Editor’s note: This story was chosen as one of our top 12 in 2010. Tragic events in the community are always the hardest stories to cover, both logistically and emotionally. The West Seattle murder was an event that stunned everyone and was detrimental to the Cambodian community. We did our best to cover this story in a way that differed from other news outlets.
By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Before her death, Saroeun Phan, 60, had shared happy memories with friends and family. Her friends recall that she was happy when celebrating her granddaughter’s birthday and was welcoming when eating a smoked salmon dinner with friends. She was described as being kind and sweet-natured. Family friends commended Phan as a woman that always spoke sweetly and was always cooperative and respectful. She was the matriarch to a large multi-generational family and a preserver of traditions in the community. She performed traditional songs and dances at Cambodian weddings and dressed brides and bridesmaids for the ceremony.
The family and community are still reeling from the incident on Sept. 23, when Phan pulled out a gun and opened fire on her own family members, killing two granddaughters, Jennifer and Melina Harm, ages 17 and 14, and her son-in-law, Chouen Harm, 43. She severely wounded her own daughter, Thyda Luellen Phan, 42.
She then turned the gun on herself and pulled the trigger. The incident has become known as the city’s deadliest shooting spree in the last four years.
Stress within a family unit
Phan was constantly moving throughout her life. As a child living in Cambodia, her family moved from place to place to avoid enemy soldiers, sometimes staying only as long as two weeks in each place, family friend Sean Phuong told Northwest Asian Weekly. He was acquainted with Phan during that time. She fled the Khmer Rouge, crossing the border into Thailand.
Phan came to the United States in 1985, starting out in Philadelphia before moving to Seattle. About a month before her death, Phan moved again with her family from an apartment to a house, which was reportedly shared between 11 family members supported by the combined income of her daughter and son-in-law.
According to the Seattle Times, Harm worked as a landscaper, and Phan’s daughter worked at the Magic Lanes Bowling Alley and Casino. Both jobs were heavily affected by the economy.
“The stress on any family unit when you get all those generations in one household is huge,” said Paula Tomlinson, director of Senior Services for Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation.
“You get two parents that have to work because of the economy. Then you have elderly grandparents that need to take certain medications or require special care. That is very stressful.”
A spirit removed from the body
With many refugee families dealing with similar challenges, the stress in the Phans and Harms lives could not explain the unspeakable tragedy that occurred.
Friends and family began noticing that Phan was becoming quiet and withdrawn, said Phuong. She stopped pursuing her interests and started changing her clothes, wearing all white. At times, she insisted on speaking only to those wearing white, refusing to speak with those who wore other colors.
She stated to family members that she heard voices and mentioned seeing soldiers coming to the house with weapons. When overcome with fear or anxiety, Phan took medication to help her sleep. According to a statement released by the family, Phan had struggled with schizophrenia and depression for several years and had sought medical attention numerous times.
“It’s hard for us [as Cambodians] to say the words ‘Mom is crazy.’ We don’t like to use those words,” said Phuong. “Traditionally, we believe that when there is something wrong in the mind, the spirit is too far removed from the body, causing them to see or hear certain things.”
He explains that Phan had received medication and counseling through the state Medicaid program. Family members took turns staying home between work shifts and school to keep an eye on her.
According to The Seattle Times, on Sept. 23, Phan came down the stairs dressed in white. Without warning, she shot her son-in-law in the back of the head. Phan then fired at her 7-year-old granddaughter, Navaeh Harm, and 16-year-old grandson, Kevin Harm, missing both. When her gun jammed, she ran upstairs to grab another and resumed firing.
She shot at her granddaughter, Jennifer Harm, who ran to her father’s aid, and at her daughter, who also ran to comfort her husband. Thyda was shot two more times while trying to save her children.
Kevin, Neveah, and Thyda’s cousin, Lisa Sun escaped from a small window. Kevin begged his sister, Melinda Harm, 14, to crawl out the window, but she was unwilling to leave her elder sister behind. Phan, now outside, shot at Kevin and missed. She shot through the window, striking Melinda.
“My mother had gone crazy,” Thyda Phan said to police, according to police reports.
Still the question remains
Phan, just released from the hospital and recovering from four gunshot wounds, was still in a lot of pain. Her face grimaced while she sat, and she limped as she walked, supported by friends and family members who had gathered at the Wat Khemarak Pothiram Buddhist temple for prayer.
“She was a good mom. She never went out. She always just stayed in and took care of the kids,” said Phan about her mother.
Shell shocked and confused, Kevin Harm described the scene to Phuong as being unreal and unlike the grandmother that he knew. The expression on her face looked different to him, as if it wasn’t her behind it.
She raced up the stairs with speed and ferocity he had never seen in her. She fired the gun unflinchingly like she was playing a video game. And after the rampage was over, she pulled the trigger on herself.
“[Thyda] never talks about getting mad, but she wonders why it happened,” said Phuong.
“We know that it’s not in her [mother’s] heart to do this. Something went wrong which we don’t understand, but we know that she had a good heart and loved her family.” ♦
To facilitate monetary contributions to funeral and medical expenses, the family has set up a benevolent account at BECU: Phan/Harm Memorial Fund, account 358608294. Call 800-233-2328 to contribute.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.