Michael Withey

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Filmmaker, author sue FBI, seeking records about infamous 1981 Seattle murders

Written by Steve Militech | Originally published in The Seattle Times November 12, 2018 at 6:00 am

A Seattle attorney and a documentary filmmaker sued the FBI on Friday, alleging the bureau has improperly withheld decades-old documents related to the infamous 1981 cannery-union murders in Seattle, later blamed on former Philippine strongman President Ferdinand Marcos.

Although the FBI has released some records, it also has asserted “frivolous exemptions” to deny documents related to an informant’s actions, says the suit brought by Michael Withey, a lawyer who has pursued the case for 37 years, and Sharon Maeda, who is working on a movie about the murders.

Asked about the suit, the FBI said it does not comment on matters of ongoing litigation.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, stems from the fatal shootings of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes in the Pioneer Square headquarters of Cannery Workers Local 37 on June 1, 1981.

The two Filipino men, both 29, had pushed for reforms in the union, which sent predominantly Filipino workers to Alaska’s seafood canneries. They also openly opposed the Marcos regime.

Two defendants, Jimmy Ramil and Ben Guloy, members of a Filipino gang upset over a change in dispatch procedures that kept its members from being sent to Alaska, where they wanted to run gambling operations in the bunkhouses, were convicted of the murders.

During their trial, a surprise witness, LeVane Forsythe, claimed to have seen someone other than the defendants fleeing the union offices. Forsythe testified he had stopped to use a nearby pay phone when he saw a man go in and out of the union hall at the time of the shootings.

His story fell apart, however, when the prosecutor blew apart his testimony by linking him to one of the 20th century’s most audacious hoaxes — the infamous fake “Mormon will” of billionaire recluse Howard Hughes.

Withey, who has written a book on the murders, said he later discovered through his own work and FBI records that Forsythe, now deceased, was an FBI informant, with a specific identification number.

He said one of the lingering questions is how Forsythe happened to be at the scene of the murders and whether it was tied to work for the FBI.

The FBI at the time was conducting a counterintelligence operation against a group opposing Marcos, of which Domingo and Viernes were members, Withey said.

After the criminal case, a federal jury and a U.S. judge, in a civil suit, subsequently found former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, and others liable in the deaths of Domingo and Viernes.

“What remains unknown is the full extent of the Marcos-funded conspiracy to assassinate them and how it came to pass that these murders were witnessed by Forsythe,” who also went on to “perjure himself in an unsuccessful effort to exonerate the hit-men,” says the lawsuit filed Friday.

The suit, among other things, asks that the FBI be ordered to produce responsive documents, without redactions, under the Freedom of Information Act, and make public records that have been deemed exempt.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, wrote an Oct. 30 letter to the Department of Justice, in support of Withey’s efforts.

“Mr. Withey hopes to use these documents to further understand the FBI’s connection with the Domingo and Viernes case so that he might provide closure for the families of the victims,” Jayapal wrote.