Martin Pang: Burning Man

A convicted arsonist's "new evidence" throws gas on a deadly fire.

By all accounts, including his own, Martin Pang set the tragic January 5, 1995 Chinatown blaze that killed four Seattle firefighters. "I struck a match and set it to a bottom corner of plywood wall" inside the basement of his parents' frozen-foods warehouse, he stated in a signed, four-page confession written by his own hand in a Rio de Janeiro jail three months after the fatal blaze. "I observed the wall burn until the flames burned up the wall approximately two feet in height," Pang added. "I then fled the building."

The warehouse's collapsing upper floor turned into a death trap for Seattle firefighters James Brown, 25, Randy Terlicker, 35, Greg Shoemaker, 43, and Lt. Walt Kilgore, 45, wreathing Seattle's 1995 New Year in a black cloud of smoke and sorrow. But today Pang, serving a 35-year prison term in the Twin Rivers Unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex, claims that confession was coerced and untrue. Though he wrote that his statement was given "freely and voluntarily," he now insists it wasn't.

In fact, claims Jeffrey Ellis, his Portland-based attorney, Pang was nowhere near Seattle the day of the fire. Ellis says he has "new evidence that undermines the case against Mr. Pang," showing he was in California at the time.

That "new evidence" has actually been around since the 1990s, and consists of documents compiled by police and prosecutors but not revealed until now. They were recently obtained by Seattle Weekly, and do indeed reflect investigators' beliefs that Pang was in Los Angeles when the blaze erupted that icy January night. The documents also reveal a background portrait of Pang not previously exposed: While he was known to be a wife-abuser, he had also plotted the murders of members of his family, hoping to collect insurance payoffs to finance his playboy lifestyle. That was also his motive for setting the warehouse on fire, according to the files.

Included among the documents are previously unreleased police reports and interviews, along with a memorandum sent from the King County Prosecutor's Office to a Special Inquiry Judge. The judge was reviewing evidence in a closed court and signing search warrants as the initial Pang investigation was unfurled in legal secrecy. Attorney Ellis thinks the evidence could lead to a new trial for the 57-year-old Pang, responsible for the biggest single loss of firefighters in Seattle history. In a 1998 deal with prosecutors, who were barred by a Brazilian extradition agreement from seeking the death penalty, Pang pled guilty to four counts of manslaughter to avoid a life sentence.

Since he never went to trial, many of the documents in the historic case were not publicly filed in court or released. They had been handed over to Pang's original attorney, John Henry Browne, in the late 1990s, but were privately filed away after the plea bargain, says Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff to county prosecutor Dan Satterberg. Hired by Pang two years ago to review his case for possible errors, Ellis filed a motion in King County Superior Court last month, bringing the old case back to life. He wants the prosecutor to turn over additional documents that could, he suspects, show his client didn't set the fire and is not guilty. Ellis calls his effort "a continued search for the truth."

But the new documents add to the search for the truth about the real Martin Pang as well. During the decade prior to the fateful night he became a lethal arsonist, Martin Pang had allegedly planned to kill his wife and parents.

"It didn't take much to set Martin off," ex-wife Rise Pang told federal agents the day after the fire. "You could disagree with him about the color of a suit and it would make him angry."

Her conversation is recalled in the just-released documents, in which she and other sources describe Pang as armed and dangerous. They remember him as a heavy drinker and manipulative schemer who, even while confessing to the fire, inserted a self-serving claim into his statement: He burned down the business "to relieve my parents of the burden of running it."

In reality, according to the sources and investigators, Pang prayed that Harry and Mary Pang, then in their 70s, would die so he could cash in on their estate, just as he hoped to earn a chunk of the reported $1 million fire-insurance policy by torching their warehouse.

Pang's California girlfriend, Pam Pendleton, told ATF investigators that Pang's parents made his house, child support, and car payments. Nonetheless, Pang told Pendleton, "He couldn't wait for his parents to die so he could take over the business because his parents didn't know what they were doing," she said. Pang also mentioned that he planned to hire someone to cause "an accident" at the business so he could collect the insurance money.

The portrait of Martin Pang in these documents broadens the image that emerged in news stories after the fire. Wiry, stylish, and devilishly handsome, the bar-hopping womanizer was reported to have a penchant for speedboats, Porsches, and exotic vacations, thanks to a generous allowance that Pang's parents extended to their adopted son. He had an abusive, quirky side as well.

