SPU shooting suspect raised in home of tumult
Aaron Rey Ybarra’s upbringing in Mountlake Terrace was filled with turmoil from his infancy — and it grew even more turbulent in the past several years, according to a Seattle Times investigation of the man charged in the June 5 shootings at Seattle Pacific University.
Seattle Times staff reporters
In 2012, Aaron Ybarra started getting help.
A court-appointed drug counselor was assessing his alcohol habit. A therapist was meeting with him weekly to sort through his diagnosed psychosis and obsessive-compulsive disorder. His treating psychiatrist put him on the antipsychotic drug Risperdal to quell the troubling voices he was hearing in his head.
The counselor recommended he enter a residential treatment facility, away from his unsupportive home environment where “he drinks with father at local bars.”
Instead, the accused mass shooter at Seattle Pacific University regressed. In early October 2012, police found him lying in the middle of the street outside his family home, drunk, alone, saying no one cared about him and he “wanted to die.” Mountlake Terrace police tried and failed to have him involuntarily committed.
Police returned to the Ybarra home two days later, but not to check on Aaron’s crisis. An officer was delivering his “very intoxicated” father from a bar. Just six days later, they were back at the home again because the father was drunk, miserable and holding a knife to his throat, according to a police report.
Aaron Rey Ybarra’s upbringing in Mountlake Terrace was filled with turmoil from infancy — and it grew even more turbulent in the past several years, according to a Seattle Times review of newly obtained court records, probate files, police documents and witness statements.
His father, Ambrose, had five drunken-driving convictions. While Aaron struggled with alcoholism and dabbled in drugs, his younger brother Joel developed a heroin addiction, which may have been connected to the disappearance of the family’s guns, according to records.
Concerned observers had earlier told their mother to move the eight handguns and rifles out of the house, but she allowed the weapons to remain, records show.
In the hours after the June 5 shootings on the SPU campus, which killed one student and injured two, a reporter from The Seattle Times arrived at the Ybarra home to find the parents scrambling for information. They were alternately watching television news and leaving voice messages for both of their sons.
Ambrose Ybarra answered the door in a tank top and shorts, his bulky figure filling the door frame — his wife quiet and watchful, peering around his shoulders.
When the reporter said it appeared Aaron was involved in the shooting, the father was stunned.
“Aaron?” he shouted.
His tone suggested he was expecting to hear Joel’s name instead.
Aaron, 26, and his brother, Joel, 25, shared a love of guns.
When they were too young to purchase weapons, their mother helped, putting the firearms in her name, according to one statement she made to police. Aaron went on to work for years at a local gun range, and the brothers became competitive shotgun shooters.
The guns that were a source of pride for the brothers also became a point of division in the family.
It was in 2011 when the family’s eight weapons disappeared from their gun safe. Aaron and his mother first confronted Joel about the guns, and she later told a police officer that Joel was addicted to heroin — although she didn’t think he would sell the weapons to feed a habit.
Joel initially told his mom that someone was holding the guns as collateral until he was able to come up with money to get them back. He later told his mother and police that his friend — who also was hooked on heroin — had taken the weapons. He said he didn’t disclose this at first because he didn’t want his family to “call the cops,” according to a handwritten statement Joel gave to police.
An officer noted that Joel had “multiple track marks on both of his hands and in the crooks of both arms.”
In a statement to police, Joel described frantic attempts to get the weapons back and his bewilderment about how the firearms had disappeared. Officers never recovered the guns. Prosecutors declined to pursue the case, saying it was possible the guns were part of a drug transaction.
Aaron told his counselor in August 2012 that Joel was in his 14th month of recovery from heroin use. Aaron admitted to dabbling in marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines.
Ybarra family members did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
Aaron Ybarra and his father were drinking buddies, frequenting O’Houlies Pub and Getaway Tavern in Mountlake Terrace. Ambrose would even pay for the cabs to get them to or from the bars.
A chemical-dependency counselor’s report about Aaron, dated Oct. 16, 2012, concluded that his current environment — his parents’ home — was “not being supportive of his efforts to abstain from alcohol.”
That same day, his mother called police because her husband was holding a knife to his throat and threatening to kill himself. She described him as “sick and miserable,” according to the report.
Ambrose Ybarra, 56, has been sick for a long time. Records filed in Kitsap County Superior Court show that he has five convictions in at least three Washington counties for driving under the influence, dating back to 1985.
