OCEAN SHORES - The great equalizer was a 4-inch paring knife with a plastic handle. It was the weapon that, in the early hours of July 4 last year, a little man used against a big man who had been looking for a fight.
When it was over, under the awning of a Texaco station in the heart of this seaside town, the big man fell to the pavement with 23 puncture wounds, two of them - to the left and right ventricle - fatal.
The little man, an out-of-towner, was tried on manslaughter charges. The prosecutor tried to convince the jury that the 5-foot-6-inch, 123-pound defendant with a spotless record had willingly engaged in a street brawl with the 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound victim, a known troublemaker, on the big man's turf, and that the defendant "acted recklessly" in stabbing him so many times.
The jury did not buy it.
Eleven of the 12 jurors voted for acquittal, believing the defendant's story that he was terrified and acted in self-defense. The twelfth juror refused to budge, and the court declared a mistrial. The case was closed in December, and the defendant, 27-year-old Minh Hong of Seattle, was presumably free to go on with his life.
But few observers were satisfied by the conclusion. The FBI, which hovered in the wings for months, recently opened its own investigation to determine whether others - namely the dead man's friends who participated in the taunting and fighting - should be charged with violating Hong's civil rights.
Hong is a Vietnamese immigrant. He was in town that night with his twin brother and a friend, also Asian, to celebrate Independence Day. The three had stopped at the Texaco to grab something to eat. The main instigator of the fight was a local white man who used race as his bait.
"Gooks go home! You don't belong here!" yelled 20-year-old Christopher Kinison, according to police. "White Power! I'll take you all on!"
Kinison had a clean-shaven head. He mocked and taunted the men on their way in and out of the store. He made throat-slashing gestures, spat on them and threw the first punch, all while wearing a Confederate flag like a cape.
That Kinison was the one killed complicated the question of "Who was the real victim?" and turned upside-down what the FBI says would have been a clear hate crime.
"It stands the case on its head," said agent Charles Mandigo of the FBI in Seattle. "You can't prosecute a dead person."
Asian-American and civil-rights groups contended from the start that Hong was the victim, and that prosecuting him was unjust and sent the wrong message. These groups continue to push for prosecution of Kinison's friends who, along with Kinison, had allegedly harassed Asians and blacks throughout the long Independence Day weekend.
Kinison and company were involved in two, possibly four, other incidents during a four-day spree, none of which was allowed to be brought up at trial. Hong's supporters have criticized police and prosecutors for not aggressively investigating these cases and failing to identify a pattern.
Grays Harbor County prosecutors heard from the other side, too. Many of Kinison's friends and some townspeople demanded that Hong be charged with first-degree murder. In the end, white-supremacist groups across the country, including one headed by former Klansman David Duke, denounced Hong's de facto acquittal.
Kinison, in death, has become a hero in the underground network of white supremacists, which has found a new cohesiveness on the Internet. His case appears on at least six supremacist Web sites. One hails him as a martyr in the ongoing "race war."
The seed of fear
The local fallout of the killing has prompted an uneasy introspection for the town of Ocean Shores, and a renewed trepidation among some people of color.
"The message to minorities is: When you travel away from home, and you get taunted and spit on and punched, you're supposed to be a good minority and take it," said Yvonne Kinoshita Ward, of the state's Asian Bar Association. "If you fight back, you will be charged with a crime and your attackers will not."
Ward says what happened to Hong plays on a fear that many people of color secretly hold in their hearts: that there are places in America, some just a short ride from home, where it is unsafe for them to go. It may be a matter of perception, but perceptions count.
Ocean Shores survives on image. It promotes itself as a laid-back beach town, a sand-and-surf getaway only two hours from the I-5 corridor. For the most part, it is exactly what it advertises.
The notion that Ocean Shores may have a race problem rankles many of the town's 3,500 year-round residents - about 95 percent of them white, and many of them retirees. Our town, racist? Nonsense!
Most of the handful of black and Asian residents interviewed for this story said, aside from the occasional off-color remark, they had not encountered race-related problems. Most had never felt threatened.
"People are always polite to me, even (Kinison's) friends are always polite," said Cindy Kim, a Korean immigrant who runs a gas station and store just down the street from the Texaco.
To be sure, the town, like the rest of Grays Harbor County, is chock full of characters.
The best known may be the mayor, Peter Jordan, who rides around in a pickup with a bumper sticker that reads: "If you're armed, you're a citizen. If you're not, you're a subject."
Grays Harbor was logging and fishing country for decades. Although those industries have withered, and the town has transformed itself into neat rows of boutiques and kite shops, the rough edges lie just beneath the shadows.
The hand that serves double-tall lattes at the new espresso stand may have a callus or two and some grit under the nails.
You might see some rough edges at the Texaco around 1:45 a.m. - final call for beer sales. A crowd can mushroom spontaneously, made up mostly of working-class townies - laborers, retail and mill workers - who sometimes resent the annual invasion of tourists.
Ocean Shores, like the rest of Grays Harbor County, depends heavily on tourism. The town's population during peak season can swell to 40,000. One of the busiest days is the Fourth of July.
Christopher Kinison arrived at the Aberdeen bus station on Friday, June 30. He had been living in Olympia for a short time, trying to find a new start. His friends picked him up and drove him the rest of the way home to Ocean Shores. They were excited about the long holiday weekend ahead.
'Punks and drunks'
Kinison was a boy in a big man's body: loyal to his pals and even sweet at times, but unpredictable and dangerous. Police considered him bad news. He liked to drink, get high and fight. Maybe he liked fighting most of all.
"It didn't matter what color you were, or how big you were," said a friend, Benjamin Butler, 23.
Kinison and his crowd were mostly dropouts and fringe-dwellers. Hong's lawyer, Brett Purtzer, called them "punks and drunks," a description even townspeople who liked them would not dispute.
For a time in 1997, a feud erupted between Kinison's gang and a gang of Native teens on the Quinault reservation 30 miles north. Late one night in October of that year, friends carried an injured Kinison to the front doors of the police station.
Kinison told police he was walking down the street when a "carload of Indians" attacked him with baseball bats. He suffered massive bruises on his legs and could not walk. An ambulance took him to a hospital.
Friends said Kinison and his crowd felt their town was being "taken over" by foreigners. Two of three gas stations in town were bought by Korean Americans. One of the largest resorts was owned by a Korean-American family, and three of the newest, largest hotels were operated by East-Indian families.
Many in town, including the business community, welcomed such diversity. But some in Kinison's crowd, and others who would not publicly admit it, viewed it as kind of invasion.
Of Kinison's long list of past offenses, another 1997 incident seemed to presage his later behavior.
A group of black teenagers on vacation told police that Kinison had driven alongside as they walked through town, called them the n-word and threatened to hurt them if they did not get out of town. No charges were filed.
`Get out of our town'
On the first day of July last year, a little after 8 p.m., a four-car caravan of vacationers from Seattle stopped outside a kite shop at the Ocean Shores Mall. The party, most of them Filipino Americans, included three children, seven women and seven men.
One of the women, Jennifer Kalaw, 27, an immigrant, described what happened next.
In the parking lot, a group of about 10 men approached. Others lingered a short distance away. They were all white and several had shaven heads. A truck with a Confederate flag was parked nearby. One of the white men blurted to someone in the caravan:
"What are you looking at?"
Within moments, members of the white group were yelling "Get out of our town, you (expletive) gooks!" Some of the men pounded on the car, and challenged the men to fight. Jennifer's brother pulled out a .45-caliber handgun and placed it on the dash. The men backed off.
Police later determined that Kinison was in the group.
The tourists fled and flagged down an Ocean Shores police officer. Kalaw said she and several others insisted they wanted to press charges but the officer discouraged them, and instead escorted them out of town.
The police, however, have repeatedly said the tourists declined to press charges. Dave McManus, spokesman for the department, said it's still possible "to go forward with charges if they want. We'd be more than happy to investigate."
Weeks after the incident, the City of Ocean Shores sent the Filipino families fruit baskets and letters of apology with an invitation to return.
Said Kalaw: "We will never, ever, ever go back there."
'Calling me "Kung Fu" '
There were at least three similar confrontations with racial overtones that weekend, though it's unclear whether Kinison and his friends were involved:
• Three hours after the Filipino tourists left town, a private gathering of mostly Seattle residents in Long Beach, just under two hours south of Ocean Shores, was taking place when a caravan of trucks with Confederate flags crashed the party.
The crashers targeted the one black and one Asian in the group. "They were talking smack and looking for trouble," said Eric Li of Seattle. "They were calling me `Kung Fu' and saying `We want to fight you.' "
Pacific County sheriff's deputies dispersed the crowd but did not take names, so it could not be verified whether it was Kinison's group.
• On July 3, two days after the incident in Long Beach, Joe Scott, 38, of Seattle said he and his nephew were riding a moped on the beach, when men in a Confederate-waving truck shouted slurs and threats. Scott said he reported the incident to an officer on the beach. Ocean Shores has no police report on the incident.
• Later the same day, Leo Hayes, 19, an African American from Aberdeen, was at a beach bonfire just north of town when he said a white man who introduced himself as Chris called him by a racial slur, pulled out a knife and threatened to stab him. The man and his friends then chased him off the beach.
'We all got assaulted'
Around 1:45 a.m. July 4, less than three hours after Hayes called police, as many as 30 young people were milling around the Texaco station. It was last call for beer.
Kinison and his friends had walked up from the beach, and were standing around when the Hong brothers and their friend drove up in a gold Honda. The taunting began immediately. The three Asian men made it inside the store. Hong slid a couple of $1.98 paring knives into his pocket.
