Silme Domingo, left, and Gene Viernes, right, were murdered at a union hall in Seattle. It took a determined group of people to find out the murderers.
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Listen: A Seattle Murder Mystery Turned International Conspiracy
On Monday, June 1, 1981, Seattle’s KIRO TV reported a shooting in Pioneer Square.
KIRO: “The shots were fired right around a quarter of 5 this evening, shots that apparently were not heard by anyone else. The two victims were inside the union office.”
The office was the headquarters of Local 37 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Local 37 was the union for cannery workers in Alaska.
Then, as now, Alaska was a destination for immigrants seeking their fortune. Local 37 had been struggling for years to improve conditions for Filipino workers – known as Alaskeros – but the industry was mired in corruption.
KIRO: “Police say the man who made it to the sidewalk was the union secretary treasurer. He was conscious when the medics arrived and taken to Harborview for emergency surgery. The man inside the office was dead at the scene. Police say he was the union dispatcher.”
Gene Viernes, 29, was the man found dead at the scene. Silme Domingo, also 29, later died of his injuries.
Viernes and Domingo were part of the Asian Identity Movement, said Terri Mast, Domingo’s widow and the mother of their two children. She said they were young Filipino-Americans working to reform the cannery union.
MAST: “Going to Alaska after their fathers and seeing that conditions hadn’t really changed a lot and the discrimination continuing up there is what really fostered us to start a reform movement.”
When the two men were elected as union officers in early 1981, they started to make changes. Their reforms shook up what had been decades of corruption and upset some people. Before Domingo died, he told police that his assailants were two members of Tulisan, a Filipino gang that profited from union corruption.
The men Domingo named were convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole.
But Mast and other family and friends weren’t satisfied. They didn’t believe the murders were just about Tulisan – or that all the culprits had been held accountable.
A newsletter from the Committee for Justice for Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, Seattle union leaders who were found murdered at the union hall in 1981.
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In 1982, they formed the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes. Their efforts led to the conviction of the cannery union president. But the conspiracy went even further.
KIRO: “Domingo’s sister Cindy and others claim the slayings were political. The men were killed because they opposed Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.”
CINDY DOMINGO: “The Tulisan gang did actually carry out the hit, but they did not initiate it. They simply fulfilled the murder contract put out by Marcos.”
The Committee for Justice sued President Marcos. Mast was in the room when the committee took the deposition of the former leader of the Philippines.
MAST: “For me, it was like meeting the devil.”
Marcos had been overthrown and was living in exile in Hawaii with his wife, Imelda – she of the thousands of shoes.
The committee prevailed, and a judge found Marcos liable for the murders. It was the only time a foreign head of state has been held responsible for the deaths of Americans on American soil.
Mike Withey, a Seattle attorney and committee member, said the Marcos government saw the cannery union activists as a threat. Viernes had traveled to the Philippines and met with activists there a few weeks before he was murdered.
WITHEY: “They thought their struggle here was the same as Philippine laborers who were trying get recognition collective bargaining rights the right to strike against some of the same employers in the Philippines.”
Thirty-five years later, the legacy of Domingo and Viernes is hard to quantify. The fishing industry in Alaska has undergone radical change. Many of the canneries are gone, and most seafood gets processed and frozen offshore by non-unionized crews aboard fishing boats.
After the murders, Terri Mast made a career of union leadership. She’s now national secretary-treasurer of the Inland Boatmen’s Union. One of her daughters is a union organizer.
MAST: “They were our friends; they were our partners; they were our families. I don’t think that we think of them as anything more than that.”