The Brief, Extraordinary Life of Cody Spafford

Cody Spafford found both solace and redemption in the kitchen of Seattle’s most celebrated restaurant. What turned a promising chef into a bank robber?

By Allecia Vermillion March 10, 2015 Published in the March 2015 issue of Seattle Met

 The sun had set on Thursday, April 3, 2014, by the time Renee Erickson stepped onto the patio behind the Walrus and the Carpenter in search of news. It was still too cold to seat diners outside, and she needed a moment of solitude and a chance to check her phone. Nobody had heard from her sous chef, Cody Spafford, since the night before. Worries had turned into rumors. Rumors gave way to alarm. The entire staff was slightly on edge. Something was wrong. She was sure of it. 

She sat down on a bench just as her business partner, Jeremy Price, called. “Cody’s dead,” he said. “And it’s worse than that.”

Everything around Erickson blurred as she processed Price’s words. She composed herself just enough to walk back inside, tell her employees, and shut down one of Seattle’s busiest restaurants in the middle of dinner service. Price arrived and posted a sign on the front door while the staff called their way down the hour-long wait list. 

The revelation that her sous chef had died was devastating, but seeing the photos that police released the next day was almost worse. The guy whose goofy grin was such a fixture at the restaurant, who eased the sting of a chaotic shift with his signature dance, a gyration similar to the Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but more rubbery of limb—in what universe could he be the same person bank security cameras recorded pointing a gun at the teller? His appearance in the photo that circulated on TV and on news sites all over the city was the most unbelievable thing of all: the shoulder-length wig, the thick layer of white stage makeup, and the fake nose transforming his face into a nightmare. 

In her moment of heartbreak, Erickson did the only thing she could think of to protect the memory of the person she loved. She started contacting reporters, asking if they could run another photo of Cody instead. “He did terrible things but it did not define him as our friend and the person we knew,” she typed, signing her email with three words: “He was good.”

Walrus and its adjacent bar Barnacle stayed closed all weekend long. 

Cody Spafford in Blaineville-sur-Mer on France's Normandy coast, October 30, 2013

Nearly four years earlier,
in August 2010, Erickson had quietly debuted a sibling to her popular Boat Street Cafe, an unassuming oyster bar named for a Lewis Carroll poem and hidden down a hallway in the rear of a former marine supply building at the foot of Ballard Ave. For a city so enamored of its shellfish, she thought, Seattle had somehow lacked the oyster bar culture that permeates the East Coast. She wanted to remedy that. 

No easy task. Six weeks after the Walrus and the Carpenter opened, chef de cuisine Eli Dahlin’s search for an assistant oyster shucker had officially become frustrating. Maybe 10 candidates had interviewed; not a single one passed the shucking test.

There was something different about the scrawny blond 23-year-old with tattoos on his forearms, big blue eyes, and a slightly snub nose who answered the Craigslist post. Generally cooks show up to interviews wearing their nicest jeans—maybe a button-down shirt. This guy wore black slacks, a white dress shirt, and a black tie. None of it fit him right. “He looked like he was going to start selling us Bibles,” is how one coworker remembers his interview. It was an awkward getup, but it was also an expression of how sincerely he wanted the job. 

Cody Spafford had been in Seattle just a few weeks. He and a friend leased an apartment on Mercer Island, unaware this was a woefully inconvenient location for someone seeking a cooking gig in Seattle. Aside from a four-month culinary apprenticeship in New Hampshire, he had lived his entire life in Utah. But the kid could shuck an oyster. Dahlin asked a few questions about his resume, then handed him an oyster knife and six crinkly bivalves. Cody shucked most of them to his satisfaction. 

He had moved to Seattle to start fresh. And to cook, not to serve oysters. But his savings were dwindling and this place seemed promising. He took the job, eagerly, becoming the fourth person in a kitchen only big enough to fit three people at a time. 

Alex Barkley manned the pantry station. He and Cody started out wary of each another, but after long nights as fellow soldiers in the conquering of order tickets, Barkley soon considered Cody his best friend. Anthony Pane ran the oyster program. There was a reason the staff dubbed Pane the mothershucker: He could wield a petite, pointy-tipped oyster knife like an extension of his fingertips. The mothershucker showed Cody his own method—gently inserting his knife tip into the oyster’s hinge and, with a fluid twist of the wrist, like turning a key in a lock, popping the two shells apart. Guiding the knife along the seam’s natural contours cleaves the halves without disturbing the oyster’s briny bed within.

