Curiosity keeps Private Eye Tours in business
For more than a decade, a local woman has been giving residents and visitors a glimpse into some of Seattle’s most famous and infamous murders, mysteries and hauntings. Human curiosity and interest in the macabre have kept Private Eye Tours in business.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The stately home overlooking the city from Queen Anne’s Bigelow Avenue North? That’s where Geneva MacDonald, a legal secretary with a “passion for gardening,” was killed with an axe in 1990.
Then there’s the nondescript grassy patch off 23rd Avenue in the Central District. That’s where up-and-coming rock star Mia Zapata was found slain on July 7, 1993.
And the brick building in the Chinatown International District with the chained and padlocked doors unopened for 30 years? That’s the former gambling club where 13 people were killed in what remains the nation’s worst robbery-massacre, says “Jake” Jacobson, the owner and operator of Private Eye Tours.
For the past 13 years, Jacobson has been running tours of the darker side of Seattle, the one rarely seen during excursions to the Pike Place Market, the Space Needle or the waterfront. It’s an unusual view of city history — and mystery — with stops at sites of some of Seattle’s most infamous murders and purported hauntings.
Jacobson concedes it’s not for the squeamish, and some have questioned creating tourist attractions of tragic scenes. One victims’ advocate believes Jacobson is capitalizing on the misery of others.
But there’s no denying that innate human curiosity, not to mention interest in the macabre, has kept Private Eye Tours in business.
“I think the human is a curious creature,” agrees author Ann Rule, who has made a living documenting Northwest crime. “It’s not the best of our motivations, but it’s instinctual. We want to know what happened and we want to see it. It’s sort of like when you are driving down the highway and there’s an accident, everyone slows down to look.”
And look they do.
“Facts are interesting even when they’re not pleasant,” said Jesse Gilliam, of Seattle, who has been on several of Jacobson’s tours.
Jacobson has two tours that cover what she calls Seattle’s haunted sites, which include a home in Georgetown believed to be inhabited by the spirit of a woman named Sarah; a Georgetown park built over what was once the cemetery for the city’s poor farm and hospital; and the former University District boardinghouse of serial killer Ted Bundy.
In addition, she offers two murder and mystery tours.
One includes stops at the home where Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994; the home of the Goldmark family, whose four members were murdered on Christmas Eve in 1985; and a section along the Lake Union waterfront where a womanizing antiques dealer, Raoul Guy Rockwell, is said to have killed his wife and stepdaughter in the early 1960s.
The fourth of Jacobson’s three-hour tours covers Queen Anne, Pioneer Square and the Chinatown International District, the site of the infamous Wah Mee Massacre.
Jacobson says she has been accosted more than once by people with ties to the crimes, including neighbors, or the people who have purchased houses where crimes have occurred.
“I try to be sensitive, and I don’t usually park right in front of the houses if people are living there,” she said.
Marge Martin, executive director of Victim Support Services — a nonprofit that works with agencies such as the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to assist crime survivors — says tours such as Jacobson’s are disturbing.
“The loved ones of homicide victims don’t ever get over their victimization,” Martin said. “When these kinds of things happen, it is much more than an invasion of privacy, it can take you right back to the moment. Whether it’s a respectful amount of time or not, it does not make it any less painful.”
“I personally believe there are much more interesting things in Seattle than that,” she added.
Scott Michaels, the owner of Southern California’s Dearly Departed Tours, which offers tours to the death sites of Hollywood celebrities, said he’s heard the criticism before. But he says looking at death is not disrespectful.
“A lot of older people and people from other cultures have a different feeling about it,” he said. “My response to people who don’t get it is, I don’t get stamp collecting but I don’t judge people who do it.”
Private Eye Tours was originally started in 1997 by Windsor Olson, a former private investigator, to offset his retirement boredom.
Jacobson, a friend of Olson’s with a lifelong interest in crime and the paranormal, began working for him in 2001 and eventually took over the business.
Curiosity is what led Susan Rosario to seats on Private Eye Tours recently with her husband, two adult sons and daughter-in-law. They each paid $28.
Jacobson picked them up in her 15-passenger Ford van at a parking lot in South Lake Union and headed off on a three-hour tour. In addition to driving, Jacobson offers narration throughout the tour, which includes drive-bys and stops at various sites.
At dusk, Jacobson chauffeured them past the Chelsea Apartments on Queen Anne, where the spirit of a man who was murdered by his wife in a Murphy bed is said to haunt Room 304.
As she drives toward downtown she explains how legend has it the term “graveyard shift” may have originated in Seattle a century ago.
When the city began regrading Denny Hill in the early 1900s, the work unearthed the bodies of hundreds of Native Americans and early pioneers who had been buried there.
“Well, you can imagine that,” Jacobson explained. “And the residents were so disturbed they asked the city to do the work at night so they wouldn’t have to see what was happening.”
She spins by the former Bigelow Avenue home of “poor Geneva MacDonald,” whose murder set off a massive, six-month manhunt and terrorized the city. It ended with the arrest of James Cushing, then 36, who was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Jacobsen next heads to the Space Needle, where a Mrs. Lee owned a popular restaurant near its base.
Mrs. Lee disappeared one night, along with that night’s receipts and a closely guarded special-sauce recipe. She was later found slain. The money and recipe were gone, and the case was never solved.
Pulling into the Chinatown International District, Jacobson parks her white van next to a squat brick building with a wooden lattice and padlocked steel doors. She lets her passengers out.
They gather around as she tells them what happened the night of Feb. 18, 1983, at the Wah Mee Club.
The Wah Mee was an exclusive and elegant, though illegal, gambling den that was protected by a password, an attendant, security guards and two sets of steel doors, she says. But Willie Mak, who went to the club with two accomplices, was known to the attendant and was buzzed in, she said.
“That was his final mistake,” Jacobson says, referring to the doorman.
Mak, Benjamin Ng and Tony Ng (no relation) forced the 14 people inside the club to the floor, hogtied them and then shot them at close range. One man survived and was able to identify the attackers, Jacobson recounted.
Mak and Benjamin Ng were convicted of 13 counts of aggravated murder and will spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Tony Ng, convicted of aggravated robbery and assault, is seeking release from prison after 30 years.
For a look inside the Wah Mee, Jacobson invited her passengers to peer through a brick-sized glass peephole. In the darkness, an eerie, dusty tableau of overturned tea cups and other evidence of chaos appeared untouched by time.
“Once the bodies were gone and the police were done, the doors were closed and padlocked, and they have never been opened again,” Jacobson says.
Christine Clarridge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8983.