Ferdinand Marcos, the FBI, and the Deaths of Two Union Activists in Seattle

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tags: interview, Michael Withey

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, Billmoyers.com, Alternet, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. His email: robinlindley@gmail.com.

Michael Withey

Don’t fall for the tired and defeatist notion of “the powerful always win, so what’s the use?” We proved that he powerful can lose. Michael Withey

On June 1, 1981, a horrific crime shocked Seattle. 

Union officers and activists Silme Domingo, 29, and Gene Viernes, 29, were assassinated in their labor hall for near Pioneer Square. Both of the young men were working to reform the Local 37 of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) and improve conditions for the Filipino cannery workers they represented.

Viernes died immediately. However Domingo, although mortally wounded with four .45 caliber gunshot wounds to the torso, chased the hit men to the street where he collapsed—but identified the perpetrators to firefighters who assisted him. He died 24 hours later.

The murders were tied to the Filipino Tulisan gang and police and prosecutors treated the crimes as a local gang slaying. The gang included union members who were allies of Local 37 president Tony Baruso who had turned a blind eye to the gangs and corruption and did little to address the terrible working conditions and race discrimination confronting the union cannery workers in Alaska.

The hit men identified by Domingo, two cannery workers and gang members, Ben Guloy and Jimmy Ramil, were arrested. They were convicted of aggravated first-degree murder on September 24, 1981 and sentenced to life in prison. A third suspect, Tony Dictado, leader of the Tulisan gang and getaway-car driver for the assassins, was convicted on May 12, 1982 for ordering the murders and also was sentenced to life in prison. 

Police in 1981 also questioned union president Tony Baruso who owned the gun used in the murders and had paid $5000 to the hit team, but he not charged until almost a decade later. In 1990, Baruso was convicted in the murder of Viernes (but acquitted of Domingo's killing) and sentenced to life in prison—where he died in 2008. And Baruso faced justice only after the assassinations were tied to a conspiracy to kill the young union activists implicating the brutal Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. 

Prominent Seattle attorney Michael Withey, a close friend of Domingo and Viernes and the lawyer for ILWU Local 37 in 1981, has been working for justice for his slain friends since their shocking 1981 deaths. He conferred with police on the initial investigation of the murders and went on to represent the estates of the slain men in a complex civil conspiracy and wrongful death action that revealed the involvement of Ferdinand Marcos as well as Philippine and US intelligence agencies in the planning, execution and cover-up of the assassinations. 

In his new book Summary Execution: The Seattle Assassinations of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes (WildBlue Press 2018), Mr. Withey recounts the moving personal story of the his friendship with Domingo and Viernes; the murders and the investigation; the trials of the perpetrators; and the ground-breaking work by Silme’s widow Terri Mast and his sister Cindy Domingo (along with hundreds of dedicated activists) to create the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes (CJDV) to engage the community, elected officials and the press to support the justice efforts. The CJDV’s legal team engaged in the tireless legal work and research that revealed a cover-up by US and Philippine intelligence agencies and implicated Marcos and his government in the murders. The successful civil litigation led to holding the Marcos regime responsible for the deaths of two promising young men who devoted their lives to justice and fairness. This is the first and only time a foreign head of state has been held liable for the murders of US citizens on US soil.

Mr. Withey, an acclaimed Seattle-based public interest lawyer, has made a career representing clients against powerful interests to protect constitutional rights, civil rights, and human rights, taking on opponents from Boeing and Exxon to the Seattle Police Department and, of course, Ferdinand Marcos and the FBI. He is the former president of the Public Justice Foundation. He has received numerous honors including the Champion of Justice Award from the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice in 2006; Trial Lawyer of the Year from the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association in 1990: and the American Bar Association’s Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section Pursuit of Justice Award that recognizes lawyers and judges who have shown outstanding merit and who excel in providing access to justice for all. He has also been named one of the Best Lawyers in America every year since 2000.

Mr. Withey will be discussing Summary Execution and his ongoing investigation on Thursday, July 12, at Third Place Books, Seward Park.

Mr. Withey recently sat down at a café in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood and generously discussed his new book and his continuing work to bring all of those responsible to justice for the murders of his good friends Silme and Gene.

