It's 4:30 p.m. on September 23, 2010, and yellow police tape runs across a street in West Seattle. Beyond the yellow tape, red tape forms an area in front of a plain green house. Inside the restricted area of red tape, a police officer sits on a white plastic chair. He is guarding a house that contains the bodies of four people who died shortly after 1:30 p.m.
I, along with other reporters and photographers carrying powerful zoom lenses, stand a ways away. White Center is a few blocks up the road, and a Bartell drugstore is right behind us. The photographers are waiting for the corpses. They are not going to leave until they capture images of the covered bodies being carried out of the house—two of whom are teenagers, one a grown man, and one an elderly woman. The teenagers are sisters, the man is their father, and the elderly woman is their killer and grandmother, Saroeun Phan.
The Seattle Times reporter who is standing next to me already knows (or is soon to know) the whole story. His paper has located and extracted the details from the shocked survivors. The grandmother, who lived in the crowded house with the family (these are hard times for everyone, young and old), first gunned down her son-in-law without warning. The son-in-law, Choeun Harm, was getting ready to leave the house and fish with friends. He was shot in the back of the head. He probably never knew what happened. The grandmother then tried to kill two kids. She missed. Her marksmanship was mercifully poor. Then the gun jammed—an act of God. But she went upstairs with an alacrity that seemed supernatural, according to survivors, and returned with a working weapon. She was dressed in white. She shot and killed the daughters of her dead son-in-law. She shot and missed his son several times. She shot and injured his wife. Then she shot herself.
Suddenly there's some activity near the house's basement window, which is at the back of the house. The photographers raise their cameras, ready to click—but it's not the bodies. It's the same old police activity: somber men and women entering and leaving the house with kits or equipment. One photographer points out that the morgue van has not yet arrived, and so he doesn't expect to see the bodies anytime soon. He is a veteran. He has seen too many crime scenes. He knows it's going to be a long night.
At 6:30 p.m., dusk begins to fall. Stars and the brightest planets appear in the blue-dark. And cars heading west on Roxbury now have their headlights on. Some approaching cars quickly slow down, as drivers returning from work pass and try to make sense of the tape, the reporters, the police, and the house with the tree and the guard sitting in the front yard, where a family of 11 Cambodian Americans just had their lives shattered.
"Like thousands of her countrymen, Saroeun Phan"—the grandmother, the killer—"fled Cambodia's genocide in the late 1970s, hiking through the jungle for days before reaching Thailand," Seattle Times health reporter Carol M. Ostrom wrote two days later. Phan's gunning down of her family was the worst mass murder in Seattle since the Capitol Hill massacre (2006, loner meets some teenagers at a rave, teenagers invite loner to an afterparty, loner sprays the afterparty with bullets and then kills himself, seven dead), which itself was the worst mass murder since the Wah Mee massacre (1983, three young men walk into a gambling den in Chinatown and hog-tie 14 people and shoot them all and walk out with thousands of dollars, 13 dead, one survivor).
Phan "left behind the horror of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, which exterminated as many as 3 million people through execution, torture and starvation," Ostrom wrote. "Local mental-health providers... say the events Phan and thousands of other refugees experienced in Cambodia still haunt them and can exacerbate underlying mental-health problems." So the crowded house was haunted long before the murders. In Saroeun Phan's mangled mind, the mayhem that erupted all around her over 30 years ago, when she was in her late 20s, had not achieved any peace. Houses are not haunted by ghosts but by living people and their memories.
THE FUGITIVE This is where cop-killer Maurice Clemmons’s bullet-ridden body fell. Instead of fleeing to a cave or a jungle or the north pole, his broken mind convinced him to hide in Seattle.
On November 29, 2009, Maurice Clemmons, a man originally from Arkansas with serious mental-health problems and a long criminal history, walks into a coffee shop near Tacoma and without warning shoots four Lakewood police officers—bullets, blood, bones, madness. He spares the baristas—an act of madness rather than kindness. A sane person would kill the witnesses. One of the cops manages to shoot and wound Clemmons before dying. In almost no time at all, the entire force of the law wants justice. Clemmons's mean-looking face appears on the news, and everyone knows he is as good as dead. Anyone who kills four police officers is not long for this world. Instead of fleeing to a cave or a jungle or the north pole, his broken mind convinces him to hide in Seattle.
Helped by some of his relatives and friends, Clemmons haunts our city for a whole day: November 30. A person says they saw him on a bus in the University District. Another person says they saw him in Dr. Jose Rizal Park on Beacon Hill. A trail of blood is found in Cowen Park in Ravenna. Blood on gauze is found at the RDA Building in Chinatown. Clemmons is in the hereafter temporal and spatial mode of being everywhere all at once. Night falls, and every shadow seems to be occupied by the most wanted man in the country.
On December 1, 2009, 2:33:25 a.m., Officer Benjamin L. Kelly is patrolling 46th Avenue South in Rainier Valley. At 2:35:34 a.m., he makes a right onto South Kenyon Street. At 2:35:49 a.m., he passes a parked car that's running—a ghostly Acura Integra. At 2:35:54 a.m., before reaching Kenyon's intersection with Renton Avenue South, Officer Kelly has a second thought: He stops, throws the car into reverse, repasses the running car, parks behind it, and waits for something to happen. At 2:36:39 a.m., something dashes between the Acura and Officer Kelly's car. It's too quick; it's a demon; it's Clemmons. He is leaving the world the last image of his life. He is felled by bullets fired from Officer Benjamin L. Kelly's gun.
He dies next to a yard that's contained by a low chain-link fence. Inside the yard are toys and other things that entertain children. The penultimate streetlight on this side of Kenyon exposes Clemmons's bullet-riddled body, and visible from here, from the cold ground on which he expires, is the north wall of Victory Grocery, a business that two months from now will be robbed by three armed men in dark clothes.
Indeed, this is a high-crime area, and Clemmons was by no means the first or last fugitive to find himself on Kenyon Street. Almost a year before, a killer named Rey Alberto Davis-Bell was captured by the police just five blocks from Clemmons's spot. Davis-Bell had been on the run for a whole day after shooting into an apartment in West Seattle, driving around the city in a menacing black Lincoln Town Car, and then killing the owner of Philadelphia Cheese Steak on 23rd and Union. Degene Barecha Dashasa, an immigrant from Ethiopia, was not the first owner of this business to be murdered. On July 30, 2003, Troy Hackett, another owner of Philly's, was shot to death in his car by an unknown person for unknown reasons. No one has dared reopen the cursed restaurant since Dashasa's death.
Last week—on October 20—Seattle police were after another fugitive on Kenyon Street, a 17-year-old man who had shot at a vehicle. After an extensive search, the suspect was seen only a few blocks east of the spot where Clemmons died. The cops chased the suspect, lost sight of the suspect, and got the dogs on his trail. The cops came across his gun and his shoes. The dogs led the officers to the backyard of a house on Kenyon. In the backyard, there was a shed. In the shed was the young suspect. He sat in the dark for what must have felt like an eternity. In this dark—dogs barking outside, cops with guns aimed at the shed, the punishing minutes before the door is opened and he's taken into custody—one can imagine him hoping that it's all a dream. He is not a wanted man; he is a normal kid with a normal life. And when he opens the shed's door, he will wake up in bed. The sun in the window, light on his face, the blankets warm, Mom frying up some bacon in the kitchen. Just a bad dream.
There is constant police activity on Kenyon Street. Another night I stood in the spot Clemmons's 37 years on earth came to an end and three cop cars passed me—all heading different directions, up to different things—in the space of a minute.
THE ROCK STAR Layne Staley moved into Grandview Plaza to die there. According to a neighbor, every year a group of men with long hair and leather jackets gathers outside and plays Alice in Chains on a boom box.
