They drove back to base in silence, Tony at the wheel, staring straight ahead in the dark, lost in thought. “Where are you?” Arthur asked. Tony didn’t answer. They’d already killed one gas station attendant, now another, and still another would soon meet his fate. But this one tonight, the kid who’d asked to pray—it got to him.
He replayed it as the Ford sputtered north.
“Is this a good job?” Tony had asked.
“Not the best job,” the young gas station attendant said, “but it’s nice to have a little money.”
“We could all use a little extra money. I’ll take some. Where’s the money?”
Arthur materialized from behind: “We know you have money here.”
The two men seemed to work in tandem now, without having to speak to each other, like a well-rehearsed team. They led the kid into the storage room at gunpoint.
“I know you’re going to kill me,” the kid said. “Can I pray?”
“You can pray.”
The kid got down on his knees, covered his face with his hands, and prayed out loud.
Tony shot him once in the temple. The kid collapsed. Bam. Another bullet.
They hadn’t planned this one. Even as he had exited the car for cigarettes, Tony didn’t understand why. He rarely bought cigarettes anywhere but on base, where they were cheaper. You never do this. And then the kid mentioned money and Arthur appeared from behind.
Why? The Ford pushed on. Up Empire Way, over to Highway 99, the headlights tunneled through the darkness. You used to be the good guy. You used to be the man in the white hat. It was like being in a trance, his hands on the steering wheel, the shooting on repeat in his head. The kid’s last words stuck too. Tony would have to bury them, down in the place in his mind—he called it the Jungle—where the words wouldn’t haunt him.
It was well past midnight now, maybe 2am, and the lights from Paine Air Force Base came into view. Home, if you could call it that. Originally commissioned as a municipal airport, the base had provided air defense for Seattle during World War II and now, at the height of both the Cold War and the conflict in Vietnam, was home to the U.S. Air Force’s 57th Combat Support Squadron—of which Tony and his fellow murderer, sitting in the passenger seat, were members.
On November 2, 1995, a pastor in Oak Harbor, Washington, sat at a keyboard and typed: “I am writing this letter on behalf of Mrs. Ada Wolf. She is one of my parishioners. Ada is also the mother of Daniel Wolf who was murdered some 30 years ago.” The letter, addressed to a defense attorney in Seattle, continued, “For some time it has been her desire to talk to one of the men who confessed.”
The man in question was former U.S. Air Force airman Antonio Wheat, sitting in a cell at the Monroe Correctional Complex, some 40 miles from the pastor’s church. In 1965 Wheat and another airman were sentenced to hang for a series of armed robberies that took the lives of three gas station attendants, including Ada’s teenage son.
Now the mother was requesting a sit-down with the person she believed had fired two bullets into the head of her firstborn. Her request defied prison policy—inmates can’t have contact with their victims or victims’ family—as well as the advice Wheat’s attorney and counselors would dispense over the next month.
Then again, nothing about the incarceration of inmate number 029645 made much sense.
For one, he was at Monroe and not Walla Walla, where he was originally incarcerated, at the behest of prison officials who valued his leadership—his ability to de-escalate even the most volatile, potentially violent confrontations—which Monroe sorely needed.
Some 15 years before Wolf’s request, in fact, an erstwhile superintendent at Monroe, in early retirement and dying of pancreatic cancer, beseeched the governor’s office for early parole for the convicted murderer. By the time Ada Wolf had found a way to contact Wheat—a kind of miracle of its own—the inmate held a bachelor’s degree from Washington State University, was a founding member of a Toastmasters International charter, and had helped set up a scholarship program that provided educational opportunities to inmates.
A model prisoner.
If we believe in second chances, the superintendent and other officials seemed to be asking, if prisons are about reform and not retribution, as we tell ourselves, then why was this man still behind bars?
In the 1980s a prison psychologist would describe Wheat in a letter to the Department of Corrections as “the most stable, consistent human being I’ve met in a prison setting.”
And yet 50 years after his crimes, court records, newspaper archives, letters, and interviews, including interviews with Wheat himself, reveal a man once capable of savagery—as violent and cruel as his eventual meeting with the mother of one of his victims would be surprising.
Owen Fair died on his son’s birthday. They found him lying on his back the next morning, March 27, 1965, beaten and shot five times—one bullet in the torso, two in the back of the head, one in the temple, one between the eyes. The .22 caliber pistol had been fired at so close a range powder burn marks stained his face.