On Barkley’s nights off, Cody got his chance to cook, working pantry under the watchful eye of Dahlin, who grew up on a farm in Montana—an upbringing that informed his old-school approach to the discipline of kitchen work. To Dahlin, “There’s no shortcut to being competent.” He quickly realized that behind that great work ethic, his new hire was still pretty green. Bringing Cody up to his standards would be a bigger investment than Dahlin had anticipated.

In traditional restaurant kitchens, the action happens at the stove. The pantry station means salads and tedium. Walrus is a different animal, its menu a riot of vegetables and seafood served chilled or just plain raw. More than half the dishes, hundreds a night, spring from this station’s wooden cutting board. Every action—every marinated onion plucked from a tub and placed atop a piece of trout, every frisee salad spun around to dress in a metal bowl—must happen in a tight, speedy sequence to keep dishes flowing out to tables. Split-second calculations of efficiency govern each movement. At first Cody was the kitchen’s cheerful whirlwind, working hard and fast, but struggling to coordinate and keep pace with the order tickets. He was messy; so were his plates. 

But Cody was also humble and he took correction—welcomed it, even. “He looked at it as an investment in himself,” Dahlin recalls. He stayed late, offering to help with anything he could, learn anything he could. When he screwed up, he owned it. Cody had a saying: “Sometimes you just have to eat that shit sandwich.”  

Five months passed. GQ’s January 2011 issue named Walrus one of the best new restaurants in the country. The scant kitchen staff was suddenly feeding 120 people a night. When The New York Times plastered come-hither photos of Walrus’s oysters on the cover of its travel section in June, that number climbed to 180. By the time Bon Appétit crowned the restaurant one of the year’s best newcomers, more than 250 diners might mob the room in a single night.

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Alex Barkley and Cody Spafford in Walrus's narrow kitchen

Shucking oysters, especially
at the Walrus and the Carpenter, requires a certain stamina. Not just the physical kind, the enduring of seven hours of standing in the same place, hands clenched in the same formation. Doing the same thing over and over and over again—Walrus might serve 1,500 oysters on a busy night—demands an almost Zen state, an ability to subjugate normal human impulses and not go insane as the pile of order tickets grows dauntingly high. 

During happy hour, Renee Erickson usually helped with the oyster rush, her curly dark head bowed next to Cody’s blond one in concentration, their fingers wrapped in duct tape for an added layer of protection against tiny cuts. She appreciated his sense of silliness, how mad he’d get at the end of the night when he realized she had stuck a piece of duct tape on his back hours earlier. 

At her first restaurant, Boat Street Cafe, Erickson developed an informal practice of hiring characters: bright, slightly goofy people who were open to being trained. “You collect people like you who have the same sort of spirit and playfulness,” she explains. It keeps the business of running a restaurant from becoming too serious. 

She had just inklings of her young employee’s past: A few months into his job Cody got busted with some marijuana in Oregon. His criminal history meant he had to spend a few nights in jail. Once he returned, Cody told his bosses he wanted—needed—to be more responsible. How could you not root for an ambitious, hardworking kid eager to vanquish his demons and succeed?


He grew up in Sandy, a suburb south of Salt Lake City abutting the Wasatch Mountains, and didn’t cook much beyond the occasional box of Kraft macaroni and cheese for his first 16 years. He was big into scouting, just like his father and grandfather, and spent weekends hunting with his dad and older brother at their duck club or wakeboarding behind the family boat at Lake Powell. School was never Cody’s forte, but his dad Rob, a booming, silver-haired guy with ramrod morals and an ample mustache, remembers that his son always had a part-time job and “always worked his guts out.” At 16, Cody started washing dishes at Silver Fork ski lodge, quickly moving up to prep cooking. 

The unraveling began senior year. His best friend Andy Domire recalls some new acquaintances introducing Cody to opiates like Percocet. Painkillers soon got too expensive, so he moved on to smoking heroin, which was on the rise in Utah in the mid-aughts. 

