Thursday, February 9, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Charmer With A Dark Side -- Martin Pang, Sought In Connection With A Blaze That Killed Four Firefighters, Went Through Cars, Money And Women At Breakneck Speed, Making A Lot Of Friends. But He Could Turn Violent In A Flash, And Some Say He Used Fire As A Means Of Control And Revenge


His parents' money gave Martin Pang a license to drive in life's fast lane.

He had Porsche race cars, speedboats, rental airplanes, and took exotic vacations, all made possible by a nearly unlimited expense account.

Pang was reliant on - some say spoiled by - the largesse of the Mercer Island couple who adopted him in Hong Kong 39 years ago.

Ex-girlfriends and ex-wives, of whom there are many, say Pang fancied himself something of a secret agent, with night-vision gog- gles, wall-climbing-suction cups and a telephone scrambler to go with his skill at fast talking, fast driving and martial arts.

Tall, handsome and articulate, Pang made friends easily. He once paraded the streets of Seattle as an honorary Seafair Pirate.

Yet in a flash, Pang could turn brutal. He broke one ex-wife's back with a kung-fu kick, shattered the jaw of another, and severely beat the face of a fiancee.

And, some who know him say, fire was one of the main ways he sought control and revenge. Through the years, they say, he threatened people with burning down their homes or businesses. According to a woman who met Pang when he was 20 and later married him, several of his high-school buddies had a nickname for him: "Pyro Pang."

So the people who know Pang's dark side aren't at all surprised that he is a prime suspect in the arson that destroyed his parents' business last month. Four firefighters died in the conflagration, making it the worst tragedy in the history of the Seattle Fire Department.

An associate of Pang's has told The Seattle Times and criminal investigators that before the arson, Pang discussed plans for burning down the warehouse. Additionally, another source says a tip that Pang might burn the building led authorities to place the warehouse under surveillance before the fire.

Although police officially won't say Pang is a suspect, they do say he is a "person of interest." And they've been looking for him in Southern California for at least five days, sources say.

Although officials can't seem to find him, a friend in Los Angeles told The Times he saw Pang as recently as 8 p.m. Monday. And Pang's attorney, John Henry Browne of Seattle, says he has been in contact with Pang almost daily.

Browne says his client denies any involvement in the arson.

Many people who know Pang believe differently. His first wife, Jeanne Wyke, said she had an immediate reaction to news of the fire:

"The very first thing I said when I heard about it was: Martin did it."

Born in Hong Kong

Sun Hing Wah was born in Hong Kong in 1955, the youngest of five children. His family, which had fled from Beijing nearly penniless, decided they couldn't afford the baby and gave him up for adoption.

Harry and Mary Pang of Seattle adopted this infant boy at 6 months of age, and, at the same time, a girl about 2 years older and from different birth parents. They named the girl Marlyce. They named the boy Martin.

He was the favored child, almost from the time the two children got off the airplane in Seattle, friends of the family say.

Back in Hong Kong, Martin Pang's birth family got back on its feet, stayed together and had another son, to whom they gave the same name as the child who had been sent to America for adoption.

Even before they brought the two young children into their home, Harry and Mary Pang were very busy. After selling a small grocery store in Seattle, they went into partnership with Mary's sister, Ruby Chow, producing frozen Chinese foods. Chow, later a prominent politician, quit the business when she and Mary had a falling-out that has kept the two sisters from speaking to each other for the past 30 years.

The Pangs took over in 1963 and gave the firm its current name: Mary Pang Food Products Inc. They bought an old warehouse at 811 Seventh Ave. S., and expanded the business to more than $1 million a year in revenues by the mid-1980s. They moved to a house on Mercer Island with a sweeping view of Lake Washington.

Friends describe the Pangs, now in their early 70s, as generous and friendly people, with Harry shy, and Mary more outgoing.

"They are just very loving, gracious people," said Laurelyn Downing, who has lived across the street for decades.

And no one discusses the couple without mentioning their work ethic. Harry and Mary were up at 6 a.m. and home after 6 p.m., seven days a week, nearly every day of the year.

