The 10 Crimes That Shook Seattle

From D. B. Cooper to Ted Bundy to the Wah Mee Massacre, the crimes (and criminals) that impacted the city the most.

By Bess Lovejoy October 1, 2014 Published in the October 2014 issue of Seattle Met

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Harmon Waley (left) and William Dainard.

1. Weyerhaeuser Kidnapping, 1935

›› On May 24, 1935, George Weyerhaeuser, nine-year-old heir to the Weyerhaeuser lumber fortune, vanished on his way home from school in Tacoma. That evening, a letter arrived at his house demanding $200,000 in unmarked bills within five days—or else. 

The ransom note ordered the family to communicate with the kidnappers via the personal ads in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and George’s father was later instructed to check in at Seattle’s Ambassador Hotel under an assumed name. A complicated game of cat and mouse followed. On May 29the kidnappers ordered Mr. Weyerhaeuser to drive to a road off Highway 99, get out of his car, and walk back toward the highway, leaving the engine running with the ransom money in the car’s front seat. The younger Weyerhaeuser was released shortly thereafter.

FBI and local authorities caught the kidnappers by tracing the serial numbers on the ransom money; the culprits were a pair of young hoodlums—Harmon Waley and William Dainard—who had first met in the Idaho State Penitentiary and one of their wives. The trio was sentenced to a combined 135 years in prison, while George Weyerhaeuser grew up to be chairman of the Weyerhaeuser company board.

2. D. B. Cooper Skyjacking, 1971


“Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb.” -The hijacker known as D.B. Cooper. Photo courtesy FBI file photos

›› On Thanksgiving Eve 1971, an unassuming-looking man in his 40s boarded a Seattle-bound Northwest Orient Airlines flight departing from Portland, Oregon. He settled into his seat and ordered a bourbon and soda. A few minutes later he handed the stewardess a note saying he had a bomb. 

Thus began one of the most daring crimes in Northwest history. The man, who purchased his ticket under the name Dan Cooper, demanded $200,000, four parachutes, and a fuel truck waiting for him upon landing in Seattle. The airline agreed, and the plane circled Sea-Tac for two hours while the FBI gathered the money. After landing Cooper exchanged the passengers for the money and supplies, keeping several crewmembers and telling the pilot to set a course for Mexico City. Somewhere between Seattle and Nevada, he parachuted out of the plane and into the night, never to be found. 

The case remains the country’s most famous unsolved hijacking, spawning a cottage industry of theories. The FBI has a 40-foot-long file on the case and considered over a thousand suspects, but none of them has been charged with the crime.

3. Ted Bundy Murders, 1970s

›› The epitome of the charming but cold-blooded killer, Ted Bundy murdered more than 30 women (and perhaps as many as a hundred) in Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, and Florida. A clean-cut law student, he often lured victims by pretending to be an authority figure or faking an injury, then bludgeoned or strangled and raped them, leaving their dead bodies in the woods.

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Photo: FBI file

Police finally caught Bundy during a routine traffic stop in a Salt Lake City suburb in 1975. His highly publicized trials dragged on for years, thanks in part to bold jail escapes, but he was finally convicted and handed three separate death sentences, the last in February 1980. After nine years on death row, during which he provided detailed confessions to investigators, he was electrocuted on January 24, 1989. In keeping with his wishes, his ashes were scattered in an undisclosed location in the Cascades.  

4. The Green River Killer, 1980s

›› In the early 1980s, dozens of prostitutes and teenage runaways disappeared from the strip along Highway 99/Pacific Highway South near SeaTac. Authorities found many of their bodies floating in the Green River or dumped in forlorn areas along the freeway. Police arrested Auburn truck painter Gary Ridgway in 2001, crediting DNA advances for helping them to finally crack the case. 

“I killed so many women, I have a hard time keeping them straight.” -Gary Ridgway
Photo: Elaine Thompson/Newscom

Ridgway struck a plea deal that saved him from execution and confessed to the murder of 48 women (he later pled guilty to a 49th after more remains were found). Those convictions give him a more extensive record than any other serial killer in U.S. history. Sentenced to life without parole, he’s currently incarcerated at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. The remains of his victims are still being identified—most recently in 2012.

5. Wah Mee Massacre, 1983

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“I've never seen anything like this, even in New York.” -Police chief Patrick Fitzsimons, on the Wah Mee massacre
Photo courtesy Joe Mabel

›› The site of the worst mass killing in Seattle’s history lies down an alley in Chinatown, home to bakeries and gift shops, and near the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. On February 18, 1983, Kwan Fai “Willie” Mak, Benjamin Ng, and Tony Ng (no relation) burst into the historic Wah Mee gambling club, hog-tying its 14 occupants, robbing them, shooting them, and leaving them for dead. The only survivor,  62-year-old ex-Navy cook and pai kau dealer Wai Chin, managed to struggle out of his bonds and stumble out into the street for help.

Chin immediately identified Mak and Benjamin Ng—they were regulars at the club—ruining mastermind Mak’s plan to escape with a crime that would clear his estimated $30,000 gambling debt. The crime led to calls for a crackdown on high-stakes gambling in Chinatown, which police had historically been paid to ignore.

