King County Persecutors will argue that Kwan Fai “Willie” Mak, scheduled to go on trial next Monday for his role in the robbery and murder of 13 persons at the Wah Mee Club last February 19, masterminded the robbery and fired one of two murder weapons used in the International District gambling club.
Mak, 22, meanwhile, is expected to take the witness stand in his own defense and claim, as he has in the most recent statement, that he left the Club prior to the shootings. Mak’s defense attorneys, Donald Madsen and James A. Robinson, will argue that robbery was not the motive behind the crime.
On August 24, a King County jury, after deliberating only slight more than two hours, convicted Benjamin King Ng, 20, of 13 counts of aggravated first degree murder and one count of first degree assault, the same charges filed against Mak.
To gain conviction on the charge of aggravated first degree murder, the prosecution was only required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ng was an accomplice in a premeditated murder scheme, whether or not he did any shooting.
The 13 middle-aged and elderly victims were: Gim Lun Wong, Chong L. Chin, John Louie, Hung Fat Gee, George Mar, Jack Mar, Lung Wing Chin, Wing Wong, Dewey Mar, Henning Chinn, Moo Min Mar, Jean Mar and Chinn L. Law.
Wai Yok Chin, a 61-year-old dealer at the Club, was the only survivor of the slayings, suffering bullet wounds to his neck and jaw. Chin recovered and came into court to provide dramatic eyewitness testimony of the crime during Ng’s trial.
After finding Ng guilty as charged, the eight-man, four-women jury sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Relatives of the victims and most persons in the Chinese community expressed anger and disappointment that the jury did not vote unanimously to impose the death penalty. Five jurors voted to spare Ng’s life, apparently, in part, because they were not certain that Ng had fired one of the murder weapons.
Michael J. Grubb, a ballistics expert from the Washington State Crime Lab, testified that two guns—a .22 caliber Ruger semi-automatic and a .22 caliber Colt revolver—fired a total of 32 bullets at the Wah Mee Club.Prosecutors argued that Ng fired 26 shots from the semi-automatic. In Mak’s trial, prosecutors said, they will argue that Mak fired the other six shots from the Colt revolver.
Grubb testified that Jack Mar and Jean Mar were shot by both weapons. Chong Chin, Chinn Law, Wing Wong and Gim Wong were shot by the semi-automatic, Grubb stated, and John Loui was shot with the revolver. Grubb could not say positively which weapon fired the bullets that killed the other victims.
Seattle police have been unable to recover either murder weapon.
During the Benjamin Ng trial, prosecutors argued the Ng, Mak and Wai Chiu “Tony” Ng, the third suspect who remains at large, carried out a plan, discussed as early as 1981, to rob a gambling club in the International District. Murder was “part and parcel” of the plan to rob the Wah Mee Club which had re-opened last fall for high stakes gambling. Senior Deputy Prosecutor William Downing told jurors, because “dead men tell no tales.”
John Henry Browne, Ng’s attorney, attempted to portray Mak as the “leader” behind the premeditated robbery, bringing in 20-year-old Sze Ming Ng to testify that Mak had talked at a planning meeting one or two weeks before the Wah Mee murders of robbing a gambling club in Chinatown and killing the victims. Sze Ming Ng testified that he was “pretty sure” Benjamin Ng was not at the meeting.
However, two prosecution witnesses place both Ng and Mak at discussion meetings about committing a robbery. Yen Yin Lau, 22, a cook in a Chinese restaurant, testified that Mak and Ng, in 1981, had discussed robbing a gambling club in the International District and shooting the victims.
And Wai Chung Tam, 21, testified that Mak and Ng, at a meeting at Denny’s Restaurant shortly before the Wah Mee murders, discussed robbing a gambling club in Chinatown, possibly the Wah Mee Club “because it probably got more money,” and talked about shooting the victims to prevent them from identifying who had committed the robbery.
In his opening statement in the Ng trial, Browne had said he would call Bon Chin, a friend of Willie Mak, to testify that one month prior to the murders, Mak attempted to recruit him to participate in a robbery of the Wah Mee Club. Brown said Chin would testify that Mak had stated, “If these people resist me, I, Willie, will kill them. If the people with me, robbing these people, won’t shoot them, I’ll shoot them all.”
However, Browne chose not to call Bon Chin as a witness after defense attorneys learned that Chin would also implicate Ng in the robbery scheme. Chin would have testified that Mak had told him, in a phone conversation, “I need three people to do this. Benjamin and I are two. We’re asking you to be the third.”
Downing said Bon Chin will be called as a prosecution witness against Mak.
Downing and Robert Lasnik, the other prosecutor handing the Wah Mee case, said that many of the prosecution witnesses who testified in the Ng trial—such as the Seattle police, the King County medical examiners and a ballistics expert—will also testify in the upcoming trial against Mak.
“The big difference will be the civilian witnesses.” Downing said, “the people with Mak before and after the crime took place. There will be more youth witnesses.”
When Mak was first arrested by police for the murders, he told Seattle Police Sergeant Joe Sanford, “I did all the shooting.” He also refused to identify the third suspect, stating, “There is no third man.”
Although King County Superior Court Judge Frank D. Howard blocked introduction of those statements as evidence during the first portion of Ng’s trail Brown and co-defense counsel David Wohl brought them up during the sentencing phase when the rules of evidence were relaxed, attempting to cast doubt on whether Ng had done any of the shooting and sway the jury against voting in impose the death penalty.
However, Mak has since repudiated his statements to Sanford. According to a more recent statement, Mak said he left the Wah Mee Club before the shooting occurred. He left, he said, “because Benjamin Ng was acting strangely and appeared to have abandoned the plan which we made prior to entering the Club.
“I was concerned that he might shoot someone, but I did not interfere because I was frightened that he would turn on me and shoot me. I left the Club and heard what appeared to be gunshots as I was leaving.”
Madsen and Robinson say they disagree with the prosecution contention that the kills were committed to cover up robbery. A sizeable sum of money and jewelry was left at the Club. Madsen said, adding that if the motive was robbery, the crime would have been committed at a later hour when there would have been more money available in the Club.
Defense attorneys have subpoenaed International District leaders, who angrily note that they have nothing at all to do with the crime, and members of the Hop Sing Tong, of which Ng and Mak were members.
Robinson, noting the complaints of people who have been subpoenaed to testify, said no one volunteered to testify as a defense witness: “ Everyone was subpoenaed. If you’re subpoenaed, the choice is either jail or testifying. We’re not asking people to take sides; all we’re asking is that people testify truthfully.”
Defense attorneys are expected to argue that a possible motive for the crime is competition over control of high stakes gambling in the International District, a motive that the Seattle police, with the assistance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, explored shortly after the killings, but dismissed as unfounded.
All 13 victims, except Henning Chinn, were members of the Bing Kung Association. Wai Chin, the sole survivor of the shootings, was not a member of Bing Kung.
People have speculated that rivalry between Hop Sing and Bing Kung members may have been behind the murders.
Madsen said Mak is prepared to testify “about the involvement of individuals in the tong who had an impact on the plan” to enter the Wah Mee Club the day of the murders. He would not elaborate.
Prosecutors are skeptical Mak will be able to corroborate charges of tong involvement in the murders.
But community leaders fear the lasting impact of such charges on the general public’s image of the International District, an image they say is already tarnished by relentless media coverage of the Wah Mee tragedy.
Major Dale Douglass, head of the Criminal Investigations Division of the Seattle Police Department, said police “thoroughly” explored evidence of organized involvement by the tongs in the murders, but found none. “We didn’t see any significant difference between the tongs and a group like the Elks Club,” he said.
Douglass said police are “tickled pink” that defense attorneys are pursuing the theory of tong involvement because it has caused Hop Sing members to come forward to cooperate with police.
Madsen said defense attorneys anticipate that, because of publicity generated by the Ng trial, jury selection will take longer than the previous trial. But he added that a move for change of venue is “unlikely.”
As in the previous trial, the centerpiece of the prosecution case will be the eyewitness testimony of 61-year-old Wai Chin, the sole survivor of the shootings. Chin, ushered into court under heavy police guard, testified that Benjamin Ng, Mak and the third suspect, whose name he did not know, robbed and hogtied the persons in the Club at gunpoint.
Chin, who remains under heavy guard awaiting Mak’s trial, said Benjamin Ng and the third suspect took money from the victims and tied them up, while Mak, who acted like the leader,’ stood on the upper level of the Club, pointing his weapon.
Chin said Dewey Mar told the robbers, “You guys want money? Take it from John Loui.” Loui, who recruited Chin to work as a dealer at the Club, managed the finances of the Club. Mak told Mar to shut up, Chin said.
Chin said he waited, face down on the floor, for the three robbers to leave. As he turned his head to see why the three had not yet left, Chin testified, he saw all three pull on gloves, then begin shooting, fire coming from the guns, bullets spraying the room, the sound of firecrackers.
Chin said he was hit in the first volley of shots, blood coming from his mouth. Before he blacked out, Chin said, he heard either Mak or Benjamin Ng say, “Is that all the bullets?”
Chin said he regained consciousness when he heard someone banging on the door of the Club. He said he took two or three minutes to work free of his bonds, which had not been tied very tightly “otherwise I can’t get out,” then struggled to the door to call for help.
Browne attempted to discredit the testimony of Wai Chin by pointing out that Chin has told a police officer, while he was still at Harborview Medical Center, that Benjamin Ng, Mak and Tong Ng all fired their weapons. When Wai Chin testified on the stand, he said he saw “at least” two guns fire. Police believe only two guns were used in the murders.
Lasnik said Ng’s conviction was “a tribute to the courage of Wai Chin” and showed that the jury believed Chin’s story.
Lasnik and Downing said they were aware that relatives of the victims and members of the Chinese community were unhappy that Ng will not be executed, but they say they are “satisfied” with the conviction and the sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole.
“Benjamin Ng will die in prison,” Lasnik said. “The only question is when. That’s a real severe punishment.” And Downing noted that “false hopes” were raised that Ng would receive the death penalty, when, in reality, the odds of a jury voting to unanimously to impose the death penalty are very small.
Lasnik noted that, contrary to stereotype, “we didn’t run up against the so-called traditional silence of Chinatown.” Witnesses were cooperative, including the younger Chinese who stuck to their stories, Lasnik said. The case shows, Lasnik concluded, that people in the Chinese community “are not so far away from our world after all, that they are a part of our world.”