When Martin and Marlyce came home from school, their house was usually empty. Downing said Marlyce would often run across the street to her house, crying because Martin had locked her out.

That was just one of the ways Marlyce felt shut out, say friends and family of the Pangs. While Marlyce was painfully shy, Martin was charming, and the boy took his parents' favor.

"They treated Martin like everything Martin does is right and Marlyce like everything she does is wrong," said Harry's sister-in-law, Teresa Pang.

When Marlyce graduated from high school, she left home and never returned. She is reportedly living and working in San Francisco. In an interview shortly after the fire, in which they were otherwise forthcoming about their lives, Harry and Mary Pang refused to talk about her.

Lots of cars and money

As a teen, Martin Pang developed a reputation for recklessness. Once, Downing said, he shot out the Christmas lights on the front of her house and put holes through one of her front-porch windows. Another time, he kicked a hole in a Mercer Island High School wall with his steel-toed boots.

He loved cars - especially fancy, fast ones - and his parents accommodated his passion.

"He probably went through more cars in high school than I did in my life," said David Akizuki of Issaquah, a friend from Mercer Island High.

Pang was not known for academics. "He's one of those people who was very, very smart, but never applied it in school," Akizuki said.

Pang went on to attend two years of college, then dropped out. He continued to depend on his parents' money.

When he was 22, Pang reported a $6,700 salary from Mary Pang Food Products. In addition, though, he charged more than $30,000 in personal expenses to the company and drove a company-leased $35,000 Porsche 911S. He also impressed friends with a 17-foot speedboat and airplane rides, all paid for by the firm.

The business picked up most of Pang's expenses through the 1980s, in addition to paying him as much as $55,000 a year in salary.

Michael McCafferty, accountant for the Pangs from 1984 to 1987, said in divorce records that the company paid $49,647 of Martin's expenses in 1985, $57,007 in 1986 and $44,415 in the first three-quarters of 1987.

Most of the money went to cars and car racing. The rest went to things such as house payments, income-tax payments, attorneys' fees, trips and expenses for the karate classes Pang taught in his basement or garage.

Robert Cujini, a former skiing buddy who now runs Barbee Mill Co. in Renton, said Pang spent most of his time on "fast cars and women and all that other stuff," and little on his parents' business.

Lisa Wai Hing Lew and Shizuye Okimoto, two longtime employees at the food-processing plant, said they rarely saw Martin Pang for more than a few minutes, even during the time when he held the title of company president.

"Martin does not like to do any physical work, but he likes to be the in-and-out executive," said Downing, the neighbor. "I've been told by people who worked down there that he liked the title and the salary, but not the work."

Harry and Mary Pang "are so kind and so blind" about Martin, Downing said. "That boy could do no wrong."

Four violent marriages

Martin Pang was married four times between 1978 and 1989. None lasted longer than 19 months. All ended in violence.

His first wife, former stewardess Jeanne Wyke, left Pang after she was hospitalized for vertebral fractures, a broken nose and broken eardrum in an attack by him in 1979.

"I was so afraid of him," Wyke said. "When he says he's going to kill you, you're really afraid he is, because when he's beating you it feels like you're going to die."

Wyke said police had been called to four earlier assaults, but she never pressed charges until the last one, and even then she dropped the case on the eve of trial.

After they separated, Pang killed two of her pets and threatened to burn down her house, Wyke said.

Pang's second wife was Sandra Jean Spencer of Bellevue.

"He can be just the most charming man," Spencer said. "I met him in Idaho snow skiing. He's a great snow skier. And shortly after that, he moved me over here. He was a race-car driver, too. It was pretty exciting, the two years we lived together.

"Then we got married."

Spencer said Pang had a group of "Ninja buddies" and claimed to be in "the Chinese Mafia." He could turn suddenly violent, she said.

Once, she said, he backhanded her, breaking her jaw. Another time, she said, he gave her a black eye. Yet another, she said, he threatened to kill her parents and her pets.

Spencer said she once woke up in the middle of the night to see Pang standing on a dresser in front of an open window, dressed in black, pointing a powerful crossbow out the window.

