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South of Vancouver, a city asks, 'What is going on?'

Seattle Police Department crime scene investigators collect evidence from a crime scene in a West Seattle neighborhood where a gunman shot himself after being confronted by police in Seattle, Washington May 30, 2012. The gun the gunman used to shoot himself is at the lower left of photo near the yellow number 1 and number 2 markers. Earlier in the day the gunman shot two men and a woman to death at a popular Seattle cafe, then fled to a downtown parking lot, where he fatally shot another woman and stole her car.

Marcus Donner/Reuters/Marcus Donner/Reuters

The notices for coming shows are still in the windows, evidence of Cafe Racer's role as a hub for everyone from aspiring musicians to would-be tech millionaires hunched over their laptops in Seattle's vibrant Ravenna neighbourhood.

But the café windows are now dark and the sidewalk out front brimming with flowers, placed to mark the bloody events at about 11 a.m. last Wednesday.

That's when 40-year-old Ian Stawicki – previously banned by staff for his sometimes erratic behaviour – walked in and pulled out a .45 calibre handgun. He then began shooting café patrons execution-style where they sat.

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Within five hours, six people were dead: four shot in Cafe Racer; a woman Mr. Stawicki gunned down after fleeing the café and hijacking her car, and Mr. Stawicki, who took his own life as police closed in.

In isolation, Cafe Racer would be shocking enough. But it was only the latest in a series of what Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn refers to as "multiple, tragic episodes of gun violence" that have rattled the Pacific Northwest city, better known for its eclectic music scene, coffee culture and high-tech innovations. The incidents have resonated with British Columbians, many of whom, through business or personal links, are intertwined with Washington State's most important city.

"Seattle prides itself on being a city where neighbours care about each other. That's really been shaken this week," said Sally Clark, president of the Seattle City Council. "It's not that we doubt that we care about each other, but when the violence is harder to categorize then people have more doubt and fear."

There have been 21 homicides so far this year, matching the total for all of 2011.

"People are just going, 'Oh my God. What is going on?' It does seem a little overwhelming," said Detective Mark Jamieson, a spokesman for the Seattle Police Department. "Wednesday was the tipping point."

A community mourns

The day after the incident, Cafe Racer patrons, employees and neighbours gathered outside the cafe, sharing hugs and tears and struggling to understand what had happened in their community.

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"There are people coming from all over Seattle," manager Benjamin Dean said. "I've never seen them in this neighbourhood before – that's touching."

Mr. Dean has clear memories of the gunman who ultimately opened fire: "Sometimes he'd get a little loud, and you'd ask him to leave. Sometimes he'd be completely normal."

But there are also vivid memories of the victims. Outside the café, someone had left a letter, carefully sheathed in protective clear coverings, to "Drew, whose last name I never knew, who was killed in my neighbourhood café."

That would be 45-year-old Drew Keriakedes, who performed with Circus Contraption, a vaudeville-burlesque group. The writer of the letter described a friendly, laid-back, tattooed and pierced character who, once chided on a Sunday morning that he would be late for church, responded, raising his can in a toast, "I got my church – church of Rainier."

Mr. Dean said he had been moved by the outpouring of support, both from café regulars and people who'd never been there but felt compelled to voice their compassion and concern.

"Most of the people who come here and work here live right in the neighbourhood – it is like a living room," he said as a steady stream of well-wishers dropped by to light candles, lay flowers or sign cards on the windows of the café, which is closed for an unknown period. "We will reopen and rebuild, we don't know when. We're as lost as everybody else, we're just as hurt as everybody else."

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Civic leaders respond

Seattle remains a relatively safe place, especially compared to other major U.S. cities; indeed, in 2010 and 2011, crime rates were going down. However, recent weeks have seen a series of alarming incidents, including a 43-year-old software engineer fatally shot in the head in broad daylight while driving through the city centre as two men on opposite sidewalks opened fire.

To Seattle police, the problem is maddeningly simple, but solutions are elusive. "The common denominator is that people are really quick to go to the gun to resolve their differences," said Det. Jamieson. "If we could locate a single cause, we would be throwing all our resources at it. There is no one specific cause."

In B.C.'s Lower Mainland, much gun-related violence is linked to criminal gangs. While Seattle police acknowledge gang activity in their community, they say they are not linking all of the shootings to gang conflicts. In Mr. Stawicki's case, Seattle police said it was evident he had mental-health issues.

City Councillor Bruce Harrell, chair of Seattle's public-safety committee, was blunt during a news conference after the Cafe Racer shootings. "The media and the public are calling for concrete answers and solutions. If we are to be honest, there's no easy fix. It can't just be done with one simple theory of crime prevention or catching the bad actors." Citing overall gun deaths in the United States, Mr. Harrell said "violence is ubiquitous in our country."

Mayor McGinn said Washington's cities face hurdles on engineering gun policy because of state laws that constrain city action. "We do believe that law should be changed to have our own regulations," he said.

But Mr. McGinn won't wait until the scheduled next legislature session in January. "We will look to change state law," he said, "but the issue is we have to look at what our resources are and how we can focus on individuals who are known to be violent, and how we can apprehend people with guns."

Repairing Seattle's image

Despite the violence, the city's convention and visitors bureau is hopeful that this tragic week won't have a lasting impact on the number of visitors to the region.

Seattle and King County have nearly 10 million overnight visitors each year, according to Seattle's Convention and Visitor's Bureau. Of that, about a million are from Canada, although there was no available breakdown of how many are from B.C.

"While we are deeply saddened by this week's tragic events, we encourage travellers to visit Seattle and to take the same safety precautions that they would in any large city," Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of the bureau, said in a statement. "Travellers today are sophisticated and we're hopeful that they are able to distinguish between trends and anomalies."

Back at Cafe Racer, regular patron Eric Hullander is also hopeful. He said he doubted the tragedy would affect his routine or people's overall impressions of Seattle. "It's kind of like a car accident or something – it just happens, and it can happen anywhere."

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About the Authors
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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