Heroin made the Spaffords’ gregarious son groggy and irritable. His voice was slightly different. His behavior was very different. During Cody’s final year of high school, his need for a fix led to seven arrests within just nine months. He smashed in a car window and grabbed a purse. He stole a car from an auto repair shop. 

When Cody’s parents divorced (they later reunited), his mom Debbie suffered the brunt of his desperation. She employed some tough love, told him to move out, but Cody kept breaking back in, stealing her car on four separate occasions, pawning her belongings, and forging her signature on checks so he could get high. 

After a few months in jail, Cody signed up for the drug court’s rehabilitation program and promised to be good. A week later he stopped showing up. It took another stint behind bars to make rehab stick. He enrolled in a treatment program while he finished his sentence at Salt Lake County Jail. Even after Cody’s release, he owed the program two more years of meetings, counseling, and regular drug tests. 

Like always, Cody worked. Food became part of the formula that kept him from using. He got a job at a sushi place called Ichiban and quickly hopped from grunt work up to the sushi line. That’s where he learned to shuck an oyster; the restaurant sold maybe 20 a week.

When he graduated the program Cody needed a new start—outside of Utah, away from the triggers he associated with his past. He didn’t know much about Seattle, but it had mountains and water and plenty of restaurants.


Oysters can be a bit like people. They absorb the essence of their surroundings—the unique milieu of phytoplankton and zooplankton present in a particular cove or inlet. Cody Spafford might not have been thrilled with his role as bivalve jockey, but he was good at it. He’d stand at the oyster station—essentially the prow of the narrow kitchen—and pluck the desired combination of Fanny Bays or Hama Hamas or Baywater Sweets from the four large wire oyster baskets. He functioned like a bartender, opening oysters while holding court. The customers seated around him became an audience, one that laughed loud and often. 

By about one in the morning, front and back of house would flop onto the bar’s yellow metal stools and wearily pop the tops on cold cans of Rainier, recalling, with a mixture of disbelief and pride, the night they had just survived. On other nights Cody and Alex Barkley would chase a bone-tiring shift with another few hours of prep, cleaning octopus or butchering cod for tomorrow’s rush. 

In mid-2012, Erickson was readying a third restaurant, the Whale Wins, in Wallingford. Soon a bar called Barnacle and a food truck, Narwhal, would join the family. As a chef, Erickson isn’t prone to fussy food; she’s enamored of France, but even more so of Washington’s fishers, growers, and cheesemakers. Her menus reveal the state’s fields and waterways as precisely as a topographical map. 

Twice a year she closed her restaurants so employees could fill their cars with sleeping bags and cases of beer and head toward water. Everyone camps and hangs out away from their regular grinding schedule. It was a perfect fit for a guy who grew up outdoors.

Cody was the indisputable comic relief of this tight group, cracking jokes that were immature—usually raunchy—but still pretty damn smart. His sense of humor, says Barkley, “would have made him the coolest seventh grader ever.” 

The two friends spent most of their nights off together, maybe grabbing a few beers at Hazlewood. Of course, in these precious hours away from work, all they’d talk about…was work. Eli Dahlin remembers Cody was a fixture on Ballard Avenue: “I don’t know if he ever paid for drinks anywhere.” 

Barkley and Pane knew a bit about the heroin and jail time, but Cody wanted his past to stay there. Hard drugs weren’t part of the culture at Walrus. Cocaine in the kitchen might make for a compelling Anthony Bourdain memoir, but at Walrus partying meant drinking, maybe the occasional joint. 

By early 2013 Cody had been clean for seven years and his career was catching up with his ambitions. He was promoted to be Dahlin’s sous chef, enforcing the high standards of the guy who had instilled them. Then Cody took over Walrus’s oyster program. He placed orders, made sure the wire baskets contained enough variety, and kept his delicate mollusk charges properly chilled. He tracked the weather and knew that when rain runoff was likely to shut down South Sound oyster farms, it’s time to start shifting orders to beds father north. He figured out how Walrus could buy from small growers in Alaska, running out to the airport to pick up their shipments in summer, when warm water puts many of Washington’s oyster farms on hiatus. He entered the occasional shucking competition, bringing home a hefty first-place trophy from that year’s SeafoodFest in Ballard.