As The Seattle Times reported in 1995, "Ex-girlfriends and ex-wives, of whom there are many, say Pang fancied himself as something of a secret agent, with night-vision goggles, wall-climbing suction cups, and a telephone scrambler to go with his skill at fast talking, fast driving, and martial arts." The story also noted that he "broke one ex-wife's back with a kung-fu kick [and] shattered the jaw of another."

And that wasn't half of it.

In Rise Pang's Jan. 6, 1995 interview with three ATF agents (she had also met with the ATF in December prior to the fire, to tip them off to the arson plan), Rise said her ex "used to beat me, threaten me with firearms." Rise—who married Martin in August 1985 and split from him 11 months later—also recalled him kicking her in the stomach while she was pregnant, endangering the life of her baby. According to an interview transcript, she was hospitalized and required 10 stitches to close a gash on her head after one of his beatings. She was the third of his four wives, she said, and he treated them all similarly.

He could flip out in a blink, Rise recalled, citing the time he'd put his arm around her and said he loved her—and then, minutes later, after disagreeing with her about some matter, menacingly told her, "I could kill you and nobody would ever find out about it."

That actually became his plan, Rise said, after they were divorced in 1986.

She told the ATF agents she'd been alerted by two of Pang's friends that he had approached each of them about murdering her. He wanted them to do the job, or at least help him pull it off. Apparently word leaked back to Pang that she knew of the threat, and he then stayed clear of her.

He also talked about killing his wealthy parents, Rise recalled in the interview. They had grown their little start-up frozen-food operation into a million-dollar business, doling out much of the profit to help nurture Martin, born Sun Hing Wah in Hong Kong in 1955 and adopted by the Pangs when he was 6 months old. "He talked about finding a way of having them die together because of some double-indemnity clause in their insurance," Rise said (now living in Canada, she could not be reached for comment for this story). "They were worth more if they died together . . . he discussed maybe having their car blow up."

Nothing came of the plan, she said, "but he did talk about it on several occasions." It concerned her enough that she later told Mary Pang about it. "All she said about it was 'I believe it,' and that . . . was the last we spoke about it."

Martin Pang also contacted his parents' attorney in an attempt to read their will and determine what his split might be should they die. Mary told Rise she later quietly showed Martin the will, fearful that he'd get angry if she refused.

Harry Pang's health began to fail following the arson, and he died at 83 in 2004. "He was heartbroken," his brother Ted Pang told a reporter then. Mary Pang, sister of the late restaurateur and King County Council member Ruby Chow, died at 87 in 2009. "I often wonder what might have happened if the fire hadn't happened," Kristin Pang, Rise and Martin's daughter, said then. "They loved that business, and I wonder how it would have gone, because she was such an amazing woman."

Martin Pang began to chat up the idea of burning down the warehouse in 1994, and it didn't stay quiet for long. The now-released records show he left a huge crumb trail for investigators, revealing his arson plan to at least four people he considered closed-mouthed friends or family. One was a state trooper, Cleave Odegard, who reported the scheme to superiors and then to Seattle authorities.

Rise Pang, who became a vice president and continued to work for the family after her divorce, told the ATF that Martin first revealed his plan in October 1994 while they talked at a Pang warehouse office. He "asked me if I had anything of value down there [in the basement] that I didn't want to lose, and I told him I didn't think so. And that if I did, I should make sure I get it out within the next couple or three weeks."

Agent: Why?

Rise Pang: Because he wanted to burn the building down.

Martin, who by then had moved to California, told her he would have someone else torch the business for him, entering through an easily accessible rear door and using Molotov cocktails as a starter. He picked that entry site because it was the one door that wasn't alarmed, Rise said. "If an alarm went off early, he was concerned the fire department would be able to extinguish the fire."

Rise Pang originally informed the ATF of Martin's plan in December. That tip, and at least one more, from an insurance agent who'd caught wind of the plan, were passed on to the SFD's Fire Investigation Unit (FIU). The unit undertook surveillance of the warehouse between December 16 and 18, the rumored dates Pang was supposed to act, yet didn't. After that, the basement-arson threat case remained open, but secret.

