First of 3 defendants sentenced to 16 years for school-yard killing during drug deal

EVERETT — Donald Barker handed out cards to family members during the Christmas holiday last year.

Each offered a unique message of caring.

“The words written in those cards pierced each one of our hearts equally, as every word was thoughtfully written, genuine and sincere, specific to each person to whom it was addressed,” his sister, Kendra Kruse, told a Snohomish County Superior Court judge Monday.

Around 10 p.m. the following day, Kruse received a life-shattering phone call. Her brother had been found kicked, punched and stabbed to death outside Madison Elementary School in Everett.

On Thursday, the first of three men convicted in the fatal assault was sentenced to more than 16 years in prison. It was the maximum term under state sentencing guidelines.

Patrick Rex Griffiths, 35, pleaded guilty last April to first-degree robbery with a deadly weapon. A murder charge was dropped as part of a plea agreement that required him to testify at the trial of co-defendants defendants Jimmy Ruiz Jr., 44, and William Gobat, 35.

Prosecutors showed the trio attacked Barker, 37, over a drug debt.

Barker had gone to the school to buy drugs. The dealer sent Griffiths, Gobat and Ruiz to collect on a $30 debt.

“To put it bluntly, Mr. Griffiths’ cooperation was key to the law enforcement investigation and the convictions of Mr. Ruiz and Mr. Gobat,” Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Matt Baldock said.

At the same time, he could have faced a much longer prison term if he had been convicted of the original charge against him, Baldock said.

Max Harrison, Griffith’s lawyer, said his client’s cooperation puts him in great danger of retaliation.

Griffiths told Judge Ronald Castleberry, “I’m sorry this happened. I can’t imagine the pain that I caused.”

The judge urged Barker’s family to reach out to others who are trying to help loved ones struggling with a drug addiction.

“The reality is addiction so oftentimes brings otherwise good people into terrible situations such as this,” Castleberry said. “It brings them into contact with heartless, cruel people. That is the harsh reality of addiction.”

Barker’s family described a man who stayed beside and supported his cancer-striken grandfather until he died. He loved reading and music, counting “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Catcher in the Rye” and “A River Runs Through It” among his favorite books and John Lennon and Bob Marley among his favorite artists.

His aunt, Jennifer Schorr, said Barker enjoyed being a father and treating his son, now 11, to Slurpees after soccer games. He always rooted for the underdog, she said.

His family was “given a life sentence of pain,” she said.

His son was too frightened to testify or attend Monday’s sentencing, Barker’s mother, Beth Piasecki, said.

The family took up nearly an entire row in the courtroom. They shed tears together as stories were told that revealed Barker as much more than a forlorn drug addict.

“I will never receive another Christmas card like the one he gave me the day before his death,” his sister said. “Nothing written on paper will ever be able to express the incredible loss I feel from losing my brother, my protector, my best friend.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com

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