In October, Erickson and Price took him to France. They thought Cody would benefit from a glimpse of its oyster culture and the simple plates of food that typically go with it. Together they visited Parisian oyster stalls on Rue Cler and donned high rubber boots to walk Normandy’s rippled, rocky beds, where oyster seedlings the size of ladybugs grow into mature, deeply cupped oysters, ready for market. 

Cody Spafford with his first-place oyster shucking trophy at the 2013 Ballard SeafoodFest


Another trip would change Cody’s life that fall. A New York artist named Mary Ellen Carroll visited Seattle and made what had become the mandatory out-of-towner culinary pilgrimage: dinner at the Walrus and the Carpenter. Sitting at the bar she chatted with Cody briefly, but he so charmed her that she got his number and invited him to fly out and shuck oysters at a party. That’s how Cody landed in New York on December 15, 2013, with a backpack and a cooler full of 800 Washington oysters. 

A fete celebrating an art journal was decidedly removed from Cody’s typical social forays. But Carroll remembers, “Everybody immediately loved him.” By way of repayment, she offered to introduce her visitor to some local chefs; she thought he would like one in particular. Cody’s combination of talent and impishness reminded her of Jody Williams, owner of a restaurant called Buvette. Carroll ferried her Seattle visitor to the restaurant’s cottagelike storefront in the West Village. He and Williams talked about food, where it comes from, and Buvette’s philosophy of presenting French flavors stripped of ceremony—not unlike the approach at the Walrus and the Carpenter. “He got it,” she says of that conversation. “Some people would roll their eyes and ask why I don’t garnish.”

Even from her distant perch in New York, Williams admired Erickson’s restaurants. She prided herself on mentoring young, ambitious cooks: “I myself learned how to cook by knocking on doors and taking chances and just showing up.”

Williams told Cody, if he wanted to move to New York and cook with her, she’d make a place for him.

In the early weeks of 2014, the two exchanged emails. Williams was opening a new restaurant and thought Cody could ultimately be her chef de cuisine, the head of her kitchen. “I knew he never had that role,” she recalls. “Probably after a year of working together, he would grow into it.”

Their correspondence turned to matters like apartment hunting and plane tickets. In late February, Cody gave notice at Walrus. The unseasoned cook who walked in the door four years ago was going to run a kitchen in New York City.


As his April 30 end date loomed, Cody seemed different. He started showing up late for work and seemed a little nervous. Not exactly surprising behavior for a guy about to move across the country to begin a demanding new job. 

On April 2, 2014, Erickson texted him about a missing oyster order. “Do you want me to take over the ordering?” she wrote. “It seems you might need to start letting go a bit.” 

Cody responded with an apology: “I’m involved still. The last thing I want is for you to think I’m checked out. It’s just not like me to start halfassing when the end date comes near.” He asked if they could get coffee to talk about his transition.

Cody and Alex Barkley weren’t hanging out as much—Barkley had become sous chef at the Whale Wins. But later that night, after Cody’s exchange with Erickson, the two met up for a few drinks at 9 Million Unmarked Bills in Fremont. The night seemed unremarkable, though looking back, one thing sticks out in Barkley’s memory: When he picked Cody up at his duplex apartment, he made a point of showing his friend his new pellet gun. He called it his raccoon defense system. 


Good morning, welcome to Wells Fargo,” chimed Gavin Meigs at 9:15 the next morning. The service manager at the bank’s branch on Madison Park’s well-heeled commercial strip issued the standard greeting even though something seemed off with this guy. The slight figure pulling a black rolling suitcase wore a dowdy skirt and beige sweater, his face painted an unnatural, stagey shade of white. A brunette wig grazed his shoulders. He wore a black flat-billed baseball cap and sunglasses. A lumpy fake nose clung precariously to his face. 

Suddenly the man had a weapon in his hand. He yelled: “This is not a joke! If I hear sirens, I’m going to shoot this gun!”

He crossed the room toward Meigs and another teller and demanded all the money from their drawers. They complied: Wells Fargo employees watch a 20-minute video when they’re hired, advising them to stay calm and meet robbers’ demands to keep everyone safe. The man prodded them to the bank vault. “Hurry up,” he kept saying.

