When Martin Pang sets fire to his parents' Chinese frozen-food warehouse on the night of January 5, 1995, the blaze kills four Seattle Fire Department firefighters, the worst loss of life in SFD history. Dead are lieutenants Gregory Shoemaker, 43, and Walter Kilgore, 45, and firefighters Randall Terlicker, 35, and James Brown, 25. Pang hurries from the scene, returns to his home in California, and later flees to Brazil, where he is apprehended and returned to the United States -- but not to face the four counts of murder sought by King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng. Terms of a negotiated extradition agreement with Brazil prevent U.S. courts from prosecuting Pang for murder. He pleads guilty to four counts of manslaughter and is sentenced to 35 years in prison on March 23, 1998. Pang (b. 1955) spends 23 years in confinement before his release on September 27, 2018.
Mary Mar Pang (1922-2009) and Sun Wah "Harry" Pang (1921-2004) were well known in Seattle's Chinese American community. Mary, born and raised in Seattle, was one of 10 children of Chinese immigrants who came to work on the railroads. She graduated from Franklin High School. Harry went to Broadway High School and was a World War II army air corps veteran who flew on D-Day over Normandy and received a Distinguished Flying Cross. The two met at the University of Washington and married in 1945.
After running a grocery store on Beacon Hill, they immersed themselves in the Chinese frozen-food business started by Mary's sister, former restaurateur and King County councilmember Ruby Chow (1920-2008). The sisters later had a bitter falling out, and Chow left their partnership. In 1963, the Pangs turned the business into their own brand, Mary Pang's Food Products Inc. They bought a warehouse at 811 7th Avenue S on the edge of the Chinatown International District and moved into a lakeview home on Mercer Island. The Pangs had a son and daughter, adopted from Hong Kong in 1956 from different birth parents. They named the 6-month-old boy Martin and the 2-year-old girl Marlyce.
Martin Pang was never the academic type at Mercer Island High School. He struggled as an actor and failed in business. Still, he lived a carefree life: He drove and raced expensive sports cars, married four times, fathered two daughters, and drew from a bottomless expense account provided by his parents. Teresa Pang, an aunt, told The Seattle Times in 1995, "They treated Martin like everything Martin does is right, and Marlyce like everything she does is wrong" ("A Charmer ..."). Marlyce Pang left home for California after high school and never returned.
Times reporters Eric Nalder and Duff Wilson begain digging into Martin Pang's past soon after the fire. They found a poseur with a violent streak, writing: "Ex-girlfriends and ex-wives, of whom there are many, say Pang fancied himself something of a secret agent, with night-vision goggles, wall-climbing suction cups and a telephone scrambler to go with his skill at fast talking, fast driving and martial arts. Tall, handsome and articulate, Pang made friends easily. He once paraded the streets of Seattle as an honorary Seafair Pirate. Yet in a flash, Pang could turn brutal. He broke one ex-wife's back with a kung-fu kick, shattered the jaw of another, and severely beat the face of a fiancee" ("A Charmer ...").
Prelude to Arson
Earnings for Mary Pang's Food Products declined in the 1990s and Martin Pang lobbied for his parents to sell or redevelop the property. They refused. For years, Pang had been telling friends of his intent to burn the warehouse to collect insurance money. He confided in his ex-wife Rise Johansen, who continued to work at his parents' business, that he was going to have someone start a fire in the building's basement. It would happen on the weekend of December 16-18, 1994, Pang said, sometime after 6 p.m. He asked Johansen to make sure that his parent wouldn't be there. Johansen then told insurance agent Tom Graves, who reported the information to agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).
On December 14, 1994, ATF agents interviewed Johansen, who drew a map of where the fire would be set. The ATF then informed the Seattle Fire Department of Pang's plot. The Seattle Fire Department and ATF agents began surveillance on December 15 but saw nothing unusual. The target dates of May 16, 17, and 18 passed with no activity. The ATF later dropped out of the investigation for unknown reasons, leaving the surveillance to the fire department's arson squad. Surveillance was called off sometime in the final two weeks of December.
When fire departments receive legitimate arson threats, they routinely focus on deterrence by conducting a high-profile building inspection. Afterward, a detailed plan of attack for the potential fire, known as a pre-fire plan, is documented. The Seattle Fire Department had detailed plans on many buildings considered fire risks, but the Pang warehouse, despite its age and the arson threat, was not one of them. Neither an updated inspection nor a pre-fire plan were done on the structure, built in 1908. The most recent inspection had occurred in 1984. Martin Pang's car-racing supplies, including fuel, and 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of cardboard, sat in the basement unnoticed.
Due to the sensitivity of the source, only a handful of the fire officials and the arson squad knew that the warehouse was targeted. That information was never shared with Mary and Harry Pang, owners of the building for more than 30 years. Nor was it shared with those who would be battling the blaze.
Just after 7 p.m. on January 5, 1995, seven fire companies with 32 personnel converged on the Pang warehouse and the sight of billowing smoke. Battalion Chief Kem Hunter, acting head of the headquarters division and incident commander, quickly began a "size-up" procedure from his car, looking at three sides of the building and analyzing it. Hunter vaguely recalled reading about the building in a December brief but could not remember details. He and his longtime colleague Lt. Walter Kilgore of Engine 10, which was first on the scene, both assessed that the fire had originated on an outer wall on the west side of what they believed to be a one-story building. From their vantage point on S Charles Street and 7th Avenue S, they couldn't see the basement windows of the warehouse, which was built on a slope.
Other officials arrived at the scene and came to believe that the fire on the main floor had been mostly contained. No one noticed the fire in the basement, or mentioned the basement at all. That fire crept on, consuming a flimsy, illegally constructed "pony wall" holding up the main floor, where firefighters would eventually step. A layer of concrete on the floor would lead firefighters to believe they were on the lowest level of the building. As the fire persisted, more backups were called. Four members from Ladder 7 on 4th Avenue S joined the eight from Engine 10 from downtown and Engine 13 from Beacon Hill on the main floor. The 12 firefighters inside the building felt intense heat -- too intense for the amount of fire they could see at the end of the room. When Lt. Gregory Shoemaker realized something was wrong, he yelled at his crew to get out. But it was too late. Shoemaker fell 20 feet to the basement as the floor collapsed, losing his mask and helmet along the way. He died of smoke inhalation. Lt. Kilgore and firefighters Randall Terlicker and James Brown also tumbled into the black hole. They died of asphyxiation after their air tanks emptied. It took three days to recover the bodies.
Randy Terlicker (1959-1995) was a beloved aquatics supervisor at the Lynnwood Recreation Center before he joined the Seattle Fire Department, and he continued to teach water safety, CPR, and first aid at the center after becoming a firefighter. Terlicker, who often thrilled his nieces and nephews with firefighting stories, had wanted to be a police officer, but family members feared police work was too dangerous. He left behind his mother, siblings, and girlfriend. Terlicker graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in Burien.
The son of a firefighter, Gregory Shoemaker (1951-1995) knew his calling. He also knew that he wanted to marry his high school sweetheart, Karen, as soon as he became a firefighter. Shoemaker built a home for his family on five wooded acres in Maple Valley, complete with a barn and an arena for horses. He served with SFD for 23 years, mentored Terlicker at Beacon Hill Station No. 13, and had been shortlisted for a promotion to captain. Sensing danger while fighting the Pang fire, Shoemaker shouted to his colleagues to flee just before the floor collapsed, and thus was credited with saving their lives. He left behind his wife, three daughters, parents, and siblings.
Walter Kilgore (1949-1995) and his wife Mary Anne were married for 11 years. Regarded as a consummate professional, Kilgore served with the SFD for 24 years and was one of the first members of Attack 10, an elite downtown firefighting crew. He was last assigned at the Pioneer Square Fire Headquarters, Station No. 10. Kilgore left behind his wife, two stepchildren, and two children from a previous marriage.
James Brown (1959-1995) was the youngest to die that night. He had been a firefighter for four years and worked at Ladder 7, Fire Station 14 on 4th Avenue S. Besides leaving behind his parents and siblings, Brown left behind Christina, his wife of five months. Wedding gifts still sat unopened in their home on the night of the fire. Brown graduated from South Kitsap High School in Poulsbo, where he lettered in track and swimming, and then attended Clover Park Technical College and obtained a graphic arts certificate. Brown volunteered at the Yukon Harbor Station of the South Kitsap Fire District when he was 15, and later worked as an emergency medical technician, paving the way to becoming a firefighter instead of a graphic artist.
Rat on the Run
While Seattle mourned its fallen firefighters, Pang fled to his home in Southern California, and by the time investigators had gathered enough evidence to arrest him, he had disappeared into Mexico. From there he traveled to Brazil, where he holed up as an international fugitive. At the Seattle office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Special Agent Gary Schoenlein was assigned as the case agent for the Pang investigation. He worked alongside Denny Behrend, a deputy U.S. Marshal, on a multi-agency task force that also included the Seattle police and fire departments. "We were just working it as Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution (UFAP)," Schoenlein recalled (Schoenlein interview with author).
A UFAP charge gives the FBI authority to chase down fugitives when they cross state lines or leave the country, but there was a hitch in the Pang case: U.S. law enforcement agencies lack investigative powers overseas, meaning the task force would need to work with Brazilian officials to execute an arrest. Behrend saw this as a potential problem; he had previously worked with Brazilian police and found them to be corrupt and incompetent. Pang, meanwhile, had done research on Brazil and knew he stood a chance of avoiding prosecution by fighting extradition. In Brazil's supreme court, the four arson deaths would not warrant murder charges if the fire set by the arsonist was not intended to kill. Not so in Washington state, where arson death is considered murder. While the maximum sentence in Washington for first-degree arson is life in prison, the standard sentencing range for an offender without a prior conviction, such as Pang, was 21 to 27 months. King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng (1938-2007) charged Pang with four counts of first-degree murder and said he would press for a life sentence if Pang were convicted.
Understanding the challenges of getting an extradition from Brazil, the task force came up with a plan: It would work with an informant to lure Pang out of Brazil to Montevideo, Uruguay, a country where the murder charges would be applicable. In subsequent interviews Schoenlein declined to divulge any operational methods used to lure Pang into a trap, saying only, "We knew where he was" (author interview).
In March 1995, Schoenlein and fellow FBI agent David Burroughs traveled to Brazil, but the Montevideo lure didn't happen. Behrend noted that Pang's case had become international news, causing Rio de Janeiro's acting police chief "to go on a rampage to try to find Martin" for political gains (Behrend interview with author). The U.S. investigators feared increased police activities might spook Pang and prompt him to flee. They decided it was best to have him in custody. Revealing Pang's whereabouts to Brazilian authorities, the U.S. team asked the Brazilian police to arrest Pang on March 15, 1995. Pang was apprehended on the streets of Rio that night. After the arrest, Schoenlein advised Pang of his Miranda rights and rode with Pang to the police station. Pang was talkative. "He was scared," Schoenlein said (author interview). Pang seemed to see Schoenlein, a fellow English-speaking American in a foreign land, as a lifeline. "I treated him respectfully and could tell him what was going on," Schoenlein said (author interview). At the station, the agents knew they might get just one chance to interview Pang. He denied everything.
Schoenlein recalled that after two hours of talk, "He gave me a stare for several seconds and said, 'I did it.'" Pang confessed to setting the fire to relieve his parents "the burden of running it" (author inteview). Pang's full confession was later published in the Spokane Spokesman-Review. Schoenlein suspected the document had been obtained from the Brazilian government, as it would have been part of the extradition material the U.S. Department of Justice submitted to Brazil.
After the initial interview, Pang asked the agents to visit him again in jail. "We didn't," Schoenlein said. "We didn't want to give him a chance to go back on his words" (author interview).
Negotiations to extradite Pang to the U.S. took about a year, during which King County Deputy Prosecutor Marilyn Brenneman traveled to Washington, D.C. and met with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to facilitate Pang's return. The countries settled on four counts of manslaughter -- rather than murder -- to finalize the extradition. On February 29, 1996, after waiting a month in Rio to execute the extradition, Behrend escorted Pang, in belly-chain, leg irons, and handcuffs, onto a United Airlines flight back to the U.S. With the two were Seattle police homicide detective Steve O'Leary and Seattle fire investigator Mike Shannon.
As the plane taxied along the runway, the pilot announced that a mechanical problem would delay the flight. O'Leary recalled the pilot turning the plane around and heading back to the gate. The plane's return to the terminal was technically a re-entry into Brazil. Delay was an inconvenience, but cancellation could be a problem. "If he gets his feet back on Brazilian soil, we don't have any more authority," Behrend said. "He could just walk ... 10:30 comes and goes, and we're still sitting on the runway" (author interview). "Behrend freaked out," O'Leary recalled. "(He) turned around in his seat and rolled his eyes at me with a look of horror" (O'Leary interview with author). O'Leary understood later that "Martin could've stood up and said, 'Take them off. I'm outta here'" (author interview). But Pang did not stand up and demand to be set free. The flight left a few hours later. In Miami, the four were joined by the two FBI agents who tracked down Pang. The entourage then flew back to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where Pang was put in a waiting van and taken to the King County Jail.
Four Dead, 23 Years in Jail
After Pang's return to the U.S. his defense lawyers and prosecutors continued to fight over whether the extradition agreement with Brazil would allow Pang to be tried on murder charges. Maleng continued to seek clarification from Brazil. Publicity about the case caused Pang's defense attorney, John Henry Browne, to file a motion to impose a gag order on Maleng and to order his office to withdraw from the case. Browne said that "intentional or not, Mr. Pang has become an election issue" for Maleng, who was seeking the Republican nomination for governor.
In February 1998, Pang pleaded guilty to four counts of manslaughter and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. He was not a model prisoner. During his time at the Monroe Correctional Complex, he collaborated with fellow inmate Charles McClain to concoct a plan to commit identity fraud. Pang had access to personal information on witnesses and firefighters from his case. He and McClain were going to defraud those people, as well as people associated with the Tulalip Casino, where McClain had worked. They intended to funnel the proceeds to Brazil for use after Pang's release. McClain was arrested before the fraud took place. Pang lost 76 days of "good" time and was transferred to the harsher environment of the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
Pang was released from prison on September 27, 2018, due to "good behavior." He served a total of 23 years and still owed about $3 million in restitution. His parents died while he was incarcerated, Harry Pang in 2004, Mary Pang in 2009.
Shortly after his release, and while living in Prosser, Pang submitted a name-change request to the Benton County District Court. Citing "cultural, religious and protective reasons," Pang wanted to change his name to Mark Sun Lee. But in a final act of cowardice, Pang failed to appear on his assigned court date of November 14, 2018, avoiding a confrontation with Kim Shoemaker Anderson, sister of one of his victims. Anderson traveled from Enumclaw and vowed to travel to any court where Pang might seek the name change again to oppose it. She wanted to let Pang know that her family's life changed forever when her brother Gregory died fighting the Pang inferno.
The Seattle Fire Department, hit with lawsuits from the four firefighters' families and fined by the state for safety violations, made changes to its policies and procedures after the Pang fire. Equipment upgrades and self-rescue training for firefighters were implemented. According to a 2018 report in The Seattle Times, the crews at the Pang fire "lacked critical information, such as the layout of the building and the fact that it had been the subject of arson threats. Now, fire crews are often equipped with building plans and are warned of potential dangers, such as arson threats or the presence of explosive chemicals" ("Martin Pang, Who Set …").
On June 6, 1998, in dappled shade on a tree-lined square of Seattle's Occidental Park, the Fallen Firefighters Memorial was dedicated. While it was inspired by the four victims of the Pang fire, the memorial was made to honor each and every SFD firefighter killed in the line of duty since 1889, when the department was founded. The four bronze statues were made by artist Jason Wu Hai Ying, associated with the University of Washington School of Arts. Wu worked with a team of firefighters to design the life-sized statues. Names of fallen firefighters -- 49 names as of 2020 -- are etched in granite near the bronze figures. Each October, the Walter Kilgore Seattle Firefighters Honor Guard presents the colors during the National Fallen Firefighter memorial service at the site. The 1995 Pang warehouse fire remains the worst loss of life in Seattle Fire Department history.
Pang's ex-wife Rise Johansen and the FBI informant in South American shared a $36,000 reward for Pang's capture and conviction. Christina Brown, widow of James Brown, went to court in 1999; a jury found that the City of Seattle was 75 percent responsible for Brown's death, and Christina Brown was awarded $5.6 million. The other three firefighters' families settled out of court. James Brown's mother Clare Striegel settled for $220,000. Randall Terlicker's estate settled for $450,000. The city agreed to name its training pool after Terlicker. Shoemaker's widow and two daughters received $3.5 million. Mary Ann Kilgore and her two daughters received $2.7 million.
A year after the blaze, the calamity claimed yet another victim. Gary V. Medica, a firefighter who suffered a heart attack battling the Pang fire, died in 1996. His name is etched on the memorial in Occidental Square, alongside those of Kilgore, Shoemaker, Terlicker, and Brown.