Wah Mee

On a chilly February night, five days after the start of the Chinese New Year, 1983, three young men walked into one of the most renowned, high-stakes gambling dens in the heart of Seattle’s Chinatown International District and walked away with thousands of dollars of cash in their pockets and fourteen lives hanging in the balance in their wake.

The club was the Wah Mee, a sixty-year-old casino and bar that catered exclusively to Chinese clientele and hosted the highest-stakes illegal gambling in the Pacific Northwest. The men were 22-year-old Kwan Fai “Willie” Mak, 20-year-old Benjamin Ng, and 25-year-old Wai Chiu “Tony” Ng.

Willie Mak was born in Kwangtung Province in mainland China and immigrated to the US with his family in 1975 when he was fifteen. By 22, Willie was a high school drop out, working various jobs in and around Seattle, and had a penchant for gambling. He was well-known in the International District gambling clubs, including the Wah Mee, and may have even worked there on-and-off. He had a dream of opening his own Chinese restaurant, but gambling got in the way of any plans he made. By early 1983, his debt had grown to $30,000 and Willie began to plan his way out.

The Wah Mee, originally called Blue Heaven when it was opened in the 1920s, was located in Maynard Alley, off of South King Street in the historic Nelson, Tagholm, and Jensen Tenement, later renamed the Hudson Hotel, and finally the Louisa Hotel. It was a hopping spot throughout Prohibition and the jazz era, a speakeasy that offered drinks, dancing, and gambling. At the time, they catered to all clientele, but as the decades drew on, a new ownership took over, the newly named Wah Mee became a private club for Chinese members only. Like many other illegal gambling joints at the time, the Wah Mee had the Seattle Police Department on their payroll. A small deposit of about $2,000 to the pockets of local cops and their superiors was all that was required to keep the money rolling at the Wah Mee, and, since the Wah Mee was known for such high-stakes, with easily up to $100,000 in the bank on any given weekend night, the price was more than affordable to continue to serve the Chinese public of Seattle. The club offered two traditional Chinese games, mahjong and Pai Gow, four tables total, set lower in the club from the sweeping, curved bar and office located on a raised stage. In the early ’80s, you could visit the Wah Mee for a drink, to socialize with local affluent restaurant owners, or you could go to gamble.

Wah Mee entrance, August 2010. Photo by Joe Mabel.

Security at the Wah Mee was a system of two doorways. At the first door, you buzzed in and a guard in the office peered through a single clear glass brick to identify you and buzz you into the bar. It was traditionally a very effective form of security, but Willie Mak was well-known to the Wah Mee, and getting past the guard was as easy as showing his face.

In late January, 1983, Willie Mak began planning a heist that would cure him of all his gambling debt, and leave some money left over to start a new future for himself. Meeting at a south Seattle Denny’s, Willie enlisted former high school classmate Benjamin Ng into his scheme.

Benjamin Ng was born, like Willie, in the Kwangtung Province in China and immigrated with his family in 1975 to Seattle. Both boys attended Cleveland High School and both dropped out before graduation. Unlike Willie, Benjamin had a history of violent crimes leading as far back as his teens. Ng had a history of gun violence specifically, having fired into the car of Michael Chinn in 1981 and seriously injuring the teenager, wounding his neck, chest, and thigh. Chinn and his friends were coming to confront Ng about slashed tires on Chinn’s car. Ng was cleared of charges two months later because it was determined that he was acting in self-defense. Ng was the perfect accomplice for Willie; he wasn’t afraid to fire a gun. Willie had already decided that there could be no witnesses.

The plan was to hit a high-stakes club on the weekend of the Chinese New Year. Patrons would be flush with cash from their week’s work and in good spirits because of the holiday. Willie figured, since the club was operating illegally as a casino and had cops on the payroll, the likelihood of an investigation, or even the report, of a robbery was extremely low. An investigation would likely mean the club having to shut down permanently, so Willie thought it was a safe bet that he could get away unscathed and the club would continue to operate as if it were any other day. Though he had already decided to kill everyone in the club on the night of the heist, he apparently hadn’t factored in the consequences of those deaths.

