Remembering a heroic witness 30 years after Wah Mee Massacre

Feb 18, 2013, 4:09 PM | Updated: Feb 19, 2013, 10:20 am
The deadliest mass killing in Seattle history took place at an after-hours gambling club accessed t...
The deadliest mass killing in Seattle history took place at an after-hours gambling club accessed through a doorway in Maynard Alley. (KIRO Radio/Tim Haeck)
(KIRO Radio/Tim Haeck)

Thirty years ago, a bleeding man stumbled through a doorway leading from a private gambling club into an alley in Seattle’s International District. He had just escaped the deadliest mass killing in Seattle history.

It became known as the Wah Mee Massacre, the murders of 13 people inside an after-hours gambling club accessed through a doorway in Maynard Alley. Fourteen people were tied up, robbed and shot.

“If you’re going to commit a robbery, you want to get away,” said former deputy prosecuting attorney William Downing. He was just five years out of the University of Washington law school at the time when he and classmate Robert Lasnik, now a federal judge in Seattle, caught the case.

Two men entered the club sometime before midnight on Feb. 18, joined by a third man. All of the customers of the Wah Mee Club were shot in the head at close range. The killers then left the club in the early morning hours of Feb. 19, 1983. But Downing says one gambler, Wai Chin somehow survived.

“He was absolutely a hero of a witness, Wai Chin. By his managing to get out, to speak, despite being shot through the throat, to communicate to the authorities where to look in their investigation, that was absolutely critical,” said Downing.

Freelance journalist Todd Matthews first began researching the case 15 years ago.

“There is really no reason that Wai Chin should have survived that night. People recalled that he was the weakest of the bunch, he was old, he was frail.”

As the executions began, Wai Chin tried to hide.

“He managed to sort of wiggle his way beneath one of the gaming tables as the shots were being fired and the bullet that struck him went through his jaw,” said Matthews. His bindings were not very tight and Wai Chin got to his feet and headed for the door. “It really was a miracle that he survived.”

Matthews, who wrote the book “Wah Mee,” said it seems clear that the plan from the start was to kill all the witnesses.

“I think it was completely shocking to Benjamin Ng and Willie Mak that anybody survived and I sometimes think about that night and them wondering, how did they know to find us?”

Wai Chin, the only survivor of the Wah Mee Massacre identified Ng and Mak and testified at their trials. They were both convicted of aggravated murder in 1983. Ng got life in prison and Mak was sentenced to death but it was reduced to life in prison on appeal. A third man, Tony Ng fled to Canada but was captured and acquitted of murder in 1985. He was convicted of multiple counts of robbery and assault and remains in prison.

Former prosecutor and now Judge William Downing remembers visiting the Wah Mee Club a few months after the killings.

“It was probably the most eerie experience I ever had as a prosecuting attorney, going into the scene of the crime, there were still blood stains, things knocked over, upended. It was chilling to be there.”

Today, the club remains locked. Outside, the Maynard Alley entrance looks much the same, except for some newer purple paint.

“The club is locked up, frozen in time and I don’t think that anyone could do anything with that space,” said Matthews.

“It’s treated with a certain amount of reverence for the valuable lives that were lost and it’s been closed off with no other use made of it,” said Judge Downing.

Wai Chin passed away 10 years after the massacre at age 72.

Benjamin Ng and Mak are serving life in prison without parole, but Tony Ng has a chance for release, perhaps within a few years.

Find more on the Wah Mee Massacre at HistoryLink.org

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Remembering a heroic witness 30 years after Wah Mee Massacre