Family of boy fatally shot at JBLM sues government, alleges hole in fence contributed to death

Jessica Holman Duthie

The family of a 13-year-old boy fatally shot by a friend in a wooded area of Joint Base Lewis-McChord has sued the federal government, alleging a hole in the fence around the base contributed to his death.

Alexander Demello died days after 17-year-old Adonis L. Brown accidentally shot him in the face Oct. 20 near Lakewood’s Woodbrook neighborhood.

Brown, 18, pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter in February, and was sentenced to seven years, 10 months in prison.

On Friday, Demello’s family named Brown and the U.S. government in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court. The legal action seeks unspecified damages.

A JBLM spokesman said Tuesday that the base was not in a position to comment, because the lawsuit is pending.

Jaime and Michael Demello, Alexander Demello’s parents, allege that a longstanding hole in the fence that separates JBLM from Woodbrook turned the wooded area of the base into a makeshift park for local civilians.

The gap was about 6 feet by 3 feet, and led to a trail on the base that neighbors used to walk their dogs, the lawsuit said.

It was the hole that Demello, his 15-year-old brother and Brown allegedly used to get onto the base Oct. 20. And that’s where, Demello’s parents contend, Brown found a gun and accidentally killed their son with it.

Prosecutors accused Brown’s uncle of giving him the gun, and the uncle awaits trial. According to charging papers, Brown said he found the gun in some brush. His girlfriend told police she thought he got it from the uncle.

The Demellos argue Brown negligently handled the gun, and that the federal government created a safety risk by failing to properly fence the area of the base where Alexander died.

According to the lawsuit:

The hole was around from about 2007 until shortly after the shooting, at the end of Woodbrook Drive Southwest, near 150th Street Southwest.

Alexander and his brother had recently moved to Woodbrook and didn’t know the wooded area by their neighborhood was part of the base.

Jessica Holman Duthie, an attorney for the Demellos, said the boys believed the fenced area was a horse farm, because there was an equestrian area nearby.

She said the boys might have assumed liability had they climbed over the fence, but the hole changes that.

“Bases are inherently dangerous,” she said. “They (JBLM) should have mended that fence.”

She said emails among base officials show the government knew about the gap and that a JBLM security specialist recommended in 2011 it be fixed as soon as possible.

Holman Duthie said the shooting wasn’t the first time a crime had happened on that part of the base. About two years before, a burglary suspect fled through the hole.

“The United States owed a duty to take precautions against criminal activity knowingly occurring at that specific location of the perimeter fence breach,” the lawsuit said. “Their intentional failure to act created a temptation and opportunity for criminal misconduct.”

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell