Arsonist Martin Pang allegedly plotted to steal firefighter IDs
Seattle police said the man behind the 1995 warehouse blaze that killed four firefighters planned to use personal information of witnesses in his case to create false identities and build a fat nest egg for post-prison life.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Martin Pang, the arsonist who set a 1995 warehouse fire that killed four Seattle firefighters, was positioning himself for an after-prison “life of luxury” through two schemes hatched behind bars, according to Seattle police — one to steal the identities of witnesses against him and a second to siphon millions of dollars from the Tulalip Resort Casino.
Police said Tuesday that Pang, 57, engineered an elaborate identity-fraud scheme with an alleged accomplice on the outside that focused on stealing the identities of firefighters, police officers and witnesses who played a role in his criminal case.
The two are also accused of plotting to set up phony vendor accounts to steal from the Marysville casino, where Pang’s alleged accomplice, Charles McClain, once worked.
“Pang believed he’d net around $20 million,” Interim Seattle Police Chief Jim Pugel said at a news conference.
Pugel said Pang planned to use the money upon his release from prison to flee to Brazil — where he had fled after the warehouse fire — and live a luxurious life.
“He’s very arrogant, self-centered and narcissistic,” Pugel said.
Investigators say Pang, who pleaded guilty to four counts of manslaughter in the warehouse fire and is serving a sentence of up to 35 years at the Monroe Correctional Complex, planned to use personal information from court documents in his case to create false identities and build a stash of cash in an offshore account.
“Pang saw this as an opportunity to make a ton of money, so he had a nest egg when he got out of prison,” said Seattle police Major Crimes Task Force Detective Todd Jakobsen.
Pang, who has been in solitary confinement since the investigation was launched in March, was scheduled for release in 2018 but now could face an additional three to five years in prison, Pugel said.
Pang allegedly targeted at least 20 individuals involved in his case — and had already taken a “substantial step” toward stealing the identities of three people, said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, Seattle police spokesman.
Seattle Fire Chief Gregory Dean said the recent allegations against Pang have “brought back painful memories” for the victims’ families and the city’s firefighters.
They “deserve to heal from this tragedy,” said Dean, who has a photo of the four fallen firefighters on his office wall.
According to Pugel, Pang had birth dates and Social Security numbers of fire and police personnel from training records that were included in discovery materials turned over by prosecutors as part of the manslaughter case. State law has since changed, allowing agencies to redact Social Security numbers from such records, he said.
Although police did not say what Pang was going to do with that information, identity theft often includes opening fraudulent bank and credit-card accounts.
Seattle police said McClain has been arrested, but jail records do not list him as an inmate in either the Snohomish or King County jails.
Pugel said he didn’t know how Pang and McClain met, nor did he know what position McClain held at the Tulalip Resort Casino.
Police have forwarded the case to the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for charges because Pang is serving his sentence in Monroe, but there was no word Tuesday on the timing of charges.
The investigation began in March when officials with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) contacted a Seattle detective after learning Pang was hatching an identity-theft scam, police said. No details were provided on how they learned of the alleged plot.
Detectives with SPD’s Major Crimes Task Force worked with the FBI and the Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force to investigate, police said.
Though DOC granted police access to Pang’s prison cell, police still got a search warrant because “this was so egregious and we wanted to make it airtight,” Pugel said of the fraud investigation.
Police also have audio and video recordings of Pang, who may have talked about his plan with other prisoners.
Pang gave McClain information including Social Security numbers and the identifications of intended targets, and McClain passed that information along to an undercover detective who the two thought was going to help them facilitate the fraud, Pugel said.
During the investigation, Pang provided a police source with the names and Social Security numbers of key witnesses in his 1995 case. “He wanted to make a bunch of money and already had their information from court documents,” Jakobsen said. “This was a crime of opportunity.”
Seattle police said a search of Pang’s prison cell yielded a list of the names and Social Security numbers of 20 witnesses in his 1995 arson case, and they found evidence he had recently accessed records containing the personal information of firefighters involved in his case through his attorney.
Authorities broke up the alleged fraud scheme before Pang was able to steal any of his victims’ identities, or any money from the Tulalip Resort Casino. No casino customers were targeted in the scheme, which involved creating fake vendors to collect payments from the casino, according to Seattle police.
“Clearly this was more retaliation against the witnesses” who were scheduled to testify against him before he entered guilty pleas in the firefighters’ deaths, Pugel said. “They had everything in place except someone who could facilitate it for him. That’s where we introduced the undercover detective.”
Pugel did not reveal how the detective was able to insert himself in the alleged plan.
Arson’s deadly toll
On Jan. 5,1995, Pang torched a Chinatown International District building owned by his wealthy parents, killing Lt. Walter Kilgore, Lt. Gregory Shoemaker and firefighters Randall Terlicker and James Brown in what remains the Seattle Fire Department’s deadliest fire.
The blaze was set, according to prosecutors, so Pang could collect insurance money on the warehouse.
He was adopted as an infant from Hong Kong by his parents, a Mercer Island couple who indulged Pang with an almost unlimited allowance, his friends told The Seattle Times.
Friends and associates of Pang described him in 1995 interviews as a handsome, charming, intelligent and cunning man with a propensity for fast cars and violence. His four marriages all ended in divorce and violence.
According to court records, he broke the back of one ex-wife with a kung fu kick, shattered the jaw of another and severely beat the face of a fiancée.
Pang flew from Los Angeles to Seattle, set the fire on Jan. 5, 1995, then returned to L.A. before fleeing to Mexico City, then to Rio de Janeiro. He was arrested in Brazil that March and spent a month fighting extradition.
He was narcissistic and greedy then and apparently not much has changed, said Denny Behrend, a former deputy U.S. marshal who was on a team of investigators who went to Brazil to escort Pang back to Seattle.
“It was a horrific fire. It was a major event in the city” motivated by greed, Behrend said.
At the time of his arrest, witnesses involved in the case “expressed fear of the defendant because of his history of violent and vindictive behavior,” according to court records filed in July 1996. In order to protect witnesses, “discovery material was not provided” to Pang until after he was booked into the King County Jail, the records say.
Pang appealed his sentence unsuccessfully in 2005, relying on a separate U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the aggravating factors justifying exceptionally long prison sentences needed to be heard by jurors.
Last year, Pang’s attorney filed a motion seeking access to the prosecutor’s complete files in his client’s case, saying prosecutors had withheld evidence from witnesses claiming that Pang was in California when the fatal fire began. Earlier this year, a judge denied Pang access to the prosecutor’s files.
Pang has also claimed through another attorney that he was coerced into his confession.
In November, Pang filed a motion to terminate his financial obligations for restitution and costs tied with his extradition, court records show. In April, King County Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus denied the motion, noting Pang’s obligation to pay restitution and other fees can be enforced for up to 10 years after his release.
As of November 2007, Pang owed more than $2 million, Andrus’ order says.
Information from Times archives is included in this report.
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