By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
Martin Pang may walk as a free man Sept. 27 after serving 20 years in prison. He is finishing a sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for burning down his parents’ warehouse in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District in 1995, allegedly to collect insurance money. Four firefighters died battling the fire. Pang fled to Brazil after the fire and was captured there.
It took the United States a year of negotiation with Brazil to extradite Pang. In Brazil’s supreme court, the arson deaths didn’t warrant murder charges, which King County Prosecutor Norman Maleng sought for the death of the firefighters. The two countries settled on four counts of manslaughter to finalize the extradition.
In March 1996, Deputy U.S. Marshal Denny Behrend, accompanied by Seattle Police Homicide Detective Steve O’Leary and Seattle Fire Department Arson Investigator Mike Shannon, escorted Pang onto a United Airlines flight at Rio de Janeiro airport. Thus began Pang’s journey to Seattle to face judgement.
The Pang family, in 1995
Pang led a carefree life once. He drove a Porsche, married four times, fathered two daughters, and had an unlimited expense account from his parents, Mary and Harry. The elder Pangs never imagined their son would burn their frozen-food warehouse to the ground for profit. The business empire that the elderly Pangs grew, from decades of toil, melted away in hours on Jan. 5, 1995.
Mary and Harry were longtime contributing members of their community. Mary Mar Pang was born and raised in Seattle to Chinese immigrants, who came West to work on the railroads. She graduated from Franklin High School.
Harry Pang was a World War II army air corp veteran who flew on D-Day in 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 frozen food business started by Mary’s sister, former restaurateur and Councilwoman Ruby Chow. (The two sisters later had a falling out and Chow left the partnership.) Mary and Harry seized the opportunity and turned it into their brand, Mary Pang’s Food Products. They bought a warehouse at 811 Seventh Avenue South as their headquarters and moved into a lake-view home on Mercer Island with their son and daughter.
Not much is known about Pang’s sister, Marlyce, who left home after high school. Both went to Mercer Island High. Pang, never the academic type, later struggled as an actor and failed as a businessman. He remained financially dependent on his parents, and they obliged.
Beginning in the 1990s, growing competition ate into Mary Pang Food Products’ earnings. Pang wanted his parents to sell or redevelop the property. They refused.
Pang told close friends his intent to burn the warehouse to collect insurance money. Weeks before the fire, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) received a tip that Pang was ready to burn the warehouse. The fire department and ATF surveilled the place, but saw nothing
unusual. They ceased surveillance just before Christmas.
On Jan. 5, 1995, Pang set the fire to the Seventh Ave. warehouse. The blaze killed responding firefighters James Brown, Randall Terlicker, Lt Walter Kilgore, and Lt Gregory Shoemaker.
“It’s one of those things that you always remember exactly where you were at that time,” Behrend said. That night, heading home to Capitol Hill from the gym, he saw all the fire rigs going by. “Something’s up,” he thought. Once home, he heard the news on TV. He had no idea that a year later he’d be involved.
While the city mourned its loss, Pang returned to Southern California, where he was living. By the time investigators gathered enough evidence to arrest Pang, he’d disappeared. The FBI stepped in when it became known Pang had fled to Brazil, then an international fugitive.
In a recent interview, Special Agent (SA) Gary Schoenlein of the Seattle FBI, who was the case agent of the Pang investigation, reflected on the events that transpired. He said, “We were just working it as Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution.” Schoenlein noted the tragedy as a “community heartbreak” and “felt responsible to do everything we could to find Pang.”
The FBI worked with Brazilian authorities to locate and apprehend Pang. It didn’t take long. A few weeks later, they arrested Pang on the streets of Rio.
Back in Seattle, Pang pleaded guilty to four-counts of manslaughter in March 1998. King County Superior Court Judge Larry Jordan handed down the “exceptional sentence” of 35 years to begin “the healing process” for the victims’ families and the surviving firefighters.
Now retired, Judge Jordan hopes Pang “has learned a lesson” while incarcerated.
Did he think justice was served? “Some justice, not complete justice.”
When Pang leaves his cell block next week, will he be in complete freedom, knowing four firefighters sacrificed for his family? Only he knows.
Part 2 of this story — Martin Pang, a free man again — Part 2 of 2
Becky can be reached at email@example.com.