor in his dorm, Lander Hall. Sanderson was an outgoing, exuberant kid who was not the least bit intimidated about leaving home for the first time to come to a huge, metropolitan university. When he moved into the dorm, he went around introducing himself to anyone he could find. When his floor—called Frosh House, a "specialty" coed floor to help freshmen adjust to college life—had a sign-up sheet for a new event, Sanderson was always the first to add his John Hancock.

James H. Sanderson (left) with friend Jim Higgins

James H. Sanderson (left), with friend Jim Higgins, stands in front of Sanderson's home in Bellingham. The UW studnet was one of the most popular freshmen living in Lander Hall. Photo courtesy Gerald Sanderson.

His door was always open. He asked everyone how their day was going. When someone was depressed, he would tell him, "Only 76 days until winter break!" He was the one who would roust people out of bed, help make apple pancakes for breakfast and get everyone pumped to see the Apple Cup game at Husky Stadium.

A lanky kid who wore his cap backward, he often went around shirtless to show off his gecko tattoos. With his hair dyed hi-lighter yellow, Sanderson was loved by everyone. Even when he would get busted for playing his music too loud, "It was really hard to get mad at him," says Gwen Gyldenege, an RA on his floor.

"He never hurt anyone," says his father, Gerald Sanderson of Bellingham. He tells the story of his son's high school basketball coach, who said Sanderson would have been a star had he possessed a mean streak. Sanderson, who as a high schooler counseled sixth-graders, mowed lawns for the elderly, and was a member of Young Life, a nondenominational Christian ministry, could never pull the trigger while hunting. He couldn't even pour salt on slugs.

"He valued life too much," says his father. "We instilled in kids that people are good. Maybe he was a little naïve. He wasn't afraid.

"What he did was stupid. I lay awake nights thinking why did things go wrong. He knew what we thought of drugs. Still, he didn't deserve the 'sentence' he got."

Fatal Choices pull quote

Every year, a handful of UW students die in accidents or suicides. "But what makes this a hard one to believe is that not many college kids get killed," explains Professor Weis. "College students don't usually get themselves in situations that are likely to lead to lethal consequences."

But this incident brought together what Weis calls two of the most volatile choices that can lead to death—drugs and guns. (The third is alcohol.) And while LSD has made a comeback lately, G. Alan Marlatt, a UW psychology professor who is an expert in the field of drug abuse, says that the UW is much lower than the national average when it comes to drug and alcohol use on college campuses.

While a decision has not been made to press charges against the man who shot Sanderson, the debate continues whether the situation was a matter of self-defense. "What mattered is that a threat was created," explains John Junker, a UW law professor specializing in criminal law and self-defense issues. "If the person using force believed he needed it to defend himself, and it was reasonable, then it is not a crime. You do not have to submit to be unlawfully attacked. If the driver believed he was being attacked, he could use force."

One thread common to both shootings is that they involved handguns purchased legally. Gun control advocates say that the availability of handguns makes these type of firearm deaths possible. Deaths from firearms in the United States tower above those from any other Western country, they say. Advocates for the possession of guns maintain that people must be able to defend themselves, as in the case of the pizza delivery driver who had been robbed before, and that the medical center murder-suicide, while tragic, should not keep law-abiding citizens from their constitutional right to bear arms.

Are there lessons to be learned from these two tragedies? The UW Police Department is making prevention of workplace violence a priority, and security at UW Medical Center will be increased, especially because of the trend of violence against health care workers. More training and the creation of crisis assessment teams will help give UW officials a way to try to keep on top of these potentially volatile situations. "We have a lot of work to do," says Peltzer, the UW police chief. "It is a real wakeup call."

But there is only so much anyone can do, especially when fatal choices are made. We can wonder: what if Sanderson had not experimented with LSD or if the pizza driver had not carried a gun? What if Chen hadn't reacted so adversely to his situation or if Haggitt had asked others to attend that fatal meeting?

"The real story here is that these were two tragedies," says Weis, the crime expert. "It's so rare and shocking to have killings like these happen in your community. But it isn't a trend."

Editor's Note: On Sept. 18, the King County Prosecutor's Office decided not to file charges against the pizza delivery driver involved in the shooting of James Sanderson. See Seattle P-I article. Also, on Jan 3, 2001, the state Department of Labor and Industries ruled that the UW did not break state regulations on workplace violence in events leading up to the shooting of Dr. Rodger Haggit. See Seattle P-I article.

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