A half-hour later, the Hong brothers were back at their motel and Minh Hong's brother, Hung Hong, called 911 to report what had happened. In a shaken voice, he told a dispatcher:
"We all got assaulted. There was a whole group. They were waving, like, a 'Dukes of Hazzard' flag at us, and he spit in my face and stuff and he walked up and kept on spitting and calling me names and then yelled out 'white power' and punched me in the face.' I'm really afraid because they were really racist. I'm afraid to leave the hotel."
Hung Hong and Doug Chen never appeared in court during Minh Hong's trial. And Minh Hong, except in court, has not made any public statements. He immigrated to the U.S. when he was 6, graduated from high school in Bellevue, and is studying computer science.
Prosecutors could not find so much as a traffic violation in his background. Friends say he is quiet, studious and, like the rest of his family, extremely private. That's all he wants anyone to know.
As Kinison lay dying at the Texaco station, his friends covered him with their shirts in a futile effort to stanch the blood. A friend, Gabe Rodda, held him until an ambulance came. Weeks later, Rodda got a tattoo across his back, from shoulder to shoulder: "In memory of Chris."
FBI's civil-rights probe
The FBI, with prompting from civil-rights groups, is now trying to determine whether Rodda and some of Kinison's other friends violated the Hongs' civil rights by prohibiting them from access to a public place because of their race - a felony crime with a sentencing range of one to 10 years.
There are difficulties in the case, among them that a large number of witnesses were drunk, and many are sympathetic to Kinison and his friends. And the most complicating factor: The main instigator is dead.
"If the homicide had been the other way, no doubt, there would be clear-cut violations," said FBI agent Mandigo. He would not say whether the other incidents would be investigated.
"The trial was ridiculous, but it's over, and they should just leave it alone. We've gone through enough," said Brock Goedecke, 21, a close friend of Kinison's.
Police say Goedecke took part in the fighting at the Texaco station, and Goedecke admitted as much, under questioning on the witness stand. Several witnesses said he attacked the Hongs' friend, De Qiang Chen.
In the aftermath of the killing, the officialdom of Ocean Shores struggled to respond to the public-relations blow. The town's image took a beating in the news media, and furthermore, a handful of Asian-American advocacy groups threatened to launch a national tourist boycott.
Town leaders appeared frozen in the spotlight.
Behind the scenes, a rift developed between the town's chamber of commerce, which felt City Hall was not doing enough to counter the bad publicity, and government leaders who did not feel it was their responsibility to answer for the actions of a single drunken troublemaker.
The talk in town was that Jordan, the mayor with the bumper sticker, and several City Council members did not want to be told what to do by outsiders, namely civil-rights groups and media from the big city. Jordan has ignored all requests for interviews.
The tolerance coalition
The chamber, led by a businessman and former city manager, Michael Pence, formed a pro-diversity coalition made up largely of retirees and chamber members. They met every few weeks to discuss ways to promote tolerance.
Mayor Jordan and City Council members have been noticeably absent from the meetings. The coalition's one public hearing, though widely advertised, was poorly attended.
In October, the coalition succeeded in pushing the City Council to pass a proclamation condemning racial intolerance.
During the trial in December, coalition members attended each day prepared to publicly denounce white-supremacist groups that showed up. Several such groups said they would attend, but only one did: On the last day, a single member of the National Organization for European American Rights, formed two years ago by David Duke, sat just behind Kinison's mother (who ignored him). The man, David Jensen, had earlier demanded Hong be tried for first-degree murder.
The coalition has considered a host of other ideas, such as placing a large sign at the entrance of town that declares Ocean Shores "a hate-free zone." It is now working on funding for a skateboard park. The coalition also took on planning for the town's first-ever citywide celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. "We're rookies on this issue, but we're trying," Pence says sheepishly.
Meanwhile, the Texaco station has recently been purchased by Young You, a Korean American who, like the other two Korean American gas-station owners in town, says he has not had a lick of trouble.
The Ocean Shores Police Department in January hired its first African-American officer, Vennessia Daniels, who moved across the harbor from Westport. Police Chief Rich McEachin, while not admitting any fault in his department's handling of the Fourth of July episode, said his officers have gone through new training and will be more vigilant of any signs of racial intolerance.
Recently, the department asked a homeowner just a few blocks from headquarters to take down the Confederate flag that had been hanging from the roof of her home for months. McEachin said his officers will be more watchful for the presence of the flag in their town.
The flag, it seems, has made regular appearances in these parts over the years. Sightings were never taken seriously, but that is likely to change, at least for the sake of the region's public image.
"Every year, I see them," said Flint Wright, a Long Beach police officer. "Fourth of July and Labor Day. They come through in their big 4x4s, their flags on long poles, going up the beach."
Alex Tizon can be reached at 206-464-2216 or email@example.com