The third and final man came into the plan late in the game, as Willie was becoming desperate. Wai Chiu “Tony” Ng, no relation to Benjamin Ng, was an immigrant from Hong Kong and another former student of Cleveland High School. He had no criminal record and was by all accounts a quiet, nice man. Tony owed Willie $1,000. Willie told Tony he could absolve his debt if he helped Willie rob one of the illegal gambling dens in the International District. Willie had chosen the Wah Mee for his heist because it was easily the most-famous, club with the highest stakes. Coerced, Tony joined the group for meetings at Denny’s to discuss the plan, Willie’s plan. Tony and Benjamin would do everything Willie said, he was the ring-leader. The plan would be meticulous. Willie believed it would go off without a hitch.

The day before the robbery, Tony got cold feet. He refused to kill anyone and borrowed money from his girlfriend to pay off his debt to Willie. They met to discuss it and Willie outright told Tony that if he didn’t participate in the heist, Willie would kill him, his family, his girlfriend, everyone he loved. Tony wasn’t getting out of this one.

Layout of the Wah Mee Club the night of the heist.

The morning of February 18, 1983, Willie Mak, Tony Ng, and Benjamin Ng met at six in the morning for breakfast at Denny’s. Later in the day, they swapped cars with Willie’s cousin and congregated at Mak’s residence. In the basement, they gathered their supplies: nylon cords, a duffel bag, and guns.

Tony and Willie went to the Wah Mee first, granted access by doorman Gim Lun Wong, and loitered for about a half hour. There were only about seven or eight people in the club at that time, including a bartender, the doorman, dealers, and patrons. Wai Chin, a Pai Gow dealer, sat at the bar next to Tony Ng and offered him a bite of his late-night dinner. Later, Chin would wonder if this kindness he offered the young man may have saved his life.

Around 12:30, Benjamin Ng, carrying a brown paper bag stuffed with pre-cut nylon cords, rang the doorbell of the Wah Mee and was recognized by security guard Wong. He was buzzed into the building.

The three men turned off the lights, only the eerie orange glow of lanterns illuminated the room. Ordering them to the ground, they hog-tied everyone in the club, save for Wong, who was to stay at the door with a gun on his head and admit new patrons as they buzzed to be let in. As new patrons entered, they, too, were hog-tied on the floor.

Restaurateur Moo Min Mar and his wife Jean, cook and waiter Hung Fat Gee, retired postal worker Jack Mar, doorman Henning Chin, and Dewey Mar who ran the Kokusai Theater, were lined up in a curving row at the back wall of the club. Close by, near the adjacent wall, lay cook and former army sargeant Wing Wong, Wah Mee manager John Loui, Chong Chin, a legionnaire and cook, fisherman and cook Lung Wing Chin, Chin Lee Law, owner of a car repair shop, George Mar who worked at the Far East Restaurant, and Pai Gow dealer Wai Yok Chin.

Wallets, the cash register, and Mrs. Mar’s purse were emptied. When Willie was satisfied, he ordered Tony to wait between the two security doors at the entrance. Stepping up onto the raised stage that comprised the bar and security office, Willie Mak and Benjamin Ng opened fire on the twelve men and single woman lying in the floor of the club. They fired a total of thirty rounds, pausing to reload multiple times. Each shot was a hit, fired from point-blank range. Doorman Gim Lun Wong was shot at his post in the office, slumped over an old love seat.

The three men exited the Wah Mee Club, the doors locking behind them, and fled in the borrowed car across Lake Washington, dumping their weapons into the lake along the way.

The victims lay dead or bleeding out, some tied so tight that their heads were pulled up off the floor from the strain of their bindings. Wrists bound to ankles, animalistic.

Horrific image of the crime scene the morning of February 19, 1984.
Courtesy of the Seattle Police Department.

But Wai Chin was not tied so tightly. Tony Ng, to whom he had offered a bite of his meal, was the one charged with tying the 62-year-old dealer. Chin asked Tony to make them not so tight, shrugging that he was an old man and couldn’t well escape anyway. Chin knew the men were likely going to kill him, to kill all of them. When the time came, he tried to scuttle under a nearby table and thus the bullets meant for his brain missed, catching his jaw and neck instead. Knocked out cold from the impact, Wai Chin lay with the others, the pool of blood rapidly growing.

Patrons were still arriving to the club on the alleyway outside. They buzzed to be let in, but there was no answer. For a Saturday night, this was very unusual. The doors were locked, of course, so George Ong began to bang on the doors with his fist. The loud, repeating thump woke Chin. As he remembered what happened, he wiggled from his restraints and rose to his feet.

