Inmate on life in prison … and what’s to come after

Part 3 of Northwest Asian Weekly’s exclusive with Tony Ng
{read part 1} | {read part 2} | {read part 4}

By Amy Phan
Northwest Asian Weekly


McNeil inmate Tony Ng, known for his involvement in the Wah Mee Massacre, meets with his advocates in February. From left: Sherry Danza, Ed Cook, Peter Wong — a registered counselor and chairman of Rainbow Missions — and Tony Ng. (Photo by Amy Phan/NWAW)

It was only under the scrutiny and structure of prison that Tony Ng developed a work ethic. “I never knew that I could just pick up a thick book and read it and learn so quickly,” he said.

From the beginning, Ng puzzled authorities. He did not have a criminal record before his involvement in the 1983 Wah Mee Massacre that left 13 people dead in Seattle’s Chinatown. While community members were readily able to identify murderers Willy Mak and Benjamin Ng (no relation to Tony Ng) on the street, no one really knew who Tony Ng was.

Before the night of the massacre on Feb. 19, 1983, Ng was working in his father’s restaurant and had only lived on his own for a few months. He remembered his father warning him against Mak and Benjamin Ng, who would later be his codefendants.

“My dad always told me to not hang around them … but I did anyways,” said Ng, 53, who was acquitted of murder but convicted of multiple counts of robbery and secondary-degree assault with a deadly weapon for his participation in the massacre.

At the time, he was enrolled at the local community college. “I didn’t do so well at the college. I wasn’t really interested in school,” said Ng, now a McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC) inmate, during a series of interviews with the Northwest Asian Weekly starting in February 2009. MICC is located in southern Puget Sound.

“I just didn’t know what I was doing before [the Wah Mee Massacre]… I just didn’t really focus on anything,” he said.

Model behavior

During his entire incarceration, Ng has been a model prisoner. His only recent prison violation was in 1995, while he was in Arizona, where guards found a knife underneath his mattress.

“I had just moved into a new cell [at the time], and they found the shank underneath my mattress… it wasn’t mine,” said Ng. The minor infraction didn’t prolong his current serve count at the time.

Ng concentrated on completing an undergraduate degree in computer science application through Central Arizona College. He earned a 3.85 cumulative grade point average.

He continued his education when he transferred to MICC in 2003. Douglas Hitch, an instructor at Pierce College, one of the colleges working with the MICC to engage inmates in vocational training, wrote to the parole board in May 2006, “[Ng] became a walking, breathing help file when I or another student [became] stuck.”

Ng said, “It made me feel good to be the person who could help other people. … It made me feel like I was in a smart crowd, like I could help people whenever they had any type of question.”

Hitch taught Ng, along with several other inmates, how to use and operate AutoCad, a software application for furniture design, among other programs. Hitch wrote that he would hire Ng for his “skills and easy-going positive attitude.”

An angel sent from God

While Ng speaks openly and excitedly about his academic endeavors, there are long pauses when the conversation returns to the massacre. “When I first got to prison, I kept to myself. I didn’t want anyone to know why I was there … about my past, about anything,” said Ng.

After 24 years of being incarcerated, Ng slowly pieced together how relationships outside of prison must work — even though, he himself never was able to establish such connections after his participation in the massacre when he was in his late 20s.

As a participant in the state’s largest massacre to date, Ng wrestles with the idea of forgiveness. “It’s hard for me to forgive myself. I caused so much pain for the victims and my family,” said Ng. “I just don’t know how I could have done what I did and hurt so many people,” he said. “My family [consists of] good people; they work hard, and I just feel like I just made the family name bad.”

When Ng was transferred to MICC in 2003, he developed a friendship with his cellmate, Korean American Hui Son Choe, who was sentenced to nine years in prison for first-degree manslaughter. Choe was a frequenter of the MICC church program and told Ng that he should consider going. Choe also introduced Ng to Sherry Danza, an advocate for Choe throughout his time at MICC.

“I would not have been able to get where I am without the help of Sherry,” said Ng. “She helped me and wanted me to express my feelings.”

Danza, 60, is interested in the possibility of reconciling Ng with the Chinese American community in Seattle and possibly creating dialogue between the two through an open forum. Danza is currently a theology major at Seattle Pacific University (SPU).

In an SPU newsletter, Danza stated that she helped Choe with a legal system that “provided a number of cultural and language barriers for immigrants.”

Seeing similarities between Choe’s and Ng’s cases, Danza said in the same newsletter that she thought she could help “Ng navigate the same sharky legal waters.”

In the two years since meeting Ng, Danza has become an integral part of Ng’s family and advocate for him as well. She is one of the few on Ng’s visiting list and, juggling going to school full-time with a job, Danza is able to make time to visit Ng on McNeil Island, a trip which often takes hours.

“Everything happens for a reason. … I knew Sherry would help us. I knew she was an angel sent from God,” said Ng’s 54-year-old sister, who wishes not to be named.

In the beginning, Danza said it was difficult getting Ng to talk. “In a lot of ways, I see Tony as a victim in all of this. He was a victim of fear, of not knowing when to say no, and of not understanding the system,” said Danza.

Through consistent visits to MICC, Danza said, she witnessed Ng open up and trust that she would be there to help him throughout the entire process. “It was important that he knew that I was going to be there all the time. … I wasn’t going to go away just because he didn’t want to [initially] talk,” she said.

Danza said she has received a lot of criticism for her support of Ng, to which she responds with, “I am a Christian woman who wants to do God’s work. I am doing prison ministry as a part of my work for God, and Tony is a part of my prison ministry. God wants us to take care of the marginalized, widows, orphans, foreigners, and prisoners. … I believe people deserve second chances.”

Ng’s advocates

While Ng says he always thinks about the victims and those still affected by the massacre, it was only through a support system that he was able to publicly vocalize his feelings.

Over time, Danza introduced Ng to a series of individuals who she believed would help him communicate better. One of those individuals was Ed Cook, 66, a life coach for the past 20 years and formerly a pastor.

Over the span of several months, Cook and Ng started communicating about the possibility of having Ng be what Cook described as “happy, joyous, and free.”

“My role is not to set goals for Tony.  It’s to help him in the process of setting goals for himself and then to help him accomplish the goals he sets,” said Cook.

Through in-person talks and letter correspondence, Cook said he has seen Ng make spiritual growth.

“I was most impressed when Tony asked for forgiveness from the victims, not so the victims would withdraw their objection to the parole board, but because forgiveness would bring them peace,” said Cook. “Tony has become empathetic and can give and receive. He has a lot to offer.”

Ng’s sister is relieved to have Cook be involved in her brother’s life. “Asian men hold all of their feelings inside. … There are cultural differences that make it hard for them to express themselves. Ed is teaching Tony how to become more open and straightforward,” she said.

“Being forthcoming is not something that prisoners show often,” said Cook. “Getting ready for release requires a very conscious thought process.”

The next steps

When Danza discovered that Ng was able to produce intricate origami work, she organized an event showcasing his artwork. “Everybody in the community had such a bad image of Tony, and a lot of it, of course, had to do with the two other men. I wanted people to get to know Tony in a different way,” she said.

His artwork was displayed at a Bellevue church in February.

Danza has already organized the second origami showing at the Westminster Chapel. Last year, people bought Ng’s work, and there is a buyer for this year’s collection as well. Proceeds from the show will go to a local nonprofit organization.

Despite an uncertain release date, Ng has set some goals for the future. He said he wants to take care of his father, who is in his 70s, and find a job once he is released, possibly in the furniture design industry, which would be an extension of his current prison job. “I want to work on building relationships and friendships with other people,” he said, “In prison, it’s hard because [inmates] move out and leave … being able to talk to people will be nice.”

Ng is up for a parole hearing Jan. 13. After that, the board will decide within four to six weeks if Ng is found eligible to move to his last count. If found eligible, he will begin serving his last five-year sentence in March 2010. ♦

Amy Phan can be reached at

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8 Responses to “Inmate on life in prison … and what’s to come after”

  1. Laurie Tam says:

    Hi there.
    Years ago when I was visiting my godparents at the LakeVire Cemetery here in Seattle, a Chinese guy whom I think might be related to me told me that they died when I was 3 back in 1983. Years later, I saw their names which two of them were at the massacre event at the wrong day and time.
    It sickens me that I never got to know them since they died when I was very young and even though Tony claim to have changed, some people put on an act whether you want to believe it or not that they did.
    Anyway, I am so sure that many families whose relatives died in the massacre on that day will never forgive him. And to say the least that what he did to borrow that money was not just dumb but also dumb enough to hang out with the two idiots whom he claim pushed him to do it. He would rather risk innocent lives that he doesn’t know than to have these two guys who threatened him to end up dead. What a shame he chose to go through that route and was only 27 at the time? How sad.
    I am a mother of three girls and expecting another girl next month. I’m 30 and a freelance writer/blogger/online marketer where I work at home and sometimes find it interesting that you guys have this guy updated on this Chinese newspaper.

    • Laurie Tam says:

      I meant Lakeview Cemetery. Sorry for the misspelling. It is the same cemetery that Bruce Lee and his son, Brandon, was buried. I know my dad knows where it is but I sure don’t.

  2. Xiao Liang says:

    I never meet Tony Ng, but I know his high school classmate. His classmate told me, his a nice person, unfortunately have bad friends.
    I believe he is an innocent person.


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