If records are to be trusted, on April 30, 1997, Layne Staley, the lead singer of Alice in Chains, purchased unit 5C in Grandview Plaza, a five-story condominium building in the University District. It was the beginning of his end. In 1996, there was still some hope that he might turn his back on death, turn from the drugs that were consuming his body, and return to his glamorous career in pop music. After 1997, no such hope could be entertained.
Touring had come to a complete stop, an overdose had killed his ex-girlfriend Demri Parrott the year before, and close friends were shoved aside for drug dealers. When Staley moved into Grandview Plaza, into the condo on the fifth floor (with its view of treetops and rooftops), he did so to die there. The developers and constructors of the condo had no idea they were the builders of something like a pyramid. But pharaohs usually died before entering their magnificent tombs. Not the rock star.
Eight years after Staley's death, I'm standing across the street from Grandview Plaza. Because buildings unlock our dreams, and because all of the units facing me have balconies, my mind begins to imagine Staley—frail and high out of his mind—walking around one of the two balconies on the crowning floor. As I improve my daydream vision of this postmodern widow's walk, I hear behind me the click and squeak of a door opening. I turn and see a young man walking onto the porch of a house in the shadow of Grandview Plaza.
The young man has blond hair and wears a flannel shirt and Vans shoes. He lights a cigarette. I ask him if he knows about the famous rock star who died across the street almost a decade ago. Oh yes, he does know about Staley's condo, and so does his dad, and so do his former roommates (he used to live in the house but recently moved to Tacoma and is only visiting), and so do the neighbors. "He lived up there," he says, pointing to the unit with a southwest-facing balcony. "It's a penthouse. It's a fucking rad pad. He had the place all to himself."
Just before completing his smoke and returning to the house, the young man, whose name is Thaddeus Batchelder, tells me that every year a group of men with long hair and leather jackets gathers around Grandview Plaza and plays Alice in Chains on a boom box. "Yeah, these grunge guys stand around singing and looking at the top floor," he says. "Whoever lives there now has got to deal with it. You know, this guy was fucking famous."
Because Staley died before he was actually dead, he was a ghost in the Grandview. For five years, he haunted the place—haunted its elevators, its residents, its security cameras. And what an unlikely building it was for the ghost of a man who led a metal band that was bombastic, growly, and gothic. One would have expected Staley to waste his life in the ruins of some abandoned church—somewhere with no furniture, no views, a broken and boarded rose window, crumbling gargoyles, a leaking vault. Nothing about the Grandview matches the mood of the music that made him famous.
On April 5 (yes, the same day Kurt Cobain died eight years earlier), Staley really died. Because of his extreme isolation, he spent two weeks decomposing in unit 5C. An eternity. A room with a corpse. Sunlight moving across the room, across the motionless body. Dusk. Then night. Then stars and a moon glowing in the windows. The sounds of traffic on I-5. Voices of drunk students on Northeast 45th Street. The 4:00 a.m. silence. The dawn. The fresh sun rays refilling the room. Staley still on the couch. Syringe in his fingers. Spent syringes pressing against his back—a bed of syringes. Cans on the floor. The glow of the TV on the wall. Maybe a fly enters and finds the perfect prize. It lays its eggs in his eyes.
Few dead people decompose the way Staley did. Few ever pass the first stages of destruction—bloating, discoloring, skin slippage, horrible odors, mold. Most end up in the freezer and, soon after that, in the grave or the fire. Though decomposition is generally slower indoors than outside, by the second week, the destruction of the human body advances to bone exposure and extreme maggot activity. Black substances ooze out of the nose during the first week and by the second week are hardening and changing color in the sickly light. Also changing color is the blood pooled by gravity at various parts of the body. Staley was probably on the brink of mummification when the police finally knocked down his door on April 19, two weeks after his death. At that moment, Staley's haunting of the Grandview was over. Life returned to unit 5C for the first time in years.