Wells Fargo security cameras captured footage of the robbery, shortly before a car crash sent police swarming the Denny Blaine neighborhood in search of the suspect.

In testimony months later, employees and customers would describe the bank robber as hyped, agitated. Maybe mentally ill, maybe high. And very, very nervous. A few witnesses familiar with firearms noted that the gun was odd looking…flat on the sides and thicker than most .45-caliber pistols. It lacked the bright orange mark on the tip of the barrel that federal law requires of toy guns; but when someone takes over a bank and waves a firearm in your face, it’s not the time to debate the finer points of weaponry.

The man thrust his hands inside the opened vault and dumped about $90,000 in stacked $50s and $100s into his suitcase, then ran out the front door.

Five minutes later and a mile south in the Denny Blaine area, two women watched a silver Hyundai fly past them, going at least 50 miles per hour on McGilvra Boulevard. The driver was wiping something off his face as he careened down the stately street where large homes hide behind hedges, fences, or sloping expanses of lawn. Bright green tape covered the rear license plate.

Then, reports of a crash—that same silver car resting on its hood in the middle of 39th Avenue East like an overturned bug. The driver had vanished, but his belongings were strewn in the street: syringes, a pipe, an empty Red Bull can.

Nearby workers spotted a man, blond, probably twentysomething, running from the wreck. He staggered slightly as he dragged a wheeled suitcase into Viretta Park. 

This park, perched between 39th and Lake Washington Boulevard, is curious as far as public green spaces go. Perhaps its biggest claim to fame is that Kurt Cobain lived in the house next door, to the north. But nearby residents associate the park with its other neighbor. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz built the Italianate stucco mansion in 1993. The curved gravel driveway leading up to its massive wrought-iron gate is technically inside Viretta Park, a strange arrangement with the Seattle Parks Department. The Schultzes eventually sold and moved a short distance to Madison Park, but Denny Blaine longtimers still refer to it as “Howard Schultz’s old house.”

It was down that driveway that the young man lurched, pulling off his shirt as he ran; he ditched it in the bushes and disappeared around the corner of the estate’s wrought-iron fence.

Law enforcement soon saturated the hillside and its switchback streets: robbery unit detectives, patrol officers, the community policing team, SWAT, bicycle police. Even the harbor unit joined in to patrol the shore of Lake Washington just down the hill. The King County Sheriff’s department lent a tracking dog. The last time the scene’s commanding officer could recall a manhunt of this size was the 2009 search for Maurice Clemmons, the man who shot and killed four Lakewood police officers. 

Later, when investigators examined the flipped Hyundai, they found the airsoft gun stashed under the driver seat, a nonlethal weapon at best capable of drawing blood. But at the moment, all police knew was this guy was armed, likely on drugs, and desperate enough to rob a bank takeover style rather than employ the typical slip-the-teller-a-note method. 

After two hours of searching proved mostly fruitless, officers began returning to their cars when the radios crackled: The suspect had been spotted. A blond man in shorts and a blue shirt had darted across 39th and plunged into the tall laurel hedge outside Howard Schultz’s former house. 

Officers poured into the property’s courtyard. The main house was to their left, perched on the property’s eastern edge for optimal Lake Washington views. To the right, a garage and attached guest cottage carved into the hillside. 

Of all the officers standing in the courtyard, only Jim Rodgers—a robbery detective and 16-year SPD veteran sporting a police vest over his checked shirt and khakis—was certified to carry a rifle in addition to his standard-issue handgun. His first instinct was “get some elevation” to protect other officers with his M4 if necessary. Using a parked car and a tree branch, Rodgers hoisted himself up to a stack of concrete blocks keeping the hillside from spilling onto the estate. One foot on the wall and the other on the slope, Rodgers inched forward until he could see onto the garage’s roof. At the far end, about 25 feet away, stood the object of that morning’s massive search, his back against the adjacent guesthouse. An eight-inch blade protruded from his left fist.

Rodgers yelled to the group below, “He’s got a knife!”

The commanding officer took up his radio: “Get SWAT here.” He requested a crisis intervention team with negotiating experience, an antiriot gun that shoots beanbags—anything he could think of to resolve what was shaping up to be a standoff.

The sound of seven shots ricocheted off the courtyard walls.