Staggering, he found his way out of the club, blood pouring from his wounds, and into the arms of George Ong.

When asked who did it, Chin replied, “Ng and Mak. That’s all I can tell. The door locked already. Call ambulance.”

Within an hour, the crime scene was abuzz with cops, paramedics, and staff from the medical examiner’s office. The blood was so thick on the floor, detectives wrapped their shoes in bags to keep them dry. Chin was rushed to Harborview Medical Center and taken immediately to surgery. Shortly after police descended on the Wah Mee, John Loui was found to still be breathing, and joined Chin at Harborview, his surgery taking place in the operating room next door. John Loui died on the table.

Benjamin Ng at his trial on August 17, 1983. 
Photo by Barry Wong, Seattle Times.

Early on February 19, 1983, Benjamin Ng and Kwan Fai “Willie” Mak were taken into custody. Tony Ng remained at large. To find him, police set up a Chinese-language answering service, simply saying “Your friends were killed. Help us to catch the persons responsible.”

On the 24th of February, Benjamin Ng and Willie Mak were charged with thirteen counts of aggravated first degree murder. Six months later, Ng was convicted and sentenced to life without parole. Two

Kwan Fai “Willie” Mak, 1983.
Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

In June of 1984, Wai Chiu “Tony” Ng was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. He was apprehended four months later in Calgary, Alberta by the RCMP.

Tony was acquitted of all counts of murder in April of 1985. He never fired his gun, his lawyer argued, and was made to preform the robbery under duress. He was convicted on thirteen counts of first degree robbery and one count of assault with a deadly weapon. Each charge held a minimum sentence of five years, to be served consecutively, but each charge offered the chance at parole. Over the years, the parole board granted Tony parole, lessening his time served and bringing his release date closer and closer. Family members of the victims gathered in outrage when the parole board considered granting parole for his 12th count of robbery, meaning he could be eligible for release as early as 2010. They were upset that they had not been made aware of previous parole board meetings, thus missing their chance to testify that he should remain in prison. King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng and former Seattle Police Chief Patrick Fitzsimons both argued against Tony Ng’s parole. In February of 2010, a parole board unanimously voted to parole Tony Ng on his 13th count. In October of 2013, Tony was granted parole and in May of 2014 he was released from prison and immediately deported from the United States to Hong Kong.

The wanted poster for Wai Chiu “Tony” Ng.

Willie Mak’s execution was stayed a number of times and in 2006, after several appeals, his death penalty conviction was overturned and he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

The Wah Mee Massacre stands as the deadliest mass murder in Washington State history. It shook Seattle and forever changed the International District. The Wah Mee Club was shut down and padlocked from that day onward, for over thirty years, until much of the derelict Louisa Hotel was destroyed in a fire on Christmas Eve of 2013.

Wai Yok Chin, an incredible survivor and the only witness to the massacre, who was able to identify and testify against the perpetrators, died ten years after the events of February 1983, at the age of 72. When describing the situation to friends, he would comment on how he was unafraid. “If you die, you die,” he said. “That’s all. They already tie you up. What else can you do?” But there was more he could do, and because of his quick thinking, strength, and bravery, three men were caught and convicted for the slaughter of twelve men and one woman at the Wah Mee Club in Seattle.

***

Thank you guys so much for reading my first entry into my new true crime blog. You can check out more entries at lifesabloodymess.blogspot.com. This story was one I had never heard, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t! Not only did it keep me up at night, but it gave me nightmares. Mass shootings are difficult for me to talk about and to read about, but I knew this was a story I wanted to tell, if only to honor Wai Chin and the thirteen victims of this heinous crime. I think one of the reasons I chose to write about this, and to include a mass shooting in my first novel, is because knowledge has always been a source of strength for me. I fear guns, so I learned how to shoot one, so I could understand it, qualify and quantify it. In a way, talking about mass murder like this, helps me to face my own fear. I hope I was able to help some of you, too. In the very least, I hope I was able to educate you about a huge piece of Seattle and Washington State history you may not have known about!

If you want to support this blog and my writing, please become a patron! And, if you are interested in reviewing my first novel, The Skeleton Friend, you will receive a free eBook or Kindle copy for your review! Just let me know in the comments below or shoot me an email. Thanks again, everyone. :)

Sources:

Wah Mee, by Todd Matthews

http://www.historylink.org/File/2984

Wikipedia

Seattle PI