Silme Domingo

Gene Viernes

Robin Lindley: Your book tells a very personal story about the murders of two of your friends and your work for justice as an attorney after the murders. How did you meet Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes who were assassinated in Seattle on June 1, 1981?

Michael Withey: I met Silme in 1973 when protesting the Kingdome to challenge the displacement of the elderly in the International District that this development caused. I met him as part of the No Separate Peace movement in Seattle, which was designed to unite all of the minority communities to fight militant actions to bring attention to discrimination in the construction trades, the seafood industry, and the fields in Eastern Washington. (My first client was Larry Gossett. He was arrested for trespass on a construction site that had no people of color working there.)

When I got to Seattle in 1972, Silme was part of the Asian Identity Movement. Gene came to Seattle a few years later. They founded the militant anti-Marcos Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP) which I was peripherally related to. 

I was immediately drawn to Silme’s ability to size up a situation strategically and make decisions about how to craft an effective response. He was a Millennial 40 years ahead of his time, like one of the activists you see active today in pressing for justice in Black Lives Matter and building the resistance movement. 

Silme and I were close comrades and I considered him my best friend. When my family came to Seattle, he lent me his purple Monte Carlo to drive around with my family. He was a dear friend.

Gene came from Wapato. He became involved directly in the race discrimination cases in the mid-seventies. He was stubborn. He had attended college on a wrestling scholarship. His sister Barbara said he and his brother Stan would get in wrestling holds for 15 minutes and no one would move. Finally, someone would break through and there would be this flurry of activity. Gene would stick to it and get the work done. He was writing a valuable history of the “Alaskeros” [the Filipino cannery workers in Alaska] when he was killed.

Robin Lindley: Were you the lawyer for the union, ILWU Number 37, at the time of the assassinations?

Michael Withey: Yes. Silme was brought into office in Local 37 Cannery Workers as the Secretary-Treasurer at the request of his father, Nemesio Domingo, Sr., who was the union Vice-President. I think union President Tony Baruso was hopeful that Silme could do a lot of the work without injecting his politics into the situation.

The first thing Silme did was to form a Rank and File Committee, to run for office, and 17 members of the executive committee in the next election were members of the rank and file committee with majority power. They were starting to reform the dispatch process and began isolating Baruso.

We had been organizing in Alaska. Talk about a difficult place to organize. We were up there saying the workers would fight for arbitrations and that, when people got fired, the union would stand behind them. It was an important organizing vehicle and both Gene and Silme were very popular with the cannery work force.

Robin Lindley: And the cannery workers were facing terrible working conditions in Alaska.

Michael Withey: Horrible. I spent a few weeks for two summers up there. We’d go from cannery to cannery to meet with the workers and enforce the collective bargaining agreement. Baruso never went to them. He was not an active president.

Robin Lindley: What conditions did you find that the workers of this primarily Filipino American union were facing in the canneries in Alaska?

Michael Withey: The worst was the blatant race discrimination where Filipinos were assigned the dirtiest jobs on the slime line while the sons and daughters of the cannery owners worked in the warehouse and drove forklifts. The hours were long and hard; the sun never set and the wages were low.

Robin Lindley: What was the atmosphere like in the weeks leading up to the murders of Silme and Gene in 1981? Were there threats, tensions, fear of violence? 

Michael Withey: We didn’t think we had reached that level of confrontation with those who arranged for the murders. But Gene was very nervous after he got back from his trip to the Philippines. He told his brother “if you take my truck and somebody follows you, get out and find a safe place and try to call me.” 

After May 24, when Dictado [head of the Tulisan gang] threatened Gene, things got very tense. But we didn’t think there would be violence. We weren’t challenging Baruso for leadership. Silme wasn’t going to run against him for election. And nobody advocated stopping the gambling in the canneries in Alaska that was going on in the bunkhouses. The gang members were going to be able to run the gambling whether the Rank and File Committee took over or not. 