When Rodgers later gave his statement, he recalled shouting, “It doesn’t have to end like this. Stay where you’re at.” And that the suspect kept saying, “Nope. I’m not going to do it.” He said the young man ignored his commands, edged across the garage roof, then rushed at the detective, charging as fast as he could with the knife clenched by his side. Everything from that first sighting to those seven rounds unspooled in under two minutes. 

In Salt Lake City, 840 miles away, Rob Spafford answered a knock on the door not realizing it was the one he and his wife Debbie had always feared. Their eldest son, Rob Junior, served two tours in Afghanistan, and the Spaffords on some level had always braced themselves for a day when someone in a uniform might knock on their door and tell them their son was dead. But the three burly men standing on the porch April 3 wore the insignias of the nearby Murray City Police Department. They were there about Cody. 


In the days that followed, while the restaurant was dark, Cody’s coworkers tried to process not just the loss but the revelation that he had concealed his heroin use from everyone around him, people who would have dropped everything to help him. 

A crisis communications professional might have advised Erickson and her partners, “Business as usual, don’t associate your impressive reputation with the strange-looking guy in those photos.” But Cody’s work family didn’t want the bizarre coda of his life to be the thing that defined it.

On Monday, four days later, the lights went on again and the staff returned. Erickson described that night as “lovely and terrible at the same time.” Anthony Pane returned to take Cody’s place shucking oysters. Bar manager Anna Wallace had moved on to Dot’s in Fremont and general manager Joe Sundberg was opening his own place, Manolin, but they both returned to tend bar. For one night the restaurant kin who had been Cody’s salvation for four years reunited. The week’s proceeds from Barnacle and Walrus were donated to the Recovery Cafe in Cody’s name. 

Walrus and Carpenter partners Jeremy Price and Renee Erickson

Image: Andrew Waits

Everyone tried to figure out how, when, and most of all…why? What makes a guy undo eight years of being clean, right before moving to the country’s culinary epicenter to take a dream job? There are theories—painkillers prescribed for carpal tunnel syndrome, maybe someone he met at a party in New York. Still, nobody really knows.

Cody’s parents obtained his bank statements; in mid-February, he started withdrawing a lot of cash, burning through the $10,000 he had saved for the move. Just two weeks before he died, Cody spent a week at home over St. Patrick’s Day. His parents didn’t know he was using; they remember it as their son’s best visit in years. Cody didn’t tell them he got a DUI on that trip and was awaiting a sentence that would likely carry jail time, seriously complicating his new job. 

Looking back, people remember things. Small changes, like screwing up at work, or wearing long-sleeve T-shirts to cover his arms. Nothing that signaled drugs to the crew at Walrus. “None of us had experience with someone who was addicted to heroin,” recalls Walrus partner Jeremy Price, though he did wonder whether the restaurant’s success bred a bit of exceptionalism, a sense that “that doesn’t happen here.” 


Any death involving Seattle law enforcement is revisited via an inquest. In October 2014, the Spaffords, Cody’s aunt and uncle, and a family friend spent four days in the King County Courthouse listening to bank employees, witnesses, and police relive those final hours, attempting to understand why their five-foot-six-inch son got felled with bullets rather than something nonlethal, and whether his death was even justified. On day three, more than a dozen people from the Walrus and the Carpenter joined them, filling an entire row of seats as the coroner and toxicologist testified. That night, the Spaffords needed a break. They didn’t know Price or Erickson before Cody’s death, but had corresponded since and wanted one final dinner at their son’s restaurant.

Ushered to a table in the far corner, the Spaffords ordered food, but the kitchen kept sending out plates until the entire menu was jammed onto the tabletop. Cody’s coworkers joined them for dinner, others on duty found a few minutes in their shift to stop by the table. The conservative middle-aged group from Utah and the twenty- and thirtysomething Walrus crew traded stories. Cody’s dad joked that his son’s jeans got skinnier with each year he lived in Seattle. 

Dinner stretched into its third hour, a spontaneous, surprisingly joyful memorial. Before the night was over, Price brought down Cody’s oyster-shucking trophy and offered it to his parents. Rob Spafford demurred. 

“I want that to stay here.” 

It remains on a high shelf overlooking the oyster station, the place where, at least for four beautiful years, Cody’s hard work saved him.