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Originally published September 19, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 21, 2006 at 2:59 PM

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Corrected version

Widow of slain coach sues parents of teenage suspect

The widow of a slain tennis coach is suing the parents of the mentally unstable teen accused of killing her husband last year, saying the...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The widow of a slain tennis coach is suing the parents of the mentally unstable teen accused of killing her husband last year, saying the young man's family was aware of the youth's violent tendencies but did nothing to stop him from walking out their door with a shotgun.

In a civil lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court this month, Elsa Robb is seeking unspecified damages for herself and 2-year-old daughter Louisa for the death of her husband, Mike Robb. Robb was a popular Newport High School tennis coach and a nationally known tennis umpire who officiated at three U.S. Opens.

The suit claims that Yemane and Zodi Berhe were negligent in the supervision of their son, Samson Berhe.

Samson Berhe, now 19, remains at Western State Hospital in Lakewood, Pierce County, where doctors are attempting to restore his competency so he can stand trial on a first-degree murder charge.

Mike Robb was driving on West Marginal Way Southwest, on his way to his West Seattle home, when he was killed by a shotgun blast to the head about 7:30 p.m. June 26, 2005. Just before noon the next day, police found Samson Berhe, then 17, on a barge in the Duwamish River and arrested him in connection with Robb's homicide.

At the time of his arrest, Berhe "made faces, contorted his lips, spoke in different voices, spit and drooled. He flexed his arms and challenged detectives to fight," according to charging papers filed June 30, 2005 — Berhe's 18th birthday.

People who knew Berhe, who is black, told police that he had previously made comments about wanting to shoot a police officer or a white person, charging papers say. Mike Robb was white.

According to Elsa Robb's lawsuit, her husband's death was preventable: "Samson's parents were well aware of his dangerous propensities, his professed desire 'to kill white people,' his drug usage and his psychological problems, and even knew that he possessed a shotgun and ammunition, yet they failed to take appropriate steps to ensure that he did not act out on his violent fantasies," the suit says.

Yemane and Zodi Berhe could not be reached for comment Monday, and it is unclear whether the couple has retained an attorney.

In the months before the fatal shooting, police were called to the Berhe residence in Seattle on several occasions, including three times the week before Robb was killed, a Seattle police spokesman said last year. Samson Berhe was twice taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for a psychiatric evaluation, but both times King County mental health professionals determined he was not in need of hospitalization.

After Berhe's second evaluation, on June 23, 2005, his parents refused to pick him up at the hospital because they were afraid of him, according to police. Officials with Child Protective Services were called, and Berhe was taken home.

Two days later, he left his parents' house with his belongings, including the shotgun used in the slaying and ammunition, according to Elsa Robb's lawsuit.

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An hour before Mike Robb was shot, Seattle police officers had stopped Berhe and another youth in connection with a residential burglary. While talking to the officers, Berhe apparently dropped shotgun shells onto the sidewalk but was released; police later learned that a spelling mistake had failed to turn up a juvenile warrant that had been issued for Berhe's arrest for a previous crime, a spokesman said at the time.

Tim Leyh, the lawyer representing Elsa Robb, said it "is not at all unusual" to sue the parents of a minor in a wrongful-death lawsuit. Asked why Harborview and Seattle police were not named in the suit, Leyh declined to comment on his legal strategy.

The suit claims that despite "clear and chilling warning signs," Yemane and Zodi Berhe failed to ensure their son didn't have access to a shotgun, did not report him missing and did not tell police their "son was out on the streets with a shotgun and ammunition."

King County deputy prosecutor Mary Barbosa said Samson Berhe was sent to Western State Hospital soon after his arrest. He was found not competent to stand trial, and in October doctors began trying to restore his competency, possibly through medication and therapy, she said.

On Nov. 6, Berhe's doctors are expected to testify about whether Berhe is able to understand the nature of the legal proceedings and charges against him and whether he can assist his lawyers in his defense, Barbosa said.

At that point, a judge will rule whether Berhe is competent to stand trial.

If a judge rules Berhe is not competent, he will be sent back to the hospital indefinitely — and will stand trial only if and when doctors "determine he is competent," Barbosa said.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published September 19, was corrected September 21. An earlier version of this story gave incorrect information regarding Berhe's psychiatric evaluations at Harborview Medical Center. The story said Harborview doctors determined Berhe was not in need of hospitalization; King County mental health professionals actually made that decision.

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