Fair had taken the manager job at the Time Oil Service Station in Seattle’s Rainier Valley less than a year earlier, after a divorce and a failed restaurant launch found him, at age 55, seeking a new start. He opened the station every day at 7am to square away the books, tidy up, greet customers, maybe leave things to an attendant for a few hours before returning to close shop by 10pm and pointing his Buick home. “Since his divorce,” the station owner told a reporter the day Fair’s body was found, “the station has been his whole life.”
His son David turned five on March 26, and a party planned the next day went on as scheduled. Fifty years later David would describe the party, a gathering of neighborhood children—all left in the dark about the murder—as eerie. “You could tell something was happening. It changes the buzz in the air.”
Police had little to go on. The owner had discovered Fair’s body in the stockroom shortly after 10am. A bloody handprint, Fair’s, was smeared across a white enamel cabinet. The safe still held the $191 documented on the day’s accounting sheet. The owner speculated that Fair was beaten and executed for refusing to reveal the location of the cash.
Nights off base were like fever dreams. Booze, women, late-night jazz clubs—anything you could do to forget you worked in an Air Force mess hall for less than 90 bucks a month. He paid $150 for a two-tone, brown and tan 1954 Ford sedan clunker. When the hood flew off he replaced it with another one, painted black, from a junkyard. It was an eyesore, but with it he and Arthur Aiken could roll into Seattle during off-duty hours. They were 20 and 19 years old and the city, fresh off its hot moment in the spotlight of the 1962 World’s Fair, was theirs.
They’d blast out of Paine down Highway 99 and swoop into the Central District via Empire Way (later renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Way) and descend on clubs like Mac’s Showplace on Occidental or the Black and Tan Club, a popular basement lair at 12th and Jackson famous as a routine stop for touring jazz acts (“Dance, Dine, See Pretty Girls” read the club’s ads), then zag over to Rainier Valley or up to the housing project in Holly Park (today’s Beacon Hill) where pretty Dorothy Carpenter lived with her sister Rosemary, sometimes staying out till three, four, five in the morning, knitting together the city’s streets with Wheat’s new ride, lemon that it was, until they ran out of time or money or both and squeaked back to base and collapsed on their bunks.
Back home in Chicago the Air Force recruiter had dangled two assurances in front of him: a role befitting his aptitude and an assignment within 500 miles of home. But while his highest score on the Armed Forces Qualification Test suggested a job in electronics he was made a cook, and this place was obviously more than 500 miles from Chicago.
Not even the woman at the Sea-Tac airport information desk had known where Paine Air Force Base was. Do you mean McChord Air Force Base? she asked. No, Paine. Same thing a few weeks earlier in Texas. At first the brass at Lackland, near San Antonio, couldn’t find the location of his new assignment on the atlas, and then: There it is Wheat, your new home—way up on the upper left corner of the map, almost in Canada, close to Seattle, but even closer to the suburb of Everett. And so in April 1964 the United Airlines flight carrying Airman Third Class Antonio Nathaniel Wheat circled Puget Sound and touched down at Sea-Tac around 6:30pm.
No, a mess hall cook wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life—he really had wanted to be an electrician—but what could he do? You had to try not to take things too personally. You had to try your best.
An Air Force evaluation completed on January 8, 1965, detailed the progress Wheat made in his first months on the job: “He shows a keen interest in everything he does and takes pride in serving the food he prepares…. [W]ith more training he promises to be a fine Air Force cook and a valuable asset to the Air Force.”
He clashed, however, with his immediate supervisor, Sergeant Smith, or “Smitty.” Upon hearing Wheat was dating the daughter of a fellow white sergeant on base, Smitty reportedly told his charge that he needed to call it off, explaining, “You’re a black boy from Chicago, she’s a white girl.” Soon after he was put on the salad shift.
“I started making salads,” Wheat recalls, “thinking it was an honor of some sort, not realizing it was a five-and-a-half-day job, 6am to 3pm Monday through Saturday—because on Saturday you had to make enough salad for Sunday. I realized: This is punishment. You don’t have time now for girls.”