We didn’t fully realize that Gene and Silme in April and May of 1981 stood at the intersection of Marcos intelligence and US intelligence. That was the critical factor that led to these murders. US intelligence supplied information to Marcos intelligence and Marcos intelligence acted on it with their own spy apparatus in the US to track them, including Gene’s trip to the Philippines and their work at the ILWU Convention. And we weren’t thinking there must be an FBI informant watching them 

Robin Lindley: Many readers may not know about the Marcos regime and his brutal policies. Can you say something about the Philippines under Marcos?

Michael Withey: Marcos declared martial law in 1973, abolished the legislature and had his opponents jailed. Marcos was responsible for tens of thousands torture victims and disappearances. He was a brutal dictator. He rounded up and arrested or disappeared thousands of his opponents. Many also went underground or fled to the US and created the Movement for a Free Philippines, the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP), the two main anti-Marcos organization in the States. Marcos and his regime created an intelligence operation in the US to “monitor and operate against” the opposition along with buying influence, paying illegal campaign contributions to US politicians, creating propaganda outlets in radio stations and newspapers, and the like. 

The US government under Ronald Reagan was strongly backing Marcos at the time. Reagan was a best friend of Marcos and Nancy Reagan and Imelda Marcos were close. I think Marcos felt emboldened by the Reagan win, as opposed to if Carter had won in the 1980 election. 

Robin Lindley: And Marcos was executing people?

Michael Withey: Yes. After about eight or nine years of martial law, the economic conditions worsened because the Vietnam war was winding down and the US was spending less money at the large Subic Bay naval base. As that support waned, there was unrest in the countryside. Peasants were forming peoples’ guerrilla armies and anti-Marcos unions and labor federations were formed with hundreds of thousands of workers. Marcos had to ban that and outlaw strikes. The contradictions were mounting and he tightened martial law. That was when Gene traveled to the Philippines to meet with the guerrilla army and the head of the large union federation in April, 1981.

Robin Lindley: As I recall, as the economy waned, Marcos and his wife Imelda displayed an extremely lavish lifestyle. Imelda was the epitome of conspicuous consumption with her notoriously massive shoe collection while most Filipinos lived in poverty.

Michael Withey: Yes. The economic situation was bad. That’s when—in the early eighties—Marcos intensified his campaign against opponents both with the murders of Domingo and Viernes and the murder of [Filipino Senator and Marcos opponent] Benigno Aquino. There also was the disappearance of one of his press secretaries who was supposed to testify before a Senate Committee. He would have blown the lid off the Marcos regime. But he disappeared and was never found. So between 1980 and 1983 Marcos reached a new desperation that found expression in these murders.

Robin Lindley: Why was the US supporting Marcos? Was it because of his anti-Communism?

Michael Withey: There were two reasons. Certainly, Marcos was a right-wing and pro-US alternative to a social democrat or moderate leader in the Philippines who would have been leery of the US military dominance there. The US wanted a strongman who would keep the left out of power, and that was Marcos. But also, Marcos was a huge supporter of the war in Vietnam. LBJ had been a friend. Marcos had been president for two terms and couldn’t run for a third term under the Constitution of 1936. (This is the time the “cockroach of truth” appeared in my deposition with Marcos.) So, the US war in Vietnam provided a subtext for why Marcos was so powerful because of all the military contracts. He got a piece of every single contract and not just for military contracts but for everything. He amassed a fortune of over 30 billion dollars. We had a t-shirt with the MacDonald’s golden arches that said, “McMarcos—Over 30 Billion Stole”

When Reagan came into office, he signed off on his support of Marcos’s going after his opposition in the US and Marcos established intelligence effort to go after the Union of Democratic Filipinos and the Movement for a Free Philippines—break ins, burglaries, threats of physical violence, especially at demonstrations, as well as infiltration of their organizations, the works. It had a lot to do with keeping the US geopolitical military balance and keeping the world safe for American investment. 

Robin Lindley: To go back to the assassinations of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, how did you learn of the shootings of your close friends?

Michael Withey: I was at El Centro de la Raza and had been one of three leaders of a large march against Reagan with about fifty thousand people. Mike Kozu, a KDP activist, rushed into the room and motioned for me. I was about to start the summation as one of the co-leaders of the march. He was ashen and said, “I need to talk to you.” He then said, “Gene’s been killed. Silme’s in the hospital. We’ve got to get down to the union hall. Silme’s papers are there.”

