On February 18, 1983, three armed young men enter the historic Wah Mee gambling club in Seattle's Chinatown/International District. They walk away with tens of thousands of dollars in cash, leaving 14 people for dead. One victim survives and testifies during what were arguably the three highest-profile trials Seattle has ever seen. Two assailants will receive life sentences for murder; the third will be convicted of robbery and assault after fleeing to Canada and being extradited. The Wah Mee will be padlocked and never reopened.
High Stakes Gambling
The Wah Mee was a historic speakeasy and gambling club that dated back to the early 1920s. The club, a romantic, classy enclave patronized mainly by relatively affluent restaurant owners and business people in the Chinese community, hosted some of the highest-stakes gambling that could be found in Seattle and, for that matter, in the entire Pacific Northwest.
Winners went home with tens of thousands of dollars after a single night of gambling. Beat cops supplemented their income by tolerating (for a price) illegal gambling in Chinatown. The practice allowed the exclusive, Chinese-only members of the Wah Mee Club to preserve an integral part of their history -- gambling -- while also profiting individual police officers.
In early 1983, a 22-year-old Chinese American immigrant named Kwan Fai "Willie" Mak racked up a several thousand-dollar gambling debt at one of the gambling clubs where he worked. In an effort to clear his debts, Mak singled out the wealthy Wah Mee as the target for a heist-and-killing like no other in Seattle.
Mak enlisted the help of an old high-school classmate, Benjamin Ng. Ng's extensive criminal record dated back to his years as a juvenile. Mak also enlisted the help of Wai-Chiu "Tony" Ng (no relation to Benjamin Ng) -- a shy, quiet, reserved 27-year-old Chinese American immigrant who worked at his parents' restaurant in North Seattle.
Shortly before midnight on February 18, 1983, the three young men entered the Wah Mee Club. They hog-tied and robbed 14 victims before opening fire.
One of the victims survived. He freed himself from the nylon cords and staggered out of the club to find help. The survivor, Wai Chin, a 62-year-old dealer of Pai Kau, a gambling game played with Chinese dominoes, identified Willie Mak, Benjamin Ng, and Tony Ng as perpetrators of the massacre.
Within hours of the murders, Willie Mak and Benjamin Ng were apprehended. Tony Ng fled the country, hiding out for nearly two years in the Chinatown in Calgary, Alberta. Ng was eventually extradited to the United States, where he stood trial on several counts of aggravated murder and robbery.
Willie Mak initially received the death penalty, but his sentence was later reduced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Benjamin Ng also received a life sentence.
Tony Ng did not face the death penalty due to a clause in his extradition from Canada to the United States. During his trial, Tony Ng's attorneys argued that their client did not open fire at the Club and that Mak had forced him to participate in the crime. Thus, jurors considered duress as a factor in their decision. They found him guilty of robbery and assault -- but not murder -- and he received a 30-year-to-life sentence that made him eligible for parole. Ng appealed unsuccessfully, arguing that if jurors acquitted him of murder because of the "duress factor," they should have acquitted him of the other charges on the same basis.
Despite being considered a model prisoner, Ng was denied parole five times before being paroled in 2014. He agreed to deportation and on his release was immediately transported to Hong Kong.
The 1983 mass murder was named the "Wah Mee Massacre." The club closed and its entrance doors were padlocked and tagged with graffiti. Still, what happened there remains a brutally horrific piece of Pacific Northwest history.