Jesse Sarey was more than his fatal encounter with Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson — he was a son, a brother, and a cousin who was loved by his family.
Sarey’s family wants people to know who Sarey really was, not just how police described him moments before he was shot and killed in 2019.
In the early 2000s, Elaine Simons fostered Sarey’s younger brother, Torell. Simons first met Sarey while doing a family visit with Torell. Shortly thereafter, Sarey, who was around 11 or 12 at the time, moved in with Simons to be with his brother.
Torell and Simons look back fondly on the memories they made with Sarey during their childhood.
“He was just a goofball when we were growing up. He always had to be the funny person in the room. He loved to dance and he was a protective older brother too,” Torell said.
Torell said he and his brother used to watch WWE wrestling and play basketball together.
“Me and him were basketball fanatics at the time. He was the one who got me into it so he would teach me. We got to meet Rashard Lewis and play with him when we were teenagers,” Torell said.
One of Torell’s favorite memories with his big brother was when they went to a WWE wrestling match when they were pre-teens. They dressed up in masks and gold wrestling belts and had a blast, Torell said.
Simons also fondly remembers taking the boys to the wrestling match.
“I always tell this story. I had two young teenage boys who loved wrestling and really wanted to go, so I took them and they got their little mask and their little gold masks and we got in and there were all these boys screaming. It was fun,” Simons said. “But when we got home, they were in the back bedroom and I heard some noise and when I came running down, the bed had broken and they were both practicing some of the moves.”
“He suplexed me,” Torell said as he laughed.
Throughout his life, Sarey’s family was always around. When he turned 18, he aged out of foster care and moved in with his older cousin, Steven Sarey. Similar to how Torell remembers living with Sarey at Simons, Steven said he cherishes the memories he made with his little cousin during those years.
“I don’t really have a special thing that I remember,” Steven said. “I was more excited that my little cousin wasn’t in jail or in trouble when he was with me. He was my little homie. He was my best friend at the time when he was staying with me. We did everything together. We went everywhere together, we just jumped in the car, like let’s go. If I’m hungry, we’re hungry, if he’s hungry, we’re hungry. That’s how we did it.”
Sarey had problems just like everyone else, his family said. He got in trouble with the law a few times and drifted in and out of homelessness. But that never took away from the love his family had for him, they all agreed.
“He’s always had connections with his family, but growing up as a young man, you’re trying to figure it out for yourself. No one wants to have to rely on another man,” Steven said. “It’s hard to feel like you’re your own man when you have to rely on another person. He was trying to figure it out.”
Drifting through your twenties with no real direction is not uncommon these days, but unfortunately, Sarey never had the chance to figure things out for himself.
“We just never got to see what Jesse’s potential is,” Simons said. “I’ve seen people that are unhoused get off the street and live beautiful lives and Jesse, not only was he unhoused when he was killed, but he never got the opportunity to live to his fullest capacity, to get married, have children. Whatever it is that Jesse had wanted in life was taken away by another man.”
Sarey’s killing in 2019 traumatized his family, who was already grieving the loss of Sarey’s stepfather a month earlier, Simons said. They have a big family, so a family member passing away isn’t unheard of, but it’s usually their elders, Steven said.
“I think we’re so used to losing family members, but when Jesse’s death came, it was a big surprise to me,” Steven said. “We’re watching all our elders get older and time is setting in, so we know it’s coming one day. But for Jesse, he was such a young person, a young soul. He was homeless at the moment and to hear what happened, he was already suffering and going through it by being homeless and then they executed him.”
Searching for accountability
Sarey’s family believes Jeffrey Nelson, the Auburn police officer who shot and killed Sarey, thought he would get away with it due to the fact Sarey was homeless at the time of his death.
Sarey’s family doesn’t have faith that anyone within Auburn’s government will hold Nelson or other cops like him accountable, so they’re trying to do it themselves.
“Are they trying to do something about it?” Steven said. “No, we’re trying to do something about it and we’re using their system and their laws to fight them as they try to wiggle around and continue this and find other reasons for their actions.”
Nobody from the City of Auburn reached out to Sarey’s family after his death, something that still upsets them today, they said. At the first court appearance for Nelson’s trial Sarey’s family showed up in support of the prosecution; they were shocked to see the other side of the courtroom filled with police officers in support of Nelson, Steven said.
“When we go to court, we show up as a family to support Jesse, we’re supposed to do that, that’s righteousness, but for other police officers to show up to support a killer, that just shows you who they are,” he said. “You are who you support and you are who you hang out with, that’s how I feel about it.”
The family members are doing everything they can to get justice for Sarey while still trying to grieve the death of their loved one, Simons said.
After Sarey’s death, Simons became the family’s de-facto spokesperson and threw herself into anti-police brutality activism, Simons said. She volunteered with the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability and worked to get the recent police reform bills passed in Olympia, Simons said.
However, recently she’s stepped back from activism to focus on the trial, Simons said. Sarey’s family wants justice for their family member, and they want Nelson put behind bars, they said. Whether or not Nelson is convicted on his charges is out of their power, so they’re doing what they can, Simons said.
“It sucks that we’re having this conversation about my little cousin, but it has to be said,” Steven said. “It’s not going to be swept under the rug. We’re in court right now. We got a lot farther than a lot of other families. All of that is due to Elaine.”
They created the website Justice4JesseSarey.org to raise awareness about Sarey’s killing and the trial, Simons said. If he’s not convicted, Nelson should at the very least be fired and de-certified to prevent him from working in law enforcement, Simons said.
Sarey’s family wants Nelson to be held accountable, not only for the killing of Sarey, but for the other acts of violence he did toward members of the public, they said. They’re hopeful that positive change will come out of the death of Sarey, they said.
Nelson is the first police officer to be charged with murder since Washington voters approved I-940, which changes the burden of proof for prosecution of police homicides, according to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s office.
Prior to I-940, a prosecutor would have to prove an officer acted with “malice” and “lack of good faith” when they killed someone, an impossible standard to meet. The new standard under I-940 is concerned with whether an officer’s actions were “reasonable,” Satterberg said.
Nelson, who is on electronic home detention, is scheduled to appear before the court on July 27 for his trial in the murder and assault of Jesse Sarey. Nelson pleaded not guilty in August 2020.