He found common ground with one airman. Arthur Aiken, one of the few other black men on base, lived in the same barrack, number 102. An attendant in the base gymnasium, Aiken had been in the Air Force since November 1963, some three months longer than Wheat, and he was 10 months younger. He too had grown up poor, in Washington, DC, in a big family (eight siblings) and was a loner. Short, chubby, and gray eyed, “he worked out constantly,” Wheat recalls, “to change his appearance, make it so he wasn’t a little butterball.”
Lanky Daniel Wolf, college student, wedding singer, and late-night gas station attendant, arrived at work Sunday night, April 11, 1965, with newfound enthusiasm. It was to be his last graveyard shift at the 24-hour Enco Service Station. Working all night till seven in the morning was the pits. The 19-year-old had landed a swing shift at another station closer to home and more compatible with his class schedule at Northwest College in Kirkland, where he was a sophomore studying psychology.
He pulled into the lubrication bay just before 11pm and was greeted by Gary Grasley, his coworker and friend. Dan was clearly in a good mood. “It was his last night,” Grasley explained to a newspaper reporter the next day, “and he was glad it was over.” The boys shared a love of music; Dan often sang at weddings at the Church by the Side of the Road. Both sported the same hairdo: dark, slicked-back coif a la early Elvis.
In fact, music permeated Daniel Wolf’s life. His father, George, a Boeing employee, filled the home with notes from his saxophone and had led the church orchestra for years. Dan’s siblings, two younger sisters and one younger brother, all played instruments. And holding the whole mellifluous clan together, nurturing its faith, was his mother, Ada. While they were a physically active family—father George was known to ride his bike 15 miles a day—the family was mostly recognized for its artistic proclivities (Daniel had been a regular in school plays at Tukwila’s Foster High) and strong Christian convictions.
Grasley left around 11:45 as Daniel settled in for a long night. Ninety minutes later, a regular customer, a nurse by the name of Margaret Gettman, pulled into the station for cigarettes and heard a moan coming from the back of the building. When she opened the door of a small storage room she discovered Dan on the ground, alive but covered in blood from head wounds. He was trying to stand up. “Lie down,” she said, comforting him. “Help is on the way.” After she called the police, she soaked paper towels in water and cleaned the blood from his face. He died an hour later in the ER at Harborview.
“I went to pieces,” Gettman would later tell a jury.
Again, clues were limited. Roughly $60 was missing from the cash register and about $350 from a floor safe. Two shell casings from a .22 caliber pistol lie near the body.
Investigators determined that Daniel Wolf was shot from above, that he’d knelt in front of his killer just before the trigger was pulled, knelt as if in prayer.
Tensions between Sergeant Smith and Airman Wheat had intensified. When Wheat answered a request for an Air Force cook in France and it looked like he was all set to go his orders were canceled, he says, redlined by Smith days before departure. “I’d like Wheat to stay,” he remembers Smith saying. “He’s too good, and we need him.”
In January 1965 he sliced the tip of his finger while cutting salad. In the infirmary he saw a post for a special dive and rescue unit. He took the test, got accepted, and was again set to leave Paine, this time to train in Colorado. Once again, he says, Smith stepped in and canceled it: “As long as you’re in the Air Force, you’re going to be under my thumb.”
By mid-March, according to military records, Wheat’s work deteriorated. He was reprimanded for tardiness and other disobedience. A letter Sergeant Smith wrote to the squadron commander on April 9, 1965, noted that Wheat did not show up for work and had to be awakened from his bed and ordered to report to duty. “It appears,” Smith wrote, “the Airman’s attitude is one of disrespect and disregard for military procedures.”
Something had clearly changed with the man whom, just four months earlier, superiors praised in an evaluation as a promising “asset to the Air Force.”
The city was in a panic. Two gas station attendants had now been shot to death—three if you counted the unsolved murder and robbery of an attendant the previous August. Police had no new clues into the slaying of Owen Fair on March 26 and Daniel Wolf on April 12, at least none they were sharing with the public. They increased patrols, dedicating 10 cars to Rainier Valley, south of Spokane Street, after 8pm every night. At least one officer was staking out gas stations, at one point hiding in a back storeroom and conducting surveillance through a hole drilled into the wall, hoping to catch the killer before he hurt anyone else.