Robin Lindley: That had to be such a shock for you.

Michael Withey: I couldn’t believe it. That’s why I describe in the book how I found out about it and how Terri Mast [Silme’s wife] and how Cindy Domingo [Silme’s sister] found out about it. This was just inconceivable. It seemed that Silme was just incapable of dying. He was so strong and so determined. What an act of incredible courage--to get out of the union hall. If he hadn’t got out of the hall and named Ramil and Guloy, it would have been an unsolved murder

Robin Lindley: It’s incredible that Silme survived to name the perpetrators. What happened after you learned of the murders?

Michael Withey: I went to the union hall and at first confronted the SPD [Seattle Police Department] because I could see what must have been the Red Squad taking out Silme’s briefcase. It contained a lot of very sensitive and political material. But that was the least of our worries. Silme was fighting for survival. I went between the union hall and the hospital. At the union hall, the blood was still on the floor. I helped police find where the hitmen were living. We had their names in a card file. 

Robin Lindley: And Silme named the hitmen to a firefighter outside the hall?

Michael Withey: Yes. Two firefighters. There was no doubt Silme named Ramil and Guloy. And in the hospital, He confirmed that Ramil and Guloy were the hitmen. And, before he died, he made a motion to his leg as though he was holding a gun, according to [his wife] Terri. She asked if it was someone else who got shot in the leg. Then he motioned to his leg again. So there was someone else? He was intubated but nodded. We later figured out that Boy Pilay, Pilay meaning “cripple,” had been shot in the leg. So Silme also implicated Pilay and then he died. 

Robin Lindley: What was your role in the investigation of the murders?

Michael Withey: I met with the police and the prosecutors. Basically, people were freaked. 

This was a murder by the Tulisan gang. Everybody knew that. And the idea that Filipinos would come forward and implicate people in the Tulisan gang was not something they were accustomed to. But that’s exactly what happened. We had ties in the community because Silme and Gene were loved and respected, and people came forward. The legal team and the activists in the CJDV and on the rank and file committee were wearing bulletproof vests and carrying firearms to make sure we weren’t the victims of another Tulisan gang murder. 

It was the people in the Filipino community who helped out. A kid named Jamie Malabo came forward and testified that he saw Ramil and Guloy come down the alley with a brown paper bag—a crucial piece of evidence. He never would have testified if we had not provided protection. He had SPD armed escorts where he was staying at the time. 

Mike Tando, the main Seattle homicide detective, told us that the police never would have made this case without us. He said “getting Filipinos to come forward to testify against the Tulisan gang is the real story of the convictions.” Silme had named Ramil and Guloy, but we had to fill in the gaps.

Robin Lindley: And, during the investigation, you and friends of Silme and Gene were threatened — and the police urged you to wear a bulletproof vest and carry a gun.

Michael Withey: I knew how to use a gun. And we were threatened all the time. There was a lot of intimidation. Baruso, the guy who provided the gun and the money for the murders, was still out on the street. I could tell when he finally came to the hospital as Silme clung to life. He denied knowing Ramil and Guloy. We knew Baruso was involved with the Tulisan gang and knew them both and Boy Pilay as well.

Robin Lindley: What was the Tulisan gang? Was it a street gang or cannery workers who were union members? 

Michael Withey: The Tulisan gang was a street gang in the International District who ran and dealt at the two main gambling halls and were involved in a number of murders. Its leader was Tony Dictado who drove the getaway car and was later convicted of the murders. 

Robin Lindley: What was seen as Baruso’s motive before the Marcos link emerged? Why would the Tulisan gang want to kill Silme and Gene?
Michael Withey
: It was the money that Baruso paid them that he got from the Marcos intelligence slush fund. They also had an interest in making sure their gambling operations in the canneries in Alaska succeeded.

Robin Lindley: So the gang was getting kickbacks from gambling?

Michael Withey: Yes. The Tulisan gang provided the dealers in the canneries. So they needed to get their people dispatched. But the fair and democratic dispatch that we came up with was based on seniority, not on bribes. That was considered a threat to Baruso’s ability to get his people up there. 

So the police and the prosecution proceeded on that theory and convicted Ramil, Guloy and Dictado on that theory alone. But they never charged Baruso until years later, after we proved Marcos was involved, and those charges led to his conviction. 

Robin Lindley: Wasn’t it a surprise when the Marcos connection to the murders emerged? 

Michael Withey: We were suspicious of Marcos because of Gene’s trip to the Philippines and the fact that he and Silme had engineered the passage of an ILWU resolution dispatching an investigative team to look into conditions facing working people there and report back. It was a huge defeat for Marcos. 

A couple days after the murder, we were thinking “these two guys get killed because the Tulisans couldn’t get their people up to Dillingham [Alaska]?” They had another dispatch two weeks later. You don’t kill somebody knowing your guys are going to run gambling in two weeks. The whole theory that the dispatch to affect gambling doesn’t hold up. It’s not enough to explain these murders. We knew that right away. So we looked for other critical factors and focused on Marcos and his intelligence operation in the US.

Robin Lindley: But Baruso at a meeting, without prompting, denied that Marcos was involved in the murders. That comment bringing in Marcos out of nowhere surprised some.

Michael Withey: Yes, but that’s not what created our suspicion. We said we needed to look at what Gene and Silme were doing with the Philippines. 

Robin Lindley: Your interactions with the Seattle Police Department are also interesting. They warned you to protect yourself. Was the SPD spying on you or the union?

Michael Withey: No. They had in the seventies but the Coalition on Government Spying that was created by the Lawyer’s Guild, the American Friends Service Committee, and the ACLU drafted an ordinance that the City Council passed to prohibit the police from spying and gathering information based on political beliefs. 

The police were great on the limited issue of Ramil, Guloy and Dictado. And smoke had to come out of their ears when King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng wouldn’t charge Baruso. They had his gun as the murder weapon and sworn testimony established that he paid five thousand dollars to the hit men for the murders. The police handed over Baruso on a silver platter and the prosecuting attorney turned it down. 

Robin Lindley: And the King County Prosecutor refused to follow up on the Marcos involvement.

Michael Withey: That was where the cover-up won. Imagine if they had charged Baruso and he said, “I love President Marcos and there was a lieutenant colonel from the Marcos military who came and told me in no uncertain terms that the president wanted this to happen and I made it happen.”

Who was that lieutenant colonel? We think it was someone who came to San Francisco on May 17, 1981 to arrange for a payment to Baruso out of a Marcos intelligence slush fund. Just imagine, with Reagan in power and Marcos still in power, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office bringing murder charges against a lieutenant colonel in Marcos’s military based on the testimony of Baruso. 

There was no guarantee that Baruso would have turned but charging him in 1981 sure would have brought tremendous pressure on him. This is what we were planning for—working our way up the layers of the murder conspiracy, peeling the onion. But then the lid was put on it. The FBI was instrumental in the cover-up and didn’t want Baruso charged by the prosecuting attorney. But it didn’t involve the SPD because it wanted Baruso charged. 

Robin Lindley: What was the FBI role in the investigation of the murders?

Michael Withey: The FBI, lead by Special Agent Lee Zavala, entered in the investigation on June 3, 1981 when it fielded scores of FBI agents questioning union members about Gene and Silme’s political views and associations. They worked on the investigation for months then told us the US Attorney wanted to give Baruso immunity to testify against Tony Dictado. That was backward and we raised holy hell. Then Zavala took an unsolicited job offer from Sealand and left the FBI. The investigation was dead. 

Robin Lindley: Did Baruso continue in the role of the union president after the murders?

Mike Withey: No. We got rid of him through a recall election. Terri Mast replaced him. And then he was charged with double-dipping and spent a couple months in jail. So he was out on his own. 

Robin Lindley: You’ve talked about US-Marcos relations. What did you learn about why the FBI, the Naval Intelligence Service, and other agencies were interested in the activities of Silme and Gene?

Mike Withey: There two strains. Under COINTELPRO, the FBI’s counterintelligence program under Hoover, the KDP [Union of Democratic Filipinos] was a target because they were considered socialist and anti-Marcos. The FBI had stacks and stacks of documents on KDP meetings and even reports on what their offices looked like. All of this was in the FBI files that we got on the KDP. 

