Unsolved Mysteries: Police Hunt Killers

A lot of people had motives to kill Kaare Sortland.

For starters, there were the dozens of parents who had accused him and his wife of molesting their children at the Hugs and Kisses Day-Care Center the couple operated in Tacoma during the 1980s.

And there were the friends and relatives of those families who, twice, were frustrated when the Sortlands were cleared of charges, most recently in late 1990.

Finding suspects hasn't been a problem for police detectives. But after nearly three months of investigating - since Halloween night when Sortland, 49, was shot in the backyard of his Tacoma house - finding the murderer has.

"Sortland was in the middle of a volatile situation," said Sam Thrall, who is in charge of homicide investigations for the Tacoma Police Department. "A lot of parents and relatives were upset. We really haven't eliminated any of them."

The Sortland case is one of Tacoma's four 1992 unsolved murders being investigated by Thrall's department. Elsewhere throughout Pierce County and South King County, 13 other 1992 death investigations remain open because police haven't determined a suspect or cause of death.

In King and Pierce counties, the number of murders in 1992 continued an upward trend.

King County police handled 23 murders in unincorporated areas of the county, including two that still are unsolved. Two other investigations remain open because causes of death haven't been determined. Those cases later could be classified as murders.

Four detectives were recently reassigned to the homicide unit to investigate the growing list of unsolved murders, which over the past several years includes at least seven prostitutes found in rural areas near North Bend and Enumclaw.

The Pierce County sheriff's office handled 24 murders in unincorporated areas of its county, its highest total ever. Three of those cases are considered unsolved.

Tacoma had 32 murders, down from its all-time high of 36, which happened both in 1988 and 1991. Murders in those years, many of which were gang- and drug-related, coincided with the arrival of more gang members from California, Thrall said.

Topping Tacoma's list is the Sortland murder. At least one detective has been working fulltime on the case, confirming alibis of parents and friends and following other leads.

It was 7 p.m. when Sortland, who was watching television with his wife, heard a noise in the backyard. Anger toward the couple had been boiling over for more than two years. Someone had broken a window on their North Tacoma house before their last trial. The couple had reported many hostile encounters around the city with parents of former students.

Sortland went to check on the noise. Moments later, Judy Sortland heard her husband yell. His final words - which she believes were "I didn't do it!" - were followed by several gunshots.

Six shots were fired at close range from a large caliber handgun. Several missed; a couple hit.

"We're probably not talking about a real experienced shooter here," Thrall said. "It wasn't real professional looking, but it did appear to be a planned ambush, not a random attack."

Thrall figures he and his detectives eventually will find the killer.

"It will take persistence," he said. "We'll just have to stay with it and continue to follow every lead. One of them will lead somewhere."

Sgt. Bob Holt, in charge of homicide investigations for the Kent Police Department, said it will take the same type of persistence to determine who shot a man to death at a Kent bus stop the night of Dec. 6.

Kevin Watson was 28. Police say he was involved with drugs and other criminals and that his death probably was the result of a fight within his group.

"I think we're getting close," Holt said. "It's just a matter of continuing to talk to these people. They're being very evasive now, but our experience is that people in groups like that often don't stay friends long."

Watson, originally from California but most recently from Seattle, was shot several times about 1:30 a.m. on Kent-Des Moines Road, a block west of Military Road. Witnesses heard shots and saw a truck speed off.

Other 1992 unsolved murders, their victims and case updates, are:

-- Richard Bobb, a 27-year-old resident of Puyallup's South Hill. Bobb was awakened by a burglar at 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 4. He confronted the burglar and was shot several times. The case is unusual for two reasons, said Curt Benson, spokesman for Pierce County police: Burglars rarely break into homes when people are in them and burglars rarely are armed. Detectives have little information and are seeking the public's help. "We believe someone out there knows who the killer or killers are," he said. "We're hoping they come forward."

-- Usolelei Taii a 21-year-old Lakewood man. Taii was shot this summer at a Lakewood party attended by about 100 people, including many gang members. A fight erupted when someone took a drink of someone else's beer. Nine other people were wounded. Months later, detectives still are sorting out who was there and what happened.

-- Austin Petersen, a 48-year-old truck driver from Colorado. Peterson and his partner spent Dec. 23 in a Silver Cloud Motel room in Tukwila. The next morning his partner went to a nearby restaurant for breakfast. When the partner returned, Peterson was dead in the cab of his truck, shot once in the torso area. With few leads, Tukwila police are hoping someone - perhaps a person in the area that morning - will come forward with new information.