The police had also advised attendants to be vigilant and to always have another person with them, particularly when closing up shop. The region’s gas station owners and employees rallied. The manager of a station in Bellevue told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer he was starting a fund, $10 each from late-night attendants toward a reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer.
Twenty-two-year-old James Harp brought a gun. The night attendant at Barney’s Douglas service station on 15th Avenue Northeast had told his family he was worried about the killer on the loose and had packed a .22-caliber rifle for protection at work.
Late into his shift, around 4:30am, two of Harp’s teenage friends pulled into the station. Harp was talking to a tall black man at the counter. They all introduced themselves, and the boys shook the stranger’s hand before leaving Harp to his shift.
When they happened to return some 30 minutes later, there was no sign of their friend until they opened the restroom door. Harp lay in a pool of blood in front of the toilet, dead of three gunshot wounds to the head. His wristwatch was missing, as was $120 from a cash box.
Harp’s friends were able to give police a description of the vehicle of the man they’d seen talking to Harp: a two-tone brown Ford four-door with a black hood. Within hours a highway patrolman spotted the car parked near Paine Air Force Base; its owner, Antonio Wheat, was apprehended in the mess hall. A full day later, police caught up with Arthur Aiken at the Canadian border.
On death row you could change the channel on the television that sat outside your cell with a narrow wooden pole. A precision strike with the rod through the bars and on the TV dial, and click, you were watching a soap opera or Wide World of Sports. John Hawkins taught him that trick. Chess was played by poring over your own board and shouting out your moves—my queen takes your castle—to your opponent two, three cells down. Hawkins, a talented painter who had murdered two teenagers, was the only one there when Wheat and his codefendant arrived on the 14-cell death row tier in Walla Walla’s maximum-security unit—though nine more convicted killers soon joined them.
For 22 hours a day they slept or sat or paced in a cage about the size of the back of a pickup truck—six feet wide, eight feet nine inches deep.
The cops and the prosecutors had a slam dunk case against Wheat and Aiken, of course. The final account went like this: During the first robbery Aiken punched Owen Fair in the face before emptying five bullets from his Italian-made semiautomatic Galesi revolver into the attendant, killing him instantly. Wheat killed Daniel Wolf, who knelt before his executioner and called out to God before two bullets entered his skull. Wheat also admitted that he had killed Harp, the final victim, while Aiken, unaware, slept in the car.
The trial, in October 1965, was a weeks-long media frenzy that played out in the daily papers as the lurid details of the killing spree and the two U.S. Air Force airmen, photographed in court in military uniforms, came to light. For 14 days the jury, eight men and four women, heard testimony from some 70 experts and witnesses. The packed King County Superior courtroom included Owen Fair’s ex-wife, Hope, Daniel’s parents George and Ada Wolf, and James Harp’s parents and brothers. The defendants’ side was practically nonexistent; Wheat’s mother could only afford to be in Seattle for two days; Aiken’s mother couldn’t afford the trip at all.
Before the jurors adjourned to not only decide whether the defendants were guilty but if so whether they should receive life sentences or the death penalty, Wheat asked to speak directly to them. The airman who had been silent the whole trial, usually staring down at the table in front of him, stood before the jury box and pled for his life, promising that if his life were spared he would spend the rest of it in the service of humanity.
Six hours of deliberation later the jury announced its verdict: guilty of three counts of first-degree murder, death by hanging for both men.
Wheat and Aiken spent two and a half years in the King County Jail before a transfer to Walla Walla in February 1968 for execution. They narrowly escaped death once when the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay a week before the noose. But now, in the summer of 1969, if all went according to plan, guards would bring Wheat a suit, a tie, and a white shirt. Once he donned those clothes, the guards would escort him to the death chamber, a two-story room with a balcony just a few steps from his cell. Wheat, now 24 years old, would be led onto the balcony and positioned on a trapdoor—a hood over his head, his hands cuffed behind his back, a noose around his neck. Four men would enter an adjacent room and stand before four buttons, only one actually wired to activate the trapdoor. And at exactly one minute past midnight, Friday, July 11, 1969, Wheat or Aiken would hang for their crimes. The warden, B. J. Rhay, said the two men would have to decide who would be executed first. If they couldn’t decide, Rhay would simply flip a coin.
It looked as if Tony Wheat’s short, troubled life would soon come to an end.
He’d grown up poor—though poor hardly covers it. First it was a basement apartment that held his mother, her parents, an uncle, Tony, and his older sister and younger brother, a brood that would eventually grow to six siblings in all. His father was hardly around, and when he was it was as little more than a guest—“to come make a baby,” as Wheat would later describe it—until eventually he disappeared from their lives for good. The family lived off welfare assistance and the small paychecks Tony’s mother earned working for a candy company. At a young age he was tasked with watching his younger brother, Curtis. Once, when their older cousins pulled up in a truck and Tony leapt up from the stoop and crossed the street to find out where they were going, he heard a thud and a scream. He spun around. Curtis had followed and been struck by a streetcar. Alive but lightly injured. His mother screamed: “I told you to watch him!” Tony ran to his bed and cried.
He kept to himself a lot after that, lost in his own mind, a place he would come to call the Jungle—the Jungle where he was in control, the Jungle where no one can hurt you. Only the dog, Sandy, his best friend, seemed to understand. In 1951, when he was about six and the family prepared to move to another part of Chicago, he tried to load Sandy into the truck with him. No, his mother said, they don’t allow dogs where we’re going. But that damn dog, it chased the truck until it couldn’t run anymore. That’s the last Tony saw of Sandy.
School in the new neighborhood, in the projects on Chicago’s South Side, was a disaster. Given a workbook the first day, he ran home and completed it, staying up late into the night, then turned it in before it was due. The teacher was convinced he’d cheated, said he wasn’t smart enough to do all that work on his own. For punishment he had to stand on one foot all morning, in front of his classmates. The other kids terrorized him, baiting him into fights, and he soon realized the cruel calculus at play. “This area had many poor families,” he reflected decades later, “and for some reason the poor kids liked to pick on the poorer kids.”
He discovered some success as an athlete, but even there he found crushing disappointment.
At Carver High School he was a runner, a member of the school’s inaugural track team. “I’m a sprinter,” he’d insist. The coach decided he should be a distance runner instead. “We need long-distance runners, Wheat,” the coach said. But at a high school track meet at the University of Chicago, Tony ended up on his team’s sprint medley unit; he was to sprint the second leg. Handed the baton he left everyone in his dust.
“We didn’t know you were that fast!”
“I told you, I’m a sprinter.”
“Well, we need long-distance runners.”
He quit the team.
The same thing happened, he felt, when he joined the Air Force. He set out to be an electrician but ended up a cook.
He came to believe his life had no purpose. “I did not give a damn about the world or the people in it,” he would later write.
But now, coming within days of his own death, he realized that if his life were spared he really would commit the rest of his time on earth to helping others, just as he had promised the jury during his trial.
On Monday, July 7, 1969, four days before he was scheduled to die, word came that the U.S. Supreme Court was staying the execution. Then, after two more years of legal maneuvering, the death sentence itself was taken off the table. The court cited an earlier ruling that prospective jurors who expressed opposition to the death penalty could not be automatically excluded from the jury—as had happened in the Wheat and Aiken trial. A new jury leveled three life sentences, and Wheat and Aiken were released into Walla Walla’s general population.
Tony Wheat now began his long climb out of the Jungle to make good on his promise.
An extension of Walla Walla Community College inside the prison allowed him to earn an associate’s degree in 1973. He organized with higher-education officials to set up a scholarship for inmates to attend university, paving the way for his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Washington State University in 1977. He became a leader in Black Prisoner’s Forum Unlimited (and later the Black Prisoner’s Caucus) and a chairman of Lifers with Hope, which read books out loud for recordings for the blind.
He also gained a reputation as a peacemaker. Say there was a gambling debt, a black inmate didn’t want to pay a white inmate, a biker, and there was the threat of a riot, neither man willing to back down, especially in front of his friends. Tony would do what he called “shuttle diplomacy,” meeting with the two men, then sending them to the back of the yard to talk it out while he stood watch, ensuring no one interfered as they came to a peaceful resolution.
In 1978 he was transferred from Walla Walla to the Monroe Correctional Complex, where administrators sought his leadership to help open dialogue between the prison population and DOC officials. Here too he shined. A visiting psychologist once saw an inmate hit Wheat over a perceived slight. Wheat didn’t strike back; he calmly said, Grow up. “The period of 20 years without any violent behavior in his environment is not only exceptional but almost abnormal,” that same psychologist wrote in an evaluation in 1986. “Let me say,” the psychologist continued, “that he has been the most stable, consistent human being I’ve met in a prison setting.”
I first heard the name Antonio Wheat in 2013. The man who had been the subject of so much media coverage in the mid- to late 1960s and—due to his degrees, a marriage (ceremony performed in a prison chapel), a divorce, another marriage, plus founding a Toastmasters chapter at Monroe—the 1970s and 1990s had all but disappeared from public view. But in the fall of 2013, the criminal defense lawyer John Henry Browne (I once profiled Browne for Seattle Met and collaborated with him on a book) mentioned to me the most rehabilitated murderer he had ever encountered. (Browne had once defended Ted Bundy and Wah Mee massacre killer Benjamin Ng.)
Wheat and Browne had met while Browne was a young lawyer at the state attorney general’s office in the early 1970s working on prison reform. Back then Browne had seen Wheat at work, watched him de-escalate more than one potential brawl, and had come to respect him.
In 1981 the recently retired superintendent of Monroe, Donald Look, dying of pancreatic cancer, asked to see Browne. Look asked if Browne would be willing to work pro bono on winning either early parole or a commute of sentence for Tony Wheat. In 1986 Browne submitted a petition for a conditional pardon to then governor Booth Gardner. That petition included the signatures of 67 Department of Corrections staff, including guards, all in support of Wheat’s release. Petition denied. Another lawyer took up the cause 10 years later. Again Wheat was denied. The state was not ready to release a man who, impeccable prison behavior aside, had shown no regard for human life 30 years prior.
I wrote Wheat a letter, asking if he’d be willing to tell me his story. He put me on his visitors list, sent me letters, and on November 21, 2014, we met for the first time.
It was whiplash, reading accounts of his crimes in court records or newspaper archives, then sitting across the table from the warm, witty, and calm 70-year-old who seemed constitutionally incapable of hurting anyone. Over the course of four visits, as he described the murders to me, in vivid detail, I witnessed a man, 50 years later, still grappling with what he had done. But the thing I was least prepared for was what I learned about Ada, Daniel Wolf’s mother.
Daniel’s death changed the Wolfs, the musical family with the bike-riding Boeing employee father. The kids stuck with music, two pursuing careers in music education. The oldest daughter, Marilyn, followed her brother Daniel’s dreams and became a social worker. But Ada and George divorced in 1973. Over the years the family split in different directions, to Alabama, Iowa, and other parts of Washington.
In 1995 Ada was, at age 71, working at a retirement home in Coupeville, on Whidbey Island, and was active in her church, Oak Harbor’s New Covenant Fellowship. In the fall of that year, a county tax auditor visited the retirement home for an assessment. He and Ada struck up a conversation and he mentioned that he was active in Kairos, a Christian prison ministry active inside Monroe’s Washington State Reformatory Unit.
Ada said that she knew of someone there rumored to be an active Christian and a model prisoner. Did the tax auditor happen to know an inmate named Tony Wheat? Of course he knew Tony. Tony was a good man.
Letters went back and forth until Ada’s pastor sent the prison superintendent and Wheat’s most recent lawyer, Leta Schattauer, a letter stating that Ada would like to meet with Tony.
Such a meeting was against prison policy. And besides, Tony’s friends in administration warned him against it: The meeting could turn into a confrontation, as unpredictable emotions poured out. Tony was unfazed. “I owe her this,” he said. The request went up the chain of command and the meeting was allowed. They would convene in a room reserved for parole hearings. In attendance would be Ada, her pastor, the prison chaplain, Tony, and Tony’s lawyer.
At 12:30pm, Friday, December 15, 1995, a guard brought Tony into the parole room. “I’m so nervous,” Tony said. But after introductions, he took the lead, telling Ada he was sorry for what he had done to her son. Ada reminded him that she had been in the courtroom on the day he was sentenced and that he had promised everyone there that if his life was spared he would commit the rest of it to serving others.
“Have you done that?” she asked.
“I have.” He spoke of his work helping improve life in prison.
“Can I ask you another question?” Ada said. She wanted to know her son’s last words. She had known Dan prayed out loud just before he died and she wanted to know what he prayed for.
Tony went deep into his mind and retrieved the words that he’d buried in the Jungle decades ago. He took a deep breath and then recited: Lord I pray that I have been the person you wanted me to be. Let my family know I love them. I also ask Lord that you forgive these men for what they are doing.
Tony had to stop because he was crying. Ada was crying too. He looked down at the table and realized they were holding hands.
“Tony,” she said, “I want you to know that I forgive you.”
They wrote each other often after that. Ada joined the Kairos ministry, volunteering her time for services in the prison chapel. Two of her kids, Donald and Marilyn, exchanged letters with Tony too, finding some solace in learning of their brother’s final moments.
In 2008 Ada appeared on a CBS News program called Choosing to Forgive and talked about her meeting with her son’s killer. She now lives in Eastern Washington near her youngest daughter. But at 91 years old and in declining health, she was not able to sit for an interview. Instead I spoke with Donald and corresponded with Marilyn, who described her mother’s experience with Tony Wheat as “amazing.”
At least one surviving family member of the slain gas station attendants does not share Ada Wolf’s forgiveness toward Wheat.
David Fair, whose life was upended on his fifth birthday when his father, Owen, was killed, is now 55—the age his father was when he died. He’s the parks and recreation director of a town in Idaho.
I wanted to know everything I could about his father.
“That’s the hard part,” David told me on the phone. “I can tell you his background. But I really never got to know my dad.” He has faint memories. “Little flashes. I remember getting a dog. I remember a windstorm in Seattle. Him helping me as a little kid climb a tree.” He remembers that his dad tried and failed to start a restaurant. “And that’s actually what happened just before he started working for the gas station.”
He remembers the birthday party after the family was told of Owen’s death. He remembers watching TV with his mother in the 1970s when Antonio Wheat appeared on screen. “He was talking about prisoner rights. My mom went pale white, and I asked her what was going on, and she goes, ‘That’s one of the men who killed your father.’ ”
He has a family of his own now and a good career, but no connection whatsoever to his father’s extended family, something that not even an improbable family reunion is likely to remedy. All they have in common, David says, is the death of his father half a century ago.
“Families are built through connections and shared memories.”
Today Tony Wheat is the longest consecutively incarcerated inmate in Washington state. Arthur Aiken, who was apprehended the day after Wheat’s arrest and is serving out his sentence at the Stafford Creek Correctional Center in Aberdeen, is the second.
Sometimes Wheat feels like a statue, the prison around him changing with time, new faces coming and going—there have been 11 superintendents at Monroe since he arrived—while he alone remains. The outside world has sped past him too. In Seattle, the Kingdome was built and demolished since he’s been behind bars. Skyscrapers went up. The tech bubble came, went, and returned again. The Cold War that had him at an air force base in the first place has ended, replaced by another kind of fight.
And family, that thing that David Fair says is built through memories, is gone too. Wheat’s mother died a decade ago and his siblings—including Curtis, who once followed him across the road before being hit by a streetcar—don’t return his letters. He has two sons, conceived before he left Chicago, he will never know. Recently he told his stepdaughter, who’s called him dad since she was a kid, to not visit him in the prison anymore as it might negatively impact her career; she wants to be a school principal.
Wheat is scheduled to leave Monroe and take his first breath of freedom in half a century on November 12, 2020. The kid who thought he was a sprinter was a long-distance runner after all.
John Henry Browne, the attorney, is working on one last petition to expedite the release with early parole. Once again Browne has called for signatures from DOC staff as well as letters from members of the Kairos ministry and the dozens of others whose lives have been touched by Browne’s client, and who are all convinced that Tony Wheat will never offend again.
Robert Moore, who was the superintendent at Monroe in the early 2000s, told me he considers Tony a friend. Moore now teaches criminology at Central Washington University and brings his students to Monroe to hear from Wheat, who Moore says is the most reformed prisoner he’s ever known. The question isn’t whether he will offend once he’s released, insists Moore, it’s about society getting retribution. “Have we ever got our pound of flesh is the great question with Tony.”
At least one among us has already shown him mercy.
In an account he sent me of his meeting with Ada Wolf, Wheat wrote of how blessed he feels to know Ada, how there is no way he can express what she means to him, how she changed his life. “I do remember wondering how she could forgive me for what I did [when] I have not forgiven myself yet,” he concluded. “That is hard for us humans to do at times.”
This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.