"He said, `Stay down! They're outside and they're trying to get me!' It was so ridiculous. I said, `Martin, come on, get a life.' "

Two weeks after they were separated in 1983, Spencer said, Pang used suction-cup devices to scale the wall of a house where she was staying, broke in, trashed the room and assaulted her. A Seattle Police report shows Spencer was taken to Swedish Hospital.

"He just completely destroyed the house and beat the crap out of me," she said.

Spencer asked Harry and Mary Pang what to do. "Mary gave me $300 and said go to Ocean Shores for a few days."

Martin Pang borrowed $5,000 - "my life savings" - from Spencer during their seven-month marriage. A family-court judge ordered Pang to pay most of the money back and to pay Spencer's medical bills.

Two of Pang's other wives had daughters by him. The girls are being raised by their mothers.

The third wife, Rise Live Johansen, said Pang would read "Soldier of Fortune" magazine when he wasn't skiing, racing cars or practicing martial arts. Johansen described Pang as "a really angry, angry person."

Even after her divorce from Pang, Johansen continued to work for Mary Pang Food Products. This irritated Pang, Johansen said, and it meant continued, difficult contact between the couple. Pang threatened to kill Johansen in one phone call after their divorce, Seattle Police records show.

The fourth ex-wife, Karlyn Tierny, declined to talk about Pang. But in 1990, a year after her marriage ended, police records show that Tierny reported Pang had tried to hire somebody to kill her.

And in 1991, Pang was alleged to have talked about a plan to set Tierny's house on fire. That threat was reported to Seattle Police by Johansen, in whom Pang had confided during an angry outburst that he hoped Tierny "had good fire insurance."

He also said "this was the year he was going to get even with people, starting with his parents," Johansen told police.

Over the years, Pang at times talked about kidnapping one of his daughters and moving to Hong Kong or Panama with new identities, according to court records and interviews.

Arson victim accused Pang

While his family's frozen-food business was meeting increased competition in the 1980s, Martin Pang tried his hand in the business world.

In 1980, he began Contagious Sales Inc. to sell designer jeans. He dissolved the company three years later.

In 1987, Pang tried to play off his mother's reputation by opening Mary Pang's Restaurant in Bellevue. It closed in less than two years.

In 1988, Pang hired Wayne McFall, an experienced restaurateur who lived a few blocks from his parents, to advise him on the operation of the restaurant. McFall wrote a consultant's report for Pang, for a $500 fee.

McFall said Pang didn't like what he told him, and demanded the money back. McFall refused.

A person who knows both Pang and McFall said Pang asked him for detailed directions to McFall's house and told him he was going to teach McFall a lesson. That night Pang telephoned McFall in a threatening manner, according to a Mercer Island Police report.

The next morning, McFall discovered that someone had poured a flammable liquid over shrubs and wooden landscape posts in his front yard. It appeared that the attacker ignited it with a Roman candle, according to the police report.

"I refunded the money immediately to Martin," said McFall, who is now an executive with a pizza company in Nebraska. "Then I didn't have any future problems with fires."

Mercer Island Police didn't investigate further because the damage was so slight. Pang was never charged in the incident.

Harry and Mary Pang were not immune from their son's outbursts. Ex-wife Spencer said she watched once as Pang flew into a rage and trashed his mother's office, while his parents cowered.

"They're very nice, but they're scared to death of him," Spencer said. "They've told me so, that he might hurt them if they crossed him.

"They spoiled him rotten. I would get so frustrated by him. It was, `You are so lucky to get adopted by these nice people.' That didn't go over well, either."

Pang continued to count on his parents for cash, though. When business setbacks forced Pang to declare personal bankruptcy in 1988, his parents not only gave him a condominium to sell, but also wrote off almost $84,000 in business loans. And they always paid his legal bills.

As part of closing the bankruptcy in 1991, Pang sold his 15 percent share in Mary Pang Food Products to his parents.

That year, he met and was later engaged to Jennie Cippolo, who now describes him bitterly.

"Martin pretends he has money, but he has nothing," Cippolo said. "His parents constantly gave him money, and I'm talking about hundreds folded up in little red envelopes."

