Fake drug deal preceded murder in rural Whatcom County, charges say

First appearance for suspect in Acme murder

Richard K.V. Zapata-George appears in Whatcom Superior Court Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.
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Richard K.V. Zapata-George appears in Whatcom Superior Court Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.

Two men set up a fake drug deal before a fatal shooting last month near Acme in rural Whatcom County, according to charges read in court Monday.

On Dec. 6, the day of the shooting, David Jeffery Palagruti had set up the deal over text message with Richard Kelome “Ricky” Zapata-George, according to charges read by Deputy Prosecutor Erik Sigmar.

According to the charges, Palagruti told Zapata-George to bring the drugs to 6045 Saxon Road, where he had been living in his car in a driveway by the farms along the south fork of the Nooksack River.

Zapata-George, 21, didn’t show up for the deal. Palagruti fell asleep in the passenger’s seat. His girlfriend heard a knock around 8 p.m., as she sat in the driver’s seat in the dark. She figured it was someone from the house, so she rolled down the window a few inches. A masked man flashed a gun. She ducked.

An autopsy showed two bullets – one fired from close range, one from farther away – struck Palagruti in the head, the charges say. Neither shot broke the windows. There were no signs of defensive wounds, said Dr. Gary Goldfogel, the county medical examiner.

Palagruti died the following day. He was 27.

Meanwhile, Whatcom County sheriff’s deputies found the texts on Palagruti’s phone, and kept a lookout for Zapata-George’s red Jeep Cherokee. Detectives pulled over a red Jeep around 1:25 a.m. Zapata-George was driving. None of the four people in the car were carrying identification.

A man in the front passenger seat, Dale Anthony Williams, 18, gave his older brother’s name and birthdate instead of his own, according to charging papers. He had given police the same false name months earlier when he was investigated for an assault with brass knuckles on a Bellingham teen in the Birchwood neighborhood. Once detectives figured out his real identity, Williams was arrested for the old felony assault warrant.

Williams has sat behind bars on that warrant and newer charges of criminal impersonation. Detectives now believe he fired the fatal bullet in the Dec. 6 shooting.

At some point in the investigation Zapata-George gave deputies consent to search his Jeep, according to the prosecutor’s statement, and authorities found a loaded 10 mm Glock handgun in the rear passenger footwell. The gun had been reported stolen out of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

A second ammunition magazine was stuck between two seats. That night Zapata-George was wearing a balaclava, or ski mask, around his neck.

Zapata-George told detectives he had dropped off Williams close to Palagruti’s car. He knew Williams had a gun, and believed he would try to rip off Palagruti: Williams jumped out wearing two bandannas. A minute or two after returning to the Jeep, he told Zapata-George he shot Palagruti, according to the statement.

Bullet fragments recovered in the autopsy were analyzed by a state crime lab, revealing they were “higher-velocity” rounds from a polygonal barrel, a match for a 10 mm Glock handgun, according to the probable cause statement.

Court records show Zapata-George lives in a Nooksack tribal neighborhood off Uluquance Road, about 10½ miles from the Saxon Road address. Williams lives in the same neighborhood.

Detectives uncovered security footage showing a red Jeep Cherokee leaving the neighborhood around 7:22 p.m., and returning – at a “high rate of speed” – at 8:07 p.m., according to the charges.

Gunshots were reported at 7:55 p.m.

Sheriff’s deputies booked Zapata-George into jail around 5 p.m. Friday to face charges of unlawful possession of a firearm, possession of a stolen firearm, identity theft, driving without a valid operator’s license, driving under the influence, and first-degree murder.

Bail was set at $1 million for both men over the weekend.

On Monday at his first appearance in court, Zapata-George shook his head violently, and whispered to a deputy public defender when the prosecutor said the defendant tried to set up “an illicit drug deal” on the day of the shooting. He folded his arms as the statement went on.

Williams asked to have his court hearing delayed one day, so that his attorney could be present. The request was granted.

Zapata-George has one violent felony on his record for a shooting at a party in a gravel pit off the north fork of the Nooksack in 2014.

Conflicting witness accounts are given in charging papers, because of the darkness and the chaos, but some said Zapata-George aimed the gun and fired a shot that winged the victim’s head. Others said he pistol-whipped the man’s head, and the gun went off. The victim survived.

A judge sentenced Zapata-George to three months in jail, as suggested by a plea deal, according to court documents.

In April, police questioned Williams about a teenage boy with an open wound to his head that needed staples, and other injuries to his face that needed stitches.

The boy told police he had gotten into an argument and a scuffle around midnight with Jaxon Mancillas, 18, when Mancillas put him in a headlock while Mancillas’ friend beat his head with brass knuckles.

The victim identified Williams as Mancillas’ friend with the brass knuckles. (Williams gave police his brother’s name at first, according to charges from that case.)

Williams was formally charged in December in that case with second-degree assault.

Now both men face charges of first-degree murder.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb