Tacoma man pleads guilty to attacking islander

A Tacoma man has been sentenced to six months in jail after pleading guilty to second-degree assault and malicious harassment, a hate crime, in an incident when he attacked a Vashon woman at the Point Defiance ferry dock.

William Zesbaugh, 72, pleaded guilty in Pierce County Superior Court on Tuesday, Nov. 19. The charges stemmed from an incident earlier this year when Zesbaugh attacked islander Lu-Ann Branch at the ferry dock and threatened her and a friend, calling them lesbians.

The altercation began when Branch, a personal trainer and Vashon Park District commissioner, followed Zesbaugh in his vehicle down Pearl Street in Tacoma, nearing the Point Defiance Ferry Terminal, where she was going to drop off her friend, islander Kelli Nichols.

At the tollbooth, Zesbaugh pulled into the right lane and then pulled behind Branch. According to court documents, he laid on his horn and then rear-ended Branch’s minivan when she stopped at a stop sign just before the ferry.

When Branch got out of the car to exchange insurance information, Zesbaugh retrieved a metal steering wheel lock from his trunk, came at her and hit her with it twice — causing a deep gash in her arm — before a ferry worker intervened.

During the altercation, the Tacoma man yelled and said, “I can tell you’re lesbians, I should beat the crap out of you right now,” and, “You’re going to pay for this,” Branch recalled.

Zesbaugh, who was arrested at the scene, later claimed Branch had tailgated him and cut him off. Branch received 11 stitches in her arm after the attack.

The incident garnered regional news coverage, and Branch and Nichols were featured on KOMO and King 5.

Branch and Nichols both attended the Tuesday hearing in Tacoma.

While Zesbaugh was handed the minimum sentence for the crime — the range for such a conviction is six to 12 months — Branch she said she was fine with the sentence and actually had sympathy for the man after seeing him in court.

In a statement in court, Branch said, Zesbaugh claimed to be gay himself and said the attack was out of character for him. He had sought counseling since the incident, he said, and recently had undergone an MRI done of his brain.

“I don’t think that was fake,” Branch said. “We felt like this guy needed more help and support.”

She and Nichols were both glad to see months of court proceedings end, Branch said, and had both been touched by the support they’d received from the Vashon community over the past year.

“I think there is a bit of a feeling of closure. I think the bigger thing is reconciling or feeling a small glimpse into what was going on inside this guy’s head and where he was coming from,” Branch said.

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