She said Pang went through five cars in two years. He got Cippolo a job at Mary Pang Food Products and bought her a Blazer to drive to and from work. "I think he wanted to know where I was all the time," she said.

In June 1993, Pang attacked Cippolo in a car after she said she wanted to break up with him. Cippolo crawled across the road, crying for help, and a passer-by called 911.

Pang admitted to slapping Cippolo, telling police he was "a martial-arts expert and is taught to react this way during a confrontation."

Pang was arrested and jailed for a night. Although Cippolo refused to cooperate with the prosecution, Pang, as part of a plea bargain, admitted to the facts in the police report and was ordered by a judge to take classes in anger management.

Marching in the Torchlight Parade

Last month, Pang's probation officer and attorney said he had completed the requirements, and the assault case was dismissed under the state's deferred-prosecution law for first-time batterers.

Officially, then, Martin Pang, despite evidence that he has beaten up at least five women and broken bones of at least two of them, does not have a single assault conviction on his record.

Publicly, Pang maintained his image as a charmer.

Rick Park, a food broker, liked Pang so much he helped him get honored by the Seafair Pirates in 1991.

The Pirates, known for their appearances in local parades, name one local businessman or celebrity each year their honorary "Davy Jones." The title has been held by a prominent Boeing test pilot and a local television personality.

Wearing pirate garb, Pang rode in the '91 Seafair Torchlight Parade next to the captain of the Pirates and accompanied the group on a trip to the Cayman Islands. Pang was so impressed he applied for full-time membership.

But before he became a pirate, he moved to California to pursue a dream to become an actor. He settled into a North Hollywood apartment and bought airfare for Cippolo to visit him every month.

She moved in with him again in November 1993.

Pang "liked the Hollywood scene very, very much," Cippolo said. "Nobody in California knows the other side of Martin."

He tried to find work as an actor, with limited success. He had a bit part in an NBC made-for-TV movie about the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, appearing as a rescuer inside the burning building. He also auditioned for movie parts and commercials but was often turned down.

He wrote a screenplay for a Bruce Lee-type movie starring himself, but nobody bought it.

He did make friends, and a little extra cash, teaching martial arts.

Pang was battling Tierny over child-support payments during much of 1993.

Cippolo moved out after a couple of months. She left while Pang was on a trip to Seattle.

Back on his own in California, Pang befriended a nightclub bouncer, Frank Wilson, a Mr. Universe bodybuilding contestant.

"We made an agreement to exchange skills. I taught him a lot in body building. And he taught me martial arts," Wilson said.

In July 1994, Pang moved in with Wilson at a $500-a-month apartment in a rough section of the Los Angeles suburb of Van Nuys.

Wilson, who now works at a day-care center, was impressed by Pang.

"He's a neat fellow. Very clean. Very organized. Always on the go. A lot of times, I couldn't really keep up with him," Wilson said.

Business was sliding

Pang had reported net income of only $2,000 per month - most of it from unemployment compensation - to family court. He reported expenses of $880 a month in child support for two daughters and $1,100 in rent and installment payments. That would have left him with less than $1 a day.

But because of the generous support from his parents, friends in California say, Pang was still able to travel and spend money freely. Wilson said Pang always seemed to have cash for frequent trips to Seattle, Mexico, Hawaii and other places.

Pang moved out of Wilson's apartment in December and moved in with a woman in Irvine, Calif., who also accompanied him home to Mercer Island at Christmas.

While Pang was struggling to make it in Hollywood, his parents were having their own troubles back home.

The frozen-food business was sliding, a victim of increased competition. Business was so slow that the plant was operating only sporadically.

Pang was acutely aware of these problems. In court filings over child support, he described the family business as "in extreme financial trouble" and said, "we have just barely been keeping our heads above water."

An associate, who asked not to be identified, said Pang began talking about ways to raise money from the family business. The first step: to burn the warehouse down. Although he no longer had any direct financial connection to the business, that source said Pang believed his parents would give him some of the money from insurance payments or possible sale of the property or would give him control of the property.

