A well-known Vashon woman was attacked at the Point Defiance ferry last week in an incident that has since drawn regional attention and hate crime charges.
On Monday, Jan. 28, an elderly Tacoma man rear-ended islander Lu-Ann Branch at the Point Defiance ferry. He then attacked Branch with a steering wheel lock and threatened her and her friend, islander Kelli Nichols, saying he should beat them up because they looked like lesbians.
The suspect, 71-year-old William Zesbaugh, was apprehended shortly after he left the scene and charged with second-degree assault and malicious harassment, a hate crime. He was booked into a Pierce County jail and released on Thursday after he made bail.
“I think this guy could be a danger to other people,” said Branch, who received 11 stitches after the attack.
Nichols said she was still in shock over what happened.
“You go (to the ferry) all the time, and you never think twice about your safety. It’s like being on the island almost. That’s what so surprising,” she said.
Branch, a Vashon Park District commissioner, and Nichols, an islander who works for a copyright company on Vashon, first saw Zesbaugh’s car late Monday morning when they began to follow it on Pearl Street a few blocks before the ferry. When they reached the ferry tollbooth, Branch said, Zesbaugh, in an older red Toyota sports car, pulled to the right as if he were going to the tollbooth. Branch pulled to the left to drop Nichols at the bottom of the hill to walk on the ferry.
Zesbaugh, however, pulled behind Branch’s car, laid on his horn and began to follow her closely. As Branch slowed down ahead of the stop sign at the bottom of the hill, he rear-ended her car.
When Branch got out of the car to try to exchange insurance information, Zesbaugh retrieved a metal steering wheel lock from his trunk, came at her and hit her with it twice before a ferry worker intervened and Branch got away. He later defended his actions, yelling that Branch had cut him off.
“It was kind of a sociopathic thing. He was walking very calmly,” Branch said. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘He thinks this is okay.’”
After Nichols called 911, Zesbaugh continued to yell at them.
“He points to both of us and says ‘I can tell you’re lesbians, I should beat the crap out of you right now.’ I couldn’t believe he said that, like that had to do with anything,” Branch said.
While the women waited for police to arrive and tended to Branch’s injuries, Zesbaugh attempted to come at Branch again with the weapon, but was stopped by the ferry worker.
“He said, ‘You’re going to pay for this. You’re really going to pay for this. I’m going to come and get you,’” Branch said.
Zesbaugh eventually drove away, but was stopped by Tacoma police and arrested not far from the ferry. According to charging papers, as Zesbaugh was being taken into custody he said, “I should have hit her a lot harder if I’m going to get in trouble for it.”
Back at the ferry, Branch, who is heterosexual and married with two children, was treated by Tacoma responders. She got 11 stitches on Vashon and went straight to a park board meeting for a vote she felt was too important to miss regarding the agency’s new executive director. She still had blood on her clothes at the meeting.
“It’s been pretty painful,” she later said of her injuries. “I can’t set (my arm) down. I can’t go swimming. For a triathlete that’s kind of a bummer. My shoulder is all screwed up.”
Nichols wasn’t injured in the incident but said she was shaken nonetheless. As a lesbian who has spent her adult life in Seattle and on Vashon, she said she’s never had a negative experience surrounding her sexual orientation.
“I’ve been lucky in that sense,” Nichols said. She said it was disturbing “to have someone want to induce violence on me because of that, even though I know it’s out there.”
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said that although road rage isn’t uncommon in Tacoma, it was unusual to see a 71-year-old man involved and for the situation to escalate into a hate crime. The case seemed even stranger, he said, when he learned that the man appeared to have no criminal record.
Lindquist said his office would prosecute Zesbaugh vigorously “because we take road rage seriously, and we take hate crimes seriously.”
The day after the assault, multiple Seattle news outlets covered the attack, and stories on the incident landed in the “most viewed” sections on the KING5, KOMO and Tacoma New Tribune websites. The women said their phones were ringing off the hook with calls from the prosecutor’s office, insurance companies, the media and friends who heard about the incident.
“I’m not talking to the media to make this person look worse,” Nichols said. “More to just get this message out there to be careful.”
While Branch and Nichols agree there was something not quite right about Zesbaugh — perhaps he is mentally ill — they both say that after this incident they’ll be more cautious of strangers. Because of Zesbaugh’s threats to “come and get you,” Branch said she obtained a no contact order against him, meaning that if he comes near her, he will go back to jail.
“It’s a little unsettling,” Branch said. “You make assumptions about how life is and how people will react, and you act according to that level of trust you have in other people. And I think that’s been broken to some extent.”
Zesbaugh is scheduled to appear in court for a pre-trial hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 19.