SEATTLE — It was their mom's birthday, and the three vagrant teenage brothers were intent on collecting a $500 drug debt she was owed, an informant would later tell police. So, prosecutors say, they marched up a hill into a wooded homeless encampment called "The Jungle" and started shooting.
Among the victims were two women who screamed or begged for their lives, witnesses said. Among those left unharmed was a man by a campfire who told the boys he was just trying to warm his feet.
The brothers — 13, 16 and 17 — were charged Thursday with first-degree murder and assault in the attack, which left two people dead and three wounded. The oldest two will face those charges in adult court.
Their arrests on Monday came almost a week after the Jan. 26 shooting, which authorities and court documents suggest was the latest chapter in their troubled young lives.
It wasn't immediately clear how recently they'd been in school. Their parents have had a turbulent relationship full of jail stints, drug use and restraining orders. Their dad, described by police as a drug dealer and gang member, has been in prison since last spring, and they'd been living with their mom in tents by Safeco Field, where the Mariners play.
When they went to collect the debt, they were already being investigated for possible connections to robberies and another fatal shooting in October, police say.
"They were wards of the state, but they had run from every placement DSHS had arranged for them," King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said, referring to the Department of Social and Health Services.
The Associated Press is not naming the brothers because they are juveniles. Their lawyers did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
The Jungle sits beneath Interstate 5 and has been a crime problem for decades — an area where marginalized people are victimized by drugs, robberies, assaults and worse. It's an area that "lives up to its name," Satterberg said.
Despite their ages, the brothers seemed to move among its lawless environs with ease, learning they could take what they wanted by force, the prosecutor said.
When they went to find Phat T. Nguyen last week, they were armed with a .22-caliber handgun that one informant said belonged to their mother and a .45-caliber pistol that was reported stolen in a burglary in 1976, Satterberg said.
Nguyen was wounded in the shooting. The two people killed were Jeannine L. Zapata, 45, and James Q. Tran, 33.
The bloodshed further riveted the city's attention on its growing homelessness problem. Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine declared states of emergencies in the fall, directing more than $9 million in new spending.
The number of people living on streets or in cars in King County has jumped to more than 4,500 — a 19 percent increase from last year, according to a one-night annual survey conducted on Jan. 29.
Statewide, schools officials say the number of homeless pupils in the 2014-15 school year was 35,511, up 9 percent from the previous year.
To ease the problem, officials have authorized three city-sanctioned "tent cities" to provide a safer place for those without shelter. In the coming weeks, Seattle is also opening two parking lots in neighborhoods so people living in RVs and vehicles can safely park.
The "safe lots" will hold about 50 vehicles and have sanitation and garbage service, as well as social services.
Some residents have criticized the actions, saying they provide no permanent solutions. Others have complained of increased human waste, trash and criminal activity.
On Thursday, Satterberg joined the chorus of people calling for The Jungle to be cleared out.
"Hundreds of thousands of people drive by The Jungle every day on I-5," he said. "And these citizens are unaware of the struggles that take place there among marginalized people who are homeless, mentally ill, drug addicted and/or criminally oriented."
Police were investigating whether the mother of the teens charged with murder should face charges herself. It was unclear how to contact her, and relatives did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
The mother has previously been the subject of restraining orders sought by the boys' father and his girlfriend, who accused the mom of assaulting her.
The mother also sought a restraining order against the father in 2003, accusing him of threats and violence. The father has done time on drug and gun charges. He took court-ordered domestic violence classes within the past decade.
The mother's offenses have included identity theft and shoplifting from a Goodwill store. She completed drug court requirements in 2008, following an arrest four years earlier for dealing cocaine in a downtown Seattle park.
Authorities said they aren't sure the youngest boy was ever actually armed during the shooting. Questioned by police, he said he didn't want to get his brothers in trouble.
The boy "was asked if he could go back in time what would he do differently," a detective wrote, "and he stated he would never have gone up the hill that night."