TACOMA, Wash. — Twenty years after a gunman killed a 19-year-old woman and a 5-year-old boy on Thanksgiving Day, survivors of the deadly shooting are hopeful for answers.
The Tacoma Police Department (TPD) has assigned a new detective to the cold case – hoping someone knows something that may lead to an arrest and a conviction.
For the Spencer family, mom Nancy and son Jeff said it does not take much to trigger a memory.
“It’s a feeling I get when it’s foggy out – it instantly reminds me,” Jeff Spencer said.
Jeff and Nancy survived a mass shooting on Thanksgiving Day in 2002 in a Tacoma home. Around 10 p.m. on Nov. 28, 2002, a gunman walked up to a basement window, and for a reason that is still a mystery to this day, unloaded.
“It’s surreal," Nancy Spencer said. "There are moments when I can see it all so clearly like it just happened because it stays in your mind. It stays in your heart,” Nancy said.
“There was a lot of people in that room," Jeff Spencer said. "There was probably at least 20 in the basement that (were) probably all feeling the way that I was, just scared. It didn’t seem real but at the same time it was the most real thing I’ve ever been through."
Jeff Spencer was shot in the leg, a wound that still bothers him to this day. He has learned to live with the physical injuries, and he’s also learned to live with the trauma of losing his girlfriend to the shooting.
“I can still remember just looking at her face and holding her and I told her in her ear ‘I love you’ and I just knew that…I just felt like she was alone, and she needed help, but I didn’t know what to do,” Jeff Spencer said.
His girlfriend at the time, 19-year-old Kimberly Riley, was a student at the University of Washington. She was shot and died in his arms.
Jeff Spencer spoke to KING 5 in the weeks after the shooting more than 20 years ago.
“I’d always want to tell her that I loved her before – I never did until that night but she was dying. I just held her and told her I loved her,” he said.
The shooter also killed 5-year-old Jeremy Britt-Bayinthavong.
Despite a large police response, no one was arrested. Family members and volunteers canvased the neighborhood to help law enforcement look for any clues that may have helped the investigation.
“Look at him," a family member told KING 5 in 2002. "Sweet kid. 5-year-old. Just had his birthday, now he’s dead. Nothing we can do."
With no actionable leads, the case went cold. In late 2021, Tacoma Police Detective Julie Dier was assigned to the case. She’s a mother herself and not immune to the emotions the death of a child evokes.
“It’s heartbreaking," Dier said. "I just -- it’s somebody that’s completely innocent and has no involvement in anything and you can’t do anything about it."
Law enforcement remains hopeful that new information will lead to an arrest. Investigators believe the murder may have been gang-related, possibly targeted. They said the young woman and child were innocent victims and to this day, the Spencer family maintains they have no idea who would have done this or why.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I ever imagined this scene that was downstairs going on that upstairs we were oblivious to other than the noise,” Nancy Spencer said.
“It’s maddening to know that there’s people in Tacoma that know," Jeff Spencer said. "They’re probably within five, 10 miles of us right now."
Jeff Spencer, now in his 40s, is left wishing he could have done more. In the two decades since that shooting, he has become a father to two girls and has tried to move on with his life. Though, it does not take much to bring him back to that night.
“The first couple of years there were so many things I wish I could have changed," Jeff Spencer said. "If I would have done this then maybe people wouldn’t have died."
A memory of a life lost he will carry for the rest of his life.
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