By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
Martin Pang struck a match and set it to a bottom corner of the old, dried plywood wall. He watched it burn until the fire was just two feet high, not lingering to see his parents’ warehouse become an inferno, nor to see it collapse, trapping four firefighters to their deaths. Pang had a plane to catch at SeaTac, back to California where he was living. It was Jan. 5, 1995.
23 years later, Pang was scheduled to be released from the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla on Sept. 27, 2018.
After becoming a suspect, Pang fled to Brazil, where he knew he couldn’t be extradited for the murder charges sought by the King County Prosecutor’s Office.
In March 1995, Pang admitted to the arson in a reported confession printed in the Spokesman-Review.
In an interview last week, Special Agent Gary Schoenlein of the Seattle FBI office recalled suspecting the copy of Pang’s confession that appeared in the media was obtained from the Brazilian government. The document would’ve been part of the extradition material the U.S.
Department of Justice submitted to Brazil.
Schoenlein reflected, “It was such an important case…these were our firefighters.”
Pang’s international fugitive status necessitated the FBI’s involvement.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Denny Behrend was with Schoenlein on the multi-agency task force that also included the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and the Seattle Fire Department (SFD).
Behrend didn’t trust the Brazilian police, having worked with them previously, believing them to be corrupt and incompetent.
Knowing Brazil would not extradite Pang on murder charges, the Task Force planned to lure Pang out of Brazil to Montevideo, Uruguay.
They worked with the FBI’s office in Montevideo, which covered Brazil at that time.
Schoenlein couldn’t divulge any operational methods, merely stating, “We knew where he was.”
In March 1995, Schoenlein and his FBI partner traveled to Brazil, but the lure of Pang to Montevideo didn’t happen. Behrend said Pang’s case had become international news, causing Rio’s acting police chief “to go on a rampage to try to find Martin” for political gains. The investigators were afraid the increased police activities would alarm Pang, prompting him to disappear. They decided it was best to have Pang in custody. Revealing Pang’s whereabouts to the Brazilian authorities, they asked them to arrest Pang on Mar. 15, 1995. Pang was arrested on the streets of Rio that night.
After the arrest, Schoenlein rode with Pang to the police station. Pang was talkative.
“He was scared,” Schoenlein surmised. Pang saw Schoenlein, a fellow English-speaking American in a foreign land, as a lifeline.
“I treated him respectfully and could tell him what was going on.” Schoenlein immediately advised Pang of his Miranda rights in the police car.
Back at the station, the agents knew it might be their only chance to interview Pang. Pang denied everything.
Schoenlein recalled that after two hours of talk, “He gave me a stare for several seconds and said ‘I did it.’”
Pang confessed to setting the fire to relieve his parents “the burden of running it.”
After the interview, Pang asked the agents to visit him in jail. “We didn’t,” Schoenlein said. “We didn’t want to give him a chance to go back on his words.”
Negotiations to extradite Pang took a year. Pang and his attorney fought returning to the United States to face murder charges. King County Deputy Prosecutor Marilyn Brenneman travelled to Washington, D.C. and met with Attorney General Janet Reno to facilitate Pang’s return.
On Feb. 29, 1996, after waiting a month in Rio to execute the extradition, Behrend escorted Pang, in belly chain, leg irons, and handcuffs, onto the last United Airlines flight back to Seattle that night. With the two were SPD’s Homicide Detective Steve O’Leary and SFD’s fire investigator Mike Shannon.
As the plane taxied along the runway, the pilot announced that a mechanical problem with the transponder needed repair and they’d be delayed.
O’Leary recalled the pilot turning the plane around and heading back to the gate.
The plane’s return to the terminal equated to re-entry into Brazil. Delay was inconvenient, but cancellation could be a huge problem. “If he gets his feet back on Brazilian soil, we don’t have any more authority,” Behrend said, “He could just walk.”
“10:30 comes and goes, and we’re still sitting on the runway,” Behrend recalled.
“Behrend freaked out,” O’Leary chuckled. He said the veteran marshal “turned around in his seat and rolled his eyes at me with a look of horror.”
O’Leary understood later that “Martin could’ve stood up and said, ‘Take them off. I’m outta here.’” Pang didn’t stand up and demand to be set free. The flight wasn’t canceled. It left a few hours later.
In Miami, the four were joined by the two FBI agents who tracked down Pang. The entourage was greeted at SeaTac with “50 motorcycle escorts, a line of patrol cars, and fire trucks with their ladders crossed.” I-5 was closed from SeaTac to the King County.
“It was impressive,” Schoenlein mused.
Pang pled guilty to four counts of manslaughter in February 1998 and was sentenced to 35 years. Credited for time served and “good behavior,” he was scheduled to be freed on Sept. 27.
Brenneman, now in private practice, commented that Pang “benefitted on the eventual plea agreement of manslaughter.” “Had he pushed to only be tried on arson, was convicted, sentenced, and released, the murder charges could’ve been refiled. He would’ve faced those as well,” she said, adding that the plea agreement reached guaranteed the state that Pang “would be held accountable for the tragic deaths, resulting from his felony.”
Brenneman trusts the state will pursue “Pang’s substantial restitution obligation,” part of his sentence. Pang owes the state almost $3 million.
Though Pang is now freed from custody, he’s likely to be a captive of debt, both financial and otherwise, for years to come.
Becky can be reached at email@example.com.