Special Reports

Peninsula killer found not guilty due to insanity, will be committed to Western State

Laura Sorensen thought she was hunting pedophiles, starting a revolution and growing wings when she walked into the Peninsula Market in August 2012 and shot three people.

Her delusions wounded two men and killed a third. Wauna resident David Long, 40, died three months after the incident, succumbing to internal injuries. Pierce County prosecutors charged Sorensen, 21, with murder, attempted murder and assault.

The long legal journey ended Thursday in Superior Court. Sorensen was found not guilty by reason of insanity — a verdict that will send her to Western State Hospital in Lakewood, perhaps for the rest of her life.

Prosecutors didn’t fight the insanity defense. That meant an agreed outcome: no jury, no trial in the usual sense, an instant verdict and no sentencing.

Deputy Prosecutor Lori Kooiman said the decision to accept an insanity defense was difficult and rare.

“We do recognize what that means for the victims’ families,” she said. “It is not a decision that the state takes lightly. If there ever was a case that was an insanity defense, this was it. Western State will not be a resort. Her prognosis for ever getting released is very, very slim.”

Sorensen has a history of mental illness that stretches back to elementary school, when she began to fear thunderstorms and asteroids falling from the sky. Her family has spoken of repeated efforts to commit her to treatment, and indifferent responses from the state’s mental health system.

As a teenager, she was hospitalized as a suicide risk and diagnosed with schizophrenia. She tried to stab her stepfather. At 19, while living in an apartment in Gig Harbor, she began to think her neighbor’s apartment was a “den of iniquity,” and tried to set it on fire, court records state. In 2011, she was kicked out of a Target store – she’d been flipping off customers, believing they were child molesters.

On the day of the shooting, she heard voices telling her to shoot pedophiles. She swiped a gun from her grandparents’ house and headed for the grocery store north of Gig Harbor. In a statement to a psychologist, she recalled seeing a child in the parking lot. She hustled into the store before the kid could get inside.

“I didn’t want to scare the kid while I was shooting people,” she said.

Her illness persists, according to multiple psychological evaluations conducted by Western State psychologists. The most recent evaluation was filed three weeks ago.

“Ms. Sorensen has been suffering from a severe, persistent mental disorder all of her adult life, all of her adolescence and probably much of her childhood,” the evaluation states. “She lacks insight into her mental condition and has a history of noncompliance with treatment, some episodes of which have been related to past acts of violence towards others. …

“Ms. Sorensen poses a high risk for engaging in future acts that are dangerous to others … she is not safe to be conditionally released to the community.”

Sorensen walked into court Thursday in a gray jail smock and shackles, her hair piled into a ponytail. Her family watched. So did David Long’s sister, Heidi Michaelson, and his grieving father, Gordon Graham.

Michaelson cried as she read a statement to the court.

“My brother was one in a million,” she said. “He was a hard worker. He taught himself how to play the guitar, how to ride a horse, how to rope cows. He never got to have a child — he never got to find the love of his life.”

Graham said Sorensen was fortunate — fortunate to have a supportive family. He said he knew Sorensen’s grandfather: a doctor and a compassionate man. That didn’t change the reality of a lost son.

“Nothing will ever balance the scales of justice,” Graham said. “She’s fortunate that she’ll serve her time in a psychiatric environment. My only hope is that she’s not released into society ever again.”

Lee Crider also spoke, standing and walking to the bench, aided by a cane. He was in the store that day. Sorensen shot him in the leg.

“You don’t look for that kind of stuff when you’re shopping,” he said. “Sympathy doesn’t negate the fact that she walked into that grocery store and absolutely knew what she was doing wasn’t right. I don’t want to see her released, either.”

No one from Sorensen’s family spoke during the hearing. After the shootings last year, Laura’s mother, Jennifer Sorensen, a mental health therapist, spoke of her struggles to obtain treatment for her daughter, and repeated phone calls to mental health crisis lines that went nowhere.

Her efforts included a letter to then-Gov. Chris Gregoire, written in 2011. Thursday, she shared a prepared statement with The News Tribune.

“There have been times in recent years that our family has begged for (Laura) to be committed yet again, with no response,” she wrote. “Please know that we have tried to do our best for Laura with the resources we had available to us. We are encouraged that she was found not guilty by reason of insanity on this day and will be sent to Western State Hospital to receive the treatment she so desperately needs. I just wish she had been sent there much sooner; before this tragedy happened.”

Denise Whitley, a defense attorney, represented Laura Sorensen in court. She said the facts backed the verdict.

“She meets even the most stringent definition of mental disorder,” Whitley said. “Evidence supports that she was psychotic before, during and after the homicide. The insanity defense is reserved for the most extreme cases of mental illness — this is one of those cases — not because the life lost is not not valued — or to minimize the tragic effects.”

Judge Vicki Hogan looked toward the defendant, and listed the consequences of the verdict: loss of rights, and perhaps a lifelong stay in the state hospital.

“A potential release would only be by court order,” Hogan said. “The likelihood of that release is not optimistic — and you’re nodding your head — I think you appreciate and acknowledge that that is a reality.”

Sorensen spoke last. She clutched a yellow piece of notebook paper — a handwritten statement — and spoke softly.

“I want to apologize,” she said. “I would like to apologize for my actions. I understand that he (David Long) was a good person and by far did not deserve this. I also understand that nothing I say will bring him back.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486