Two men will each spend nearly a decade in prison for shooting a man to death in a parked car near Acme in rural Whatcom County in late 2016.
Richard Kelome “Ricky” Zapata-George, 22, of Deming was sentenced June 20 in Whatcom County Superior Court to just under 10 years in prison and three years probation for first-degree manslaughter and first-degree unlawful possession of a firearm.
Dale Anthony Williams, 19, of Deming was sentenced the same day to nine years in prison and three years probation for first-degree manslaughter. Both men will have to register as felony firearm offenders once released.
On Dec. 6, 2016, David Jeffery Palagruti had set up a drug deal over text message with Zapata-George and the pair were to meet outside 6045 Saxon Road, according to court records. Palagruti had been living there in his car in a driveway by farms along the south fork of the Nooksack River. Zapata-George never showed and Palagruti fell asleep in the passenger’s seat, according to court records.
Palagruti’s girlfriend, who was sitting in the driver’s seat, heard a knock on the window around 8 p.m. She thought it was someone from the house, so she unrolled the window. A masked man flashed a gun and she ducked.
Palagruti was shot in the head twice, once from close range and once from afar, according to an autopsy. Neither shot broke the windows, and there were no signs of defensive wounds, the autopsy showed.
Palagruti died Dec. 7 from his wounds. He was 27.
Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Eric Richey said many aspects of the case were problematic, due to the limited information those involved offered, noting that a witness inside the car with Palagruti first said it was Zapata-George who fired the gun, and later said it was Williams.
The conflicting stories led Richey to offer a plea deal with reduced charges. Originally the men were facing first-degree murder charges.
“Nobody could tell definitively what happened. Other witnesses gave many conflicting stories," Richey said. "That made proving beyond a reasonable doubt which one of the two suspected killed David Palagruti problematic. We also couldn’t prove that one acted as an accomplice to the other, because we could not prove that either had knowledge that the other was going to commit a crime.”
During the investigation, 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 around 8:07 p.m., according to court records. Gunshots were reported at 7:55 p.m.
Williams’ fingerprints were found on the driver’s side window of Palagruti’s vehicle, where Palagruti’s girlfriend said the shooter had put his hand and aimed the gun. Williams said he left those fingerprints about a week before the shooting when he bought drugs from Palagruti, court records state.
On the day of the shooting, Zapata-George had texted and called Palagruti 27 times between 5:20 a.m. and 1:25 p.m., but Palagruti never responded. Zapata-George, who was known to drive a red Jeep Cherokee, was pulled over by Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office detectives shortly before 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 7.
A search of Zapata-George’s vehicle turned up a loaded 10mm Glock handgun in the rear passenger footwell. The gun was reported stolen from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. A second ammunition magazine was stuck between two seats.
Williams was in the vehicle at the time, as well as two other unrelated people.
Bullet fragments recovered in the autopsy and analyzed by the state crime lab revealed they were higher-velocity rounds from a polygonal barrel, a match for a 10mm Glock handgun, according to court records.
Zapata-George told detectives he dropped Williams off at Palagruti’s car. He said be believed Williams was planning to rip off Palagruti, and knew he had a gun.
After returning to Zapata-George’s Jeep, Williams told him he shot Palagruti, according to court records.
Richey said it’s possible that if the case went to trial neither man would have been found guilty of Palagruti’s murder, but noted that if the men’s defenses failed, they could have been convicted of more serious charges.
“As a result, there would be no closure for David’s family and no accountability for the defendant’s,” Richey said. “I believe this resolution provided accountability for the defendants’ conduct, while offering certainty to all parties given the evidentiary concerns addressed above.”
Darrin Hall, Williams’ public defense attorney, said “considering the facts of the case and witnesses on both sides, I think Mr. Williams got an extremely fair outcome.”
Zapata-George’s attorney could not be reached for comment.