The fire had been burning in the basement for at least 20 minutes when the first SFD units rushed to the food warehouse at Seventh Avenue South and South Dearborn Street on January 5. It was just after 7 p.m. on that bone-chilling evening in Seattle's Chinatown/International District. Firefighters broke through the upper doors into an acrid, smoke-filled darkness, and began chasing the flames.

Eventually a total of five alarms were called, and more than 100 firefighters flooded the scene. Unlike pre-fire planning at SFD today, the Pang fire crews arrived without a building plan of the layout and without the knowledge the FIU could have provided to them—and thus didn't know there was a basement and that the fire could have been set there.

Crews battled the blaze for almost a half-hour, assuming the building was a street-level structure, when the floor gave way. Some firefighters, though injured, scrambled to safety. Four dropped into the 1,400-degree fire 20 feet below. It was three days before their bodies could be retrieved.

Rise told the ATF agents she got a call that night from Martin in California.

Rise Pang: I informed him of the firemen that were missing, and he seemed surprised.

Agent: What did he say?

Rise Pang: He just kind of went "What?"

Martin then recovered, and began telling Rise a new story. He had decided not to burn down the warehouse. He had nothing to do with the deadly fire. "He said that it was coincidental that the building was burning," she recalled.

After her January post-fire session with the ATF, Rise agreed to wear a wire to two meetings with her ex. He was still wary, as Rise recorded him saying a transient must have set the blaze. But be cautious what you say, he told his ex. "We have to keep our stories straight."

Odegard, the trooper, also wore a wire to post-fire meetings with Pang, who arrived at one of them wearing a wig, hat, and fake mustache. He told his longtime confidant Odegard that "nobody was supposed to get hurt, the building was supposed to just burn down." He was thinking of fleeing to another country, Pang added.

As the now-extended public record and his confession show, Pang, then 39, set the fire himself. He hopped a jet from Burbank that day, spread flammable fluids and ignited the basement fire, then flew back to L.A. With investigators immediately on his trail, he subsequently slipped off to Mexico, then Brazil, where he thought he had the best chance of fighting extradition.

Pang sent Seattle TV stations a video proclaiming his innocence, saying "I had nothing to do with it [the fire] except joking about it . . . I love my family. I love my children. I'm a good person." After a legal struggle, he signed the confession and agreed to return, eventually bargaining a guilty plea down to four counts of first-degree manslaughter.

At his sentencing, Karen Shoemaker, the widow of Lt. Gregory Shoemaker, told him, "Martin Pang, you ripped my heart out from me that awful night."

The city subsequently paid nearly $12 million in claims, fines, and court rulings for the department's firefighting failures. During one trial, a jury assigned 75 percent of the blame for the firefighters' death to the department and 25 percent to Pang.

Pang's attorney Ellis today contends that Pang deserves none of the blame. In court papers, he argues that "the truth does not have an expiration date," and is seeking more of the original documents in the hope of showing that Pang was not in Seattle when the fire was set.

Indeed, Goodhew, the prosecutor's deputy chief of staff, tells Seattle Weekly that investigators did think someone else may have started the fire. But they later discovered otherwise, through airline records. "Pang was living in L.A. at the time of the fire in January 1995," Goodhew says. "So the investigators' initial theory was he was in California, because his roommate told police that he saw Pang on the day of the fire in his L.A. apartment."

Investigators then realized Pang was seen early in the morning, but then not again until 10 p.m., when he started calling friends in Seattle. "So our initial theory started to change," says Goodhew. They soon discovered solid evidence that Pang flew up and lit the fire himself. "That is exactly what he later admitted to in his confession," adds Goodhew, "a confession that [trial attorney] John Henry Browne was never able to convince the court was coerced. I can't emphasize enough the fact that we provided copies of the Inquiry Judge's memos to Pang's defense team as part of discovery back in the 1990s. This release, along with the underlying witness statements that we also gave his defense team in the 1990s that explain why we initially thought he was in California at the time of the fire, really defeats the theory Ellis presents."

Yet, even if Pang's new legal challenge falls short, he has another early escape route from prison. Having bargained a life sentence down to 35 years, he now could be free after just 20. "As of today," says Nora West, a state Department of Corrections spokeswoman, "his release date is November 4, 2018"—made possible by Pang's accrual of time off for good behavior. Unlike his years in society, he's kept his record clean in prison, where there are no women or elderly parents to abuse.

"So far," says West, "he's infraction-free."

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