In late January of 1983, Seattle homicide detectives contacted me and asked if I knew the whereabouts of a young Chinese individual named Benjamin Ng.
A week earlier, two women had been murdered in their home on Beacon Hill. Someone had tied them up and wrapped duct tape around their heads, covering their mouths and noses.
Both women had been shot once in the head. The house was ransacked but, according to news reports at the time, nothing stolen, leading members of the Chinese community to speculate that they were murdered because they had been able to identify their assailants. They believed that two men, Benjamin Ng and Kwan Fai “Willie” Mak had killed those two women.
The day after homicide asked me to find Benjamin, I spotted him driving around Chinatown westbound on King Street in front of Tai Tung Restaurant. I stepped out from the sidewalk and stood in the middle of South King Street, blocking the path of Benjamin’s vehicle and displayed my detective’s badge.
He stopped his vehicle. I yelled out, “Police officer, keep your hands on the steering wheel.” Detectives took him in for questioning but later released him due to lack of physical evidence.
A few days after that, Benjamin saw me in Chinatown and invited me to have dinner with him. As we sat at a table at the Atlas Café, he ordered clams with black bean sauce and a few other side dishes.
We made idle talk for a while, then the topic changed. Benjamin attempted to convince me that he hadn’t killed the two old ladies on Beacon Hill and didn’t know anything about the murders. Homicide had clued me in that Benjamin’s vehicle, a GTO, had been purchased recently, so I asked him where he’d gotten the money. He gave me some bullshit story about gambling winnings, which I didn’t buy.
A week or so later, I was having dinner by myself in a quiet, out-of-the-way restaurant in Chinatown, where I could enjoy my meal without being bothered by anyone.
I sat back in the booth and sampled the hot pepper oil and yellow Chinese mustard. I always did that: a sip of cold beer, a scoop or two of the very hot pepper oil mixed with the Chinese mustard, then another sip of cold beer. That was my ritual as I waited for my food to arrive.
Soon, the waiter brought over the rock cod I had ordered. Looked damn good. He returned to the kitchen and brought out the rest of my order: steamed lop chong, baby bok choi and, of course, steamed rice. You just can’t enjoy a Chinese meal without a bowl of steamed rice.
First, I ate the eyes of the rock cod; very good for your health, so they say. Next, I ate the cheeks of the fish. They’re located just in front of the gills – it’s the most tender part of the fish. After that, I ate the rest. I took my time and enjoyed it. Meal finished, I ordered a shot of warm brandy in a snifter and sat back.
I was still enjoying my brandy when an elderly Chinese gentleman entered the restaurant. He walked toward me and stopped at my table.
“Sifu,” he said, making a slight bow of respect toward me and then started in.
“Very sorry. I don’t wish to interrupt your dinner, but there is something important that I must speak to you about.”
I half stood and welcomed him to sit. He declined and remained standing.
“You know Ben Ng?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I know him.”
“We are ready to offer to you $25,000 if you can take care of Ben Ng for us.”
I stayed calm, but my thoughts were racing. I thought, I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Here I am sitting in a restaurant where I’ve just enjoyed a great meal. I now have a Chinese elder standing at my table, offering me $25,000 cash to “take care of Ben Ng.” Me, a white guy (but with a Chinese stepfather), being offered such a task. What an honor, really. I was blown away.
I looked at the elder and replied, “Thank you, but I must think about your request. I’ll think about it and let you know soon.”
That said, the elder bowed slightly, turned around and exited the restaurant. A hit on Ben Ng. Me, kill Ben Ng. Sure, I could do it – no problem. I knew Ben Ng, and he knew me. All I’d have to do would be to go up to him next time I spotted him in Chinatown.
Ben was in Chinatown every day. I’d just walk up to him as he was parking or getting into his vehicle. I’d ask him to show me what type of handgun he was carrying. (Benjamin always carried a handgun on his person.) He’d reluctantly take out his gun to show me. I’d immediately take out my own gun while yelling out, “Ben – drop your gun! Drop your gun!” I’d simply shoot him twice in the chest. I’d kill the little fucker right there on the spot, and I’d get away with it.
I had always felt more comfortable with the Chinese community than the white community. Yes, I was white, but I have, for as long as I can remember, always seen myself as Chinese. But I was still a cop, and if something went wrong with me killing Benjamin, my life would be over. If found guilty, I would be sent to a federal penitentiary to serve a life sentence. Cops don’t fare well locked up and serving time among criminals. Criminals, perhaps, that I had arrested in the past.
I was emotionally torn as I wanted more than anything else to help out the frightened Chinese community. For reasons unknown to me at the time, they were frightened of Benjamin Ng. I would later learn that Benjamin and some of his partners had been going around to numerous Chinatown gambling establishments demanding protection money.
One night soon after, around 2 a.m., I received a call from one of the detectives working homicide, asking if I knew Benjamin’s whereabouts.
I responded that he was likely staying with his girlfriend. I asked the detective what was going on and was informed that Benjamin and two other individuals had just killed 13 people at Wah Mee, a social club that catered to affluent restaurant owners and business people in Chinatown. The club hosted high stakes gambling, with winners taking home thousands in a single night.
At first I thought the detective was kidding. I asked, “What’d he do, use a machine gun or something?”
The detective answered, “No, Bernie. Ng and his two pals hogtied everyone, robbed them, then went around and shot each individual in the head so there’d be no witnesses.”
I asked if I could come down and view the scene of the killings, and the detective said I could.
I quickly drove downtown. Everywhere, there were police cars with lights flashing at all the major intersections leading into Chinatown. I parked several blocks away and walked over to the crime scene. The officers securing the perimeter recognized me and allowed me to enter the cordon. I headed toward Maynard Alley just off King Street and walked into the Wah Mee via the large double-door entrance.
I had expected the bodies to have been removed by the coroner, but that was not the case.
Walking into the main area of the club and to the right, I saw numerous men and one female, hogtied and killed by gunshot wounds to the back of their heads. In all, 12 bodies, not including the thirteenth victim who was declared dead at Harborview shortly after the police arrived, just after 12:30 a.m.
A fourteenth individual, a male, had been shot in the neck but had somehow survived and been able to free himself. This lone surviving witness was being treated at Harborview hospital and was under heavy police guard.
Slowly, cautiously, I walked around the 12 bodies, trying to identify anyone that I might have known. There, lying before me on the ground, with blood oozing from head wounds, with vomit spilling from their mouths, trousers defecated in, I recognized people I knew.
I was soon sick to my stomach and on the verge of throwing up. I needed to get out of there. Had I only shot Benjamin Ng as I’d been asked, I could have prevented those deaths. Confused, with tears streaming down my face, I walked slowly out of the Wah Mee and away from Chinatown.
Bernie Lau was medically discharged in 1983. This is an excerpt from his self-published book, “Dance with the Devil: Memoirs of an Undercover Narcotics Detective.” Lau is currently at work on his next book.
Correction 2/27/15, 4:25 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misidentified the relationship between Lai Kuen Lau, King Chun Chin and Benjamin Ng, as well as the timeframe their murders took place. We have also clarified the details surrounding the victims found at the scene of the Wah Mee club in the early morning of February 19, 1983.
The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at KUOW.org. These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines. To submit a story - or note one you've seen that deserves more notice – contact Isolde Raftery at email@example.com or 206-616-2035.