The aging building was virtually worthless, assessed at $1,000 by the King County assessor in 1994. But the underlying real estate was worth $432,000. Harry and Mary Pang had taken a new mortgage on their home, borrowing $135,000 in October 1993.

They were having trouble paying their suppliers on time. A report by the National Association of Credit Management said only 1 percent of businesses were worse credit risks. The credit bureau reported five tax liens and eight court judgments owed between Dec. 3, 1990, and April 20, 1994.

In mid-1994, Martin Pang talked with Cheryl Lau, a Honolulu real-estate broker he had befriended, about redeveloping his parents' property. He told other friends that he was considering putting up an office building or a restaurant-nightclub.

At the same time, Pang fell deeper into personal debt. He owed $6,040 on the mortgage for an Issaquah house he was renting out, and he narrowly avoided losing it in a bank trustee's sale in May. Though his daughters visited him in July for a trip to Disneyland, he dropped so far behind in child-support payments - owing $5,622 - that the state filed a lien on all of his property and assets last October.

Pang sold his only major asset, the house in Issaquah, for $190,000, in December.

About this time, an informant told the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that Pang was planning to have the building burned, according to a source. Fire officials placed the warehouse under surveillance, but the watch was discontinued prior to the fire.

Where's Martin Pang?

On Jan. 5, Wilson says, Pang arrived hours late at Wilson's apartment in Van Nuys for what was supposed to have been a breakfast appointment. Wilson says Pang helped him move from one apartment to another and they watched a video.

That night, friends from Seattle telephoned Pang around 9 p.m. to tell him the family business was ablaze, Pang said in an interview in the week after the fire.

In that interview, Pang said that as he was boarding a flight to Seattle on the morning after the fire, he was stunned to see that it was on the national news on one of the airport monitors.

Pang spent a couple of days with his parents on Mercer Island, then flew back to California and retrieved some of his belongings from his girlfriend's home in Irvine. He then drove all night and all day to return to Mercer Island in a red Chevrolet Blazer that was leased for him by the family business.

As the police and media attention intensified, a Bellevue attorney who had been helping Pang in a child-custody matter suggested he contact Browne, a prominent criminal-defense attorney.

Pang hired Browne and stopped talking to reporters. Browne has said Pang had no motive to burn the warehouse because he did not own the real estate or have an interest in the insurance. Browne has also said that he has not asked Pang about the earlier reports of arson threats, and that Pang denies any involvement in the warehouse fire.

Pang, after spending some time with his parents, returned to California. He stayed for part of the time with his girlfriend in Irvine, and visited Wilson.

Lots of questions

The last couple of weeks of Pang's life are filled with questions about where he was, whom he talked to, and whether the police had him under surveillance. Police won't say, but they indicated to witnesses such as former wife Wyke as recently as a week ago that they were relying on attorney Browne's assurances that Pang hadn't fled.

On Jan. 27, Pang telephoned his friend Wilson and asked him to retrieve his furniture from his girlfriend's house. He said they were breaking up. Wilson hauled all of Pang's belongings to a storage warehouse in Van Nuys.

Wilson said he last saw Pang at around 8 p.m. on Monday, when Pang dropped by his apartment.

"He said a lot of things, but he didn't say anything about what is going on in Seattle. He's worried about his mom and dad and he's upset about his girlfriend. He misses her," Wilson said.

The next day, Wilson said, an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms appeared at his door with what the agent said was a warrant.

The agent said he were looking for Pang, and Wilson responded that he wished the agent had come by the night before because Pang had been there. The agent, contacted by phone, declined to comment, as did his superiors in Los Angeles.

Wilson said Pang is likely to be somewhere in the San Fernando Valley area, but he didn't know where.

"Martin's like rain. He comes and goes. I've always said that about him," Wilson said. "I'm praying for the guy."

Published Correction Date: 02/11/95 - The Third Former Wife Of Martin Pang, The Man Sought In Connection With Last Month's Warehouse Arson, Is Named Rise Liv Pang. Her Middle Name Was Misspelled, And Her Maiden Name Was Used In This Story.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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