That year he was convicted of DUI in Snohomish County. Three months later, he was convicted of DUI again, as well as driving with a suspended license, in King County.
In September 2009, Ambrose was convicted of DUI in Snohomish County South District Court. Four months later, he was convicted of failure to obey an officer and DUI in Edmonds Municipal Court.
Around 9 p.m. April 10, 2010, police were called to the home after Ambrose refused to pay his cabdriver. Eventually, he gave the cabbie a $100 bill. After a medic at the scene cleared Ybarra, the officers asked if he needed help. “F — you,” he told the officers, and closed the front door.
In January 2011, Ambrose was convicted of DUI in Chelan County District Court for driving with a suspended license and violating the ignition interlock on his vehicle.
Ambrose’s troubles affected his oldest son. After staying sober for a month, Aaron started drinking again to “cope with depression as a result of his father being incarcerated for his third DUI,” his chemical-dependency assessment said.
The trust fund
Despite the legal troubles, Ambrose was appointed in February 2009 to oversee a trust fund established for his wife’s cousin, a 64-year-old Bremerton man who is developmentally disabled.
When the man’s mother died in August 2010, Ambrose became the sole trustee. It was in between these dates that he was convicted of two DUIs.
Court records indicated that Ambrose, starting as early as March 2009, spent about $400,000 from the trust for his own purposes and kept minimal accounting records while his disabled relative lived in disarray with boxes floor to ceiling and “swarms of ants” throughout his trailer.
Court documents also indicate Ambrose used money from the trust to pay for his own chemical-dependency treatment at Sundown M Ranch, outside Yakima, in September 2010. Police also found that Ambrose used the trust to pay his court fines for the 2009 DUI.
Between Dec. 13 and 15, 2010, there were 10 withdrawals totaling $4,000 made from the trust at the Getaway Tavern, O’Houlies Pub, Ringer’s and Just Left Pub, all in Mountlake Terrace or Lynnwood. On one of those days, Ambrose was arrested in the Chelan County case for driving under the influence and violating an ignition-interlock order.
By the time he was removed from the trust, April 2013, police say he had withdrawn a total of $476,381.
Four months later, Aaron called his sister — and she called police — after coming home and discovering his father, who had consumed a fifth of whiskey, with dried blood on his neck and right ear, and holding a bloody knife, according to a police report.
Aaron’s mother, Janice, 57, had worked over many years to protect her family and take control amid turmoil.
When she first called the police in May 2011 to discuss the possible weapons theft at the home, Janice Ybarra told an officer they were missing an SKS rifle that belonged to Aaron. But she didn’t immediately disclose that other guns were also gone.
As the investigator was leaving the home, Janice ran outside and asked him to come back “because she had not told me everything,” the officer wrote in a report.
She then disclosed the extent of the missing guns and that her son, Joel, was a heroin user.
“I was afraid for my son and my family to bring up the other missing ones,” she later wrote to an officer.
She continued working a job and maintaining the home when her husband was incarcerated. When he showed up at home, drunk and limp, she helped the 242-pound man back into their home.
When Aaron was discharged from a seven-day detox program with a referral to chemical-dependency treatment and sober support groups, he declined help in coordinating the treatment, saying his mother was making arrangements.
On one occasion when Aaron was admitted to a hospital and referred to Snohomish County Mental Health for involuntary commitment, but it was determined a case to commit wasn’t possible. Records show his mother had opposed admitting her son.
Because her son Joel had an addiction problem, Janice Ybarra said people had told her not to keep guns in the house. But she told an officer she didn’t remove the guns from the home because her family members “treasured” the guns and handled them responsibly.
“They are competitive shotgun shooters and have always had access to the safe and have been very responsible,” she said.
In the SPU shooting case, Aaron Ybarra has pleaded not guilty to one count of premeditated first-degree murder, three counts of attempted first-degree murder and one count of second-degree assault. He remains in the King County Jail.
His attorney, Ramona Brandes, said the case will revolve around his mental illness. She previously told The Seattle Times that “he wasn’t on his meds and he committed an action that is incomprehensible.”
Brandes declined to discuss Ybarra’s home life, saying she has experts who are assessing his history. But she said she’s seen people with mental illness struggle to manage turmoil at home, and that chaos in a personal life can trigger episodes.
“Everything has an impact on them,” Brandes said. “If they’re raised in an environment that’s chaotic, they may not be able to cope with that.”