Mak and Benjamin Ng are currently serving life without parole, while Tony Ng was acquitted of murder after the court found he’d participated in the crimes under duress. He was paroled from prison in 2013, and in May of this year, deported to Hong Kong. The Wah Mee, meanwhile, has never opened its doors again. 

6. Mia Zapata Murder, 1993


Mia Zapata. Photo courtesy the Gits Archive

›› The death of Gits front woman Mia Zapata on July 7, 1993, left a gaping hole in Seattle’s punk music scene. The Gits, known for energetic live performances and Zapata’s passionate vocals, had just returned from a successful West Coast tour, and stardom—or at least a major record deal—seemed the next step. Those dreams, and Zapata’s life, ended when she was beaten, raped, strangled to death, and left on a Central District street.

Her death inspired the creation of antiviolence network Home Alive, while friends and fans (including Joan Jett and Kurt Cobain) produced shows and CDs to raise funds for a private investigator. But the case stayed cold until 2003, when new DNA testing showed a match between saliva on Zapata’s body and Florida fisherman Jesus Mezquia. Mezquia was convicted of Zapata’s murder in 2004 and is serving 36 years in prison. 

Zapata’s memory as a feminist icon lingers, and former bandmates continue to protect her legacy. In January, Gits drummer Steve Moriarty made headlines when he criticized the producers of what he said was a “cheap” true-crime TV episode about Zapata’s death, arguing that today Zapata should be remembered for her art, not her murder.

7. Mary Kay Letourneau, 1997


Photo: Steve Schneider/Newscom

›› It was hard to look away from the case of the 34-year-old Burien schoolteacher caught having sex with her 12-year-old student. And the story grew only more sordid as the years went on: Mary Kay Letourneau was pregnant with a daughter by the student, Vili Fualaau, when arrested in 1997. She served three months in jail, but was caught weeks after her release having sex with Fualaau in her car. She went back to jail, pregnant again, and this time served seven and a half years on two counts of second-degree child rape. 

But the pair pledged love and, after Letourneau was released in 2004, married at a Woodinville winery. Since then, they’ve been known to host “Hot for Teacher” nights at local clubs. And Letourneau seemingly can’t stay away from the police: In January 2014, she landed back in jail briefly after failing to appear in court for driving with a suspended license. 

8. ELF Arson, 2001


“I have never genetically engineered a tree.” -UW professor Toby Bradshaw who was targeted, arsonists say, for genetically engineering a tree. Photo by Larry Davis/Newscom

›› In the early hours of May 21, 2001, members of the Earth Liberation Front broke into the UW’s Center for Urban Horticulture and stashed a homemade firebomb in a filing cabinet. The resulting flames burned for over two hours, causing $7 million in damages.

The ELF said it was targeting UW professor Toby Bradshaw for his work on genetically engineered poplar trees; Bradshaw said his work employed traditional hybridization techniques, not genetic engineering. Nevertheless, the attack destroyed many of Bradshaw’s books and papers, as well as other research projects at the center, including a quarter of the world’s supply of the endangered showy stickseed plant. 

The UW opened a rebuilt horticultural center in 2004, while four of the five ELF members charged in the attacks have served time in prison (the fifth committed suicide in 2005). The ELF has continued its activities, and the FBI has continued to monitor it as part of a multiagency criminal investigation into eco-terrorism known as Operation Backfire. 

9. Capitol Hill Massacre, 2006

›› The word that kept coming up was inexplicable. Why did Kyle Aaron Huff accept an invitation to a Capitol Hill rave after party on March 25, 2006, hang out and drink with the friendly group (all of them strangers), then go to his truck for a pistol-grip shotgun, a semiautomatic handgun, and 300 rounds of ammunition? One clue seemed to be the word he spray-painted on the sidewalk and steps of a neighboring house: “NOW.” 

Mourning at the scene of the the crim on Capitol HIll, where Kyle Huff killed six people.
Photo: Kevin Casey/AP

Huff’s four-minute shooting spree left six dead and seriously wounded two others. When Seattle police officer Steve Leonard arrived on the scene, Huff turned the gun on himself, ending his life and leaving the city mystified about his motive. Local pundits blamed the rave scene itself, while a panel of experts who produced a report for the SPD said Huff’s alienation and depression had simply spiraled out of control. The full answer may never be known.

10. Teresa Butz Murder, 2009

›› In the early hours of July 19, 2009, a man named Isaiah Kalebu crept through an open window in the South Park home that Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper shared. The details of the terror that unfolded would horrify the city: how Kalebu raped the couple in multiple ways and multiple times, slicing them with a knife; how he used their love for each other against them; how Butz threw a nightstand through the window and escaped, screaming and bleeding; how Hopper ran out the door; how Butz died in the street. 

Hopper survived, testifying in detail against her attacker during a 2011 trial. (Her testimony became the subject of the Pulitzer-winning piece Eli Sanders wrote in The Stranger, and she later wrote her own essay for the paper.) Kalebu will spend the rest of his life in prison, while Hopper, a singer, is using music to heal: In April 2014, she performed publicly for the first time since the attacks at a benefit concert at the Neptune.

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