Wai-Chiu “Tony” Ng is known for his delicately folded origami sculptures, sold to help fund a youth program in Seattle’s Chinatown International District — the same neighborhood where 30 years ago he was involved in the most heinous mass murder in the city’s history.
Ng, 56, has spent the past 28 of those years in prison for participating in the massacre at the Wah Mee Social Club. On Thursday, he was paroled.
However, he will not be a free man. Ng, who came to the United States in 1970, will be released from state prison directly into the custody of federal immigration officials, who will seek to deport him to Hong Kong, where he has family.
In deciding to release him from state prison, the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (ISRB) wrote that Ng has been a “model inmate” and an “exemplary employee” at Correctional Industries, where he teaches drafting to other inmates. Psychologists have said he is “a low risk to reoffend” or for future violence.
King County prosecutors and victims’ families have fought Ng’s release. In a statement released Friday, Prosecutor Dan Satterberg cited the Wah Mee Massacre as the worst mass killing in Seattle history, and “it seems incomprehensible that one of the participants will soon be free.”
Ng and two other men, Kwai Fan “Willie” Mak and Benjamin Ng (no relation), entered the basement of the illegal gambling club in the early morning hours of Feb. 19, 1983, and hogtied, robbed and shot 14 patrons, killing all but one.
Tony Ng fled to Canada, and Mak and Benjamin Ng were convicted of the killings that same year. Benjamin Ng was sentenced to life without parole and Mak was sentenced to death. Mak’s sentence has since been overturned and he is serving life without parole.
Tony Ng was arrested in Canada and eventually extradited to stand trial, where he claimed Mak had threatened to harm him and his family unless he participated in the robbery. Tony Ng has maintained that, while he had a gun, he never shot anyone.
He was convicted of 13 counts of first-degree robbery while armed with a deadly weapon and one count of second-degree assault with a deadly weapon.
At a parole hearing in August, Ng said he had helped tie up five of the victims, but was outside when Mak and Benjamin Ng methodically shot the bound victims as they lay on the club’s floor. One 61-year-old victim survived critical injuries to identify them.
Tony Ng “has consistently denied any participation in the shootings or deaths of the victims, and there was no evidence to suggest he did,” according to the board’s decision.
This was Tony Ng’s sixth visit before the board, but the first time he was actually eligible for release, according to the board’s decision.
“It was a really tough decision. It took us quite a while; his hearing was in August. We pondered it and mulled it over,” said Lynne DeLano, who chairs the sentencing review board.
“He has consistently denied he was involved in the shooting. He seemed to express empathy for the victims,” DeLano said. “It seemed real, his remorse.”
According to Indeterminate Sentence Review Board staff, there were people who contacted them to oppose Ng’s release. Board officials declined to release names other than to say they were “survivors.”
Doris Wong Estridge, whose father’s third cousin, Wing Wong, was killed in the massacre, has long lobbied for Ng to stay in prison for the rest of his life.
When reached on Friday, Estridge said “wow” and was relieved when she learned that Ng faces deportation to China.
DeLano said she and another member of the review board traveled to Stafford Creek Corrections Center, in Aberdeen, to meet Ng in August.
In a 2009 interview with Northwest Asian Weekly, Ng said he was sorry for what he had done. “I always ask myself why. Why wasn’t I strong enough to say no?” he was quoted as saying. “Why did I have to create such a bad name for my family? They are good people.”
Telephone messages left with family members of some Wah Mee victims were not immediately returned.
Satterberg said Ng has “caught some breaks in his favor that he did not deserve” — particularly when it came to how his sentence was determined under the law at the time and through a series of adjustments to his sentence over the years by the ISRB.
Satterberg had urged the review board to consider that had Tony Ng been sentenced under modern determinate-sentencing laws, he would have faced 70 years in prison on the firearm enhancements alone. In the end, however, the jury’s decision not to convict him of the killings “set in motion the possibility of his eventual release,” Satterberg said.
ISRB officials say Ng has served his time and earned his parole. Through 28 years in prison, the board notes, he has had only one major infraction — for possession of a weapon in 1995. Ng has been employed almost his entire incarceration, and has spent the past several years as a teacher’s aide at Correctional Industries teaching drafting to other inmates, the board’s decision notes.
His “elaborate origami sculptures” are sold through a church to benefit an unnamed youth program in the International District, according to the documents.
Despite his parole. Ng will not go free. An official at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Ng will be transferred from state prison to the federal detention center in Tacoma pending removal proceedings.
Seattle Times researchers Miyoko Wolf and Gene Balk contributed to this report.