1 Years After Wah Mee: A Poignant Silence

A decade of grime has settled on the alleyway. The light fixture that helped late-night patrons find the guarded entrance to the gaming room is reduced to shards of glass and mangled wire. The scuffed brown double doors that opened to opulence are fastened with a corroded chain and padlock.

Seattle police Detective Gary Fowler remembers attaching the chain 10 years ago, after authorities had learned all the high-stakes gambling parlor could tell them about the Wah Mee Massacre.

Ten years ago today, the worst robbery-related mass murder in U.S. history occurred at the Wah Mee Club in Seattle's International District.

Three Hong Kong immigrants entered the club just before midnight on Feb. 18, 1983, tied up the patrons and then methodically robbed and executed them.

Twelve men and a woman of Chinese-American background died in the killings. One man, Wai Y. Chin, was left for dead but survived to testify in court and help convict the killers.

Fowler was one of the first officers sent to the crime scene and one of two detectives assigned to keep Chin safe until the killers were brought to justice. He has remained close to Chin and to the International District.

To the survivor and others in the Asian community, the massacre is best left uncommemorated.

"The people have tried to forget," said Assunta Ng, publisher of the Seattle Chinese Post, the community's Chinese- and English-language newspaper.

"It's so horrible and so shocking to the community. Now there are so many new immigrants, and they don't even know about it. We don't want to remember it. We want to remember happy things, positive things that can help our young people."

Chin, now 71, has never spoken publicly about the killings. "Wai is pretty stoic," Fowler said. "His view is, it happened, it's over and let's move on."

But the people of the International District and the families of the victims haven't been able to completely forget Wah Mee, a source of continual pain.

Wah Mee was in the news - again - in December. The state went to the U.S. Supreme Court to appeal a U.S. District Court decision overturning the death sentence given Kwan Fai "Willie" Mak as the gunman and the brains behind the murders.

No date has been set for a hearing, said Paul Weisser, an assistant state attorney general involved in the appeal, but the court probably will decide this spring whether to hear the case.

The other two defendants in the case, Benjamin K. Ng and Wai Chiu "Tony" Ng - who are related neither to each other nor to Assunta Ng - will likely spend their lives in prison.

Benjamin Ng - described by Fowler as "a little strange, a little trigger-happy" - was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Tony Ng was sentenced to seven life sentences. Fowler said Tony Ng was "basically a good kid who worked in his family's restaurant and probably wouldn't have been involved except that it was a last-minute thing."

"It shocks me that this is still a pending case, after all these years," said Superior Court Judge Robert Lasnik, a deputy county prosecutor at the trial.

"If the Supreme Court doesn't take the case, there might be a new sentencing trial, and that would be a jury trial," Lasnik said. "The public would have to relive that whole awful case again. . . . Whatever happens in the next trial could make the case continue another 10 years. That's crazy. Twenty years and no ending."

Even when Wah Mee isn't in the news, it is never far from the city's collective consciousness.

A year ago, for instance, Seattle police and FBI agents raided six International District gambling operations, arresting eight people and seizing more than $12,000 in cash. The raids were the result of nine months of investigation.

The FBI is still investigating whether the clubs were linked to illegal gambling in other parts of the country.

Wah Mee wasn't mentioned in news reports about the raids, but the community and police were reminded that illegal high-stakes gambling is still a part of the International District, as it has been since the city was founded.

According to Sgt. Mike Nelson of the Seattle police vice section, the clubs were not appreciably different from the Wah Mee. They were set up like Nevada casinos, only they were entered by alleyways and were heavily guarded. Every night from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., high-stakes gamblers played pai gow, mah-jongg and other games popular in China and other Asian countries. Gambling pots reportedly reached $10,000.

"Did they have the potential for Wah Mee?" Nelson asked rhetorically. "Yes, indeed.

"Anytime I see large sums of money in a place and they don't want the police to see or know about it . . . then it's a prime target for robbery or worse."

But Fowler, Assunta Ng and others say the Wah Mee massacre was a turning point in the relationship between the people in the International District and the police, prosecutor's office and city agencies.

"It actually had sort of a positive effect," Fowler said. "Community leaders, many of them dead now, came forward to help us in ways we'd never seen before."

Fowler mentioned Henry Locke, who died recently, a retired man, head of one of the Chinese associations.

"He was less concerned about catching bad guys than helping police get in touch with the community," Fowler said.

"If we needed to get in touch with a witness or get a phone number or get a translator, he helped. It was a role you couldn't assign anyone to and he continued in that role afterward. Many of these people were shy originally about having a relationship with me or my contemporaries, not because they were doing anything wrong, but because that was how it was in that community."

After Wah Mee, people began to look forward because looking back was too painful, Assunta Ng said.

"There have been many positive things, things people have done to help our young people," she said, mentioning the efforts of City Councilwoman Cheryl Chow.

Chow's mother, Ruby, a county councilwoman at the time of the killings, was called in to help identify the victims.

"Stop and think about that," Cheryl Chow said. "Why did they have to call her? Why wasn't the city better equipped in the human services, in the police department? Why weren't there translators?"

Since Wah Mee, Chow said, the community has concentrated on giving Asian youths something to do other than joining gangs, on making residents aware of the services that are available to them and on keeping the International District a place people from all over the city want to visit.

Chow said, "The community is beginning to work with institutions that weren't always friendly to our grandparents. Remember, immigrants coming from war-torn countries are used to seeing officials that are corrupt."

The spirit of cooperation began even before Fowler chained the doors of the Wah Mee in 1983 - doors Fowler believes haven't been opened since.

Every now and then, someone will propose reopening the Wah Mee as an after-hours club, he said, but the talk dies when the memory returns.

It's just as well, Fowler said.

"The whole idea of the massacre has so permeated the community and so tainted it that no one would ever go there, anyway. It's kind of like it's just full of old ghosts down there."

-------------------------------------- TRACKING WAH MEE --------------------------------------

All three men found guilty in the Wah Mee murders are serving time at the state penitentiary at Walla Walla. Here is the status of their cases:

Kwan Fai "Willie" Mak, now 32, was sentenced to death after being convicted of 13 counts of aggravated first-degree murder.

In 1991, U.S. District Judge William Dwyer overturned Mak's death sentence. Dwyer said Mak's constitutional right to effective legal assistance was violated when his attorneys failed to present evidence that might have prompted jurors to sentence him to life in prison instead of death.

In December, the state asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review Dwyer's decision. If the Supreme Court overturns the decision, Mak will face execution. If the court declines to review the case or validates the decision, the King County prosecutor has a choice: He may settle for life in prison without parole for Mak, or he may ask a jury to reconsider Mak's death sentence - this time considering any mitigating evidence.

Benjamin K. Ng, now 30, was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole after being convicted of the same crimes as Mak. Unless a court intervenes in his case, he will never be free.

Wai Chiu "Tony" Ng, now 35, who is not related to Benjamin Ng, was convicted of 13 counts of first-degree robbery and sentenced to seven consecutive life terms. He will not become eligible for parole for 27 years.