Naval intelligence was investigating the theft of medical supplies from the Subic Bay medical facilities. They were concerned that the supplies were stolen and given to the NDF [the anti-Marcos National Democratic Front], and that the KDP was suspected of being involved in that.

The Church Committee in the mid-seventies ruled that the military wasn’t supposed to spy on domestic organizations, so the military had to get an executive order signed by the president to allow a military unit to infiltrate a domestic organization. Guess what? They got the executive order to spy on the Union of Democratic Filipinos. Active Navy informants got into the KDP, Monty Martinez being one of them, as described in the book. Naval intelligence provided the details of their investigation to the FBI and their legal attaché in Manila passed it onto Marcos intelligence. So, Marcos intelligence had everything that the FBI and Naval intelligence had on the Union of Democratic Filipinos, which was way more revolutionary and radical than the moderate opposition in the Philippines. 

In addition to the FBI and Naval intelligence operations, you had the Marcos intelligence operation centered in consulates with military attaches and commercial attaches. And eventually we found Dr. [Leonilo] Malabed was running the Mabuhay Corporation [in San Francisco], which was a Marcos intelligence front. We were eventually able to prove the intersection of US and Marcos intelligence that resulted in the murders.

Robin Lindley: How would you respond to people who contend that it’s farfetched that Marcos would want to kill these seemingly minor union officials in Seattle? 

Michael Withey: That was Marcos’ defense in the case. First of all, SPD and the FBI proved these murders were by hitmen in a local union dispute. They were just trying to take advantage of Marcos as a political opponent.

His second defense was that Gene and Silme weren’t that important—they labored in “smaller vineyards.” But that was foolish. Gene met with the outlawed union federation officers in Manila whose leaders had been assassinated or charged with sedition under Marcos. And [Marcos] learned from US intelligence that Gene had brought $290,000 to the Philippines to aid anti-Marcos opposition. And the International Longshore and Warehouseman’s Union ((ILWU) passed an anti-Marcos resolution which made news in Manila. Domingo and Viernes were huge everywhere.

Gene went to the countryside and met with the New People’s Army. He met with union leaders. Of course, Gene and Silme gave speeches and gathered support. Gene spoke at a rally in Manila in April 1981. When [Marcos argued that] Gene and Silme’s work wasn’t important enough and Jeff [Robinson] and I heard that in opening arguments, we were ready for that. And in her opinion, [US District Court Judge Barbara] Rothstein said they were proven effective opponents of the Marcos regime and they were targeted because of that.il

Robin Lindley: After the killers were convicted, you put together a civil case against Marcos on behalf of the estates of Domingo and Viernes based on a criminal act. It took years for the civil action to get to trial. How did the civil case come about?

Michael Withey: This came from my legal team including John Caughlan, Jim Douglas, Liz Schott, Jeff Robinson as well as my trial lawyer experience. I brainstormed with other trial lawyers. I said I don’t need to prove Marcos had these guys killed. I just need to prove he created a conspiracy and these murders were an overt act of the conspiracy, under civil conspiracy law. How will I do that? By proving that the conspiracy was illegal Marcos intelligence operation which used his spies to operate against an organization that was doing nothing other than exercising its, and Gene and Silme’s First Amendment rights to protest government policy. There was nothing illegal in what they did. That’s a civil conspiracy under the law. All we had to do was to prove that Marcos initiated it. 

We had Marcos’s fingerprints on the Mabuhay Corporation expense statements we subpoenaed from him when he fled to the US. He had the corporation opened on 7-7-77. He believed in the lucky number seven. June first or 6 + 1[date of the murders] adds up to seven. And Imelda confirmed in her deposition that 6-1, June first, would be a lucky day. We also had Marcos fingerprints on sending his military attachés to the US. The Mabuhay Corporation paid Baruso for the murders and that created the overt act. So we felt we could prove a conspiracy.

Even though it was a criminal act, it was an overt act and an illegal act pursuant to the conspiracy and all the co-conspirators would be liable for it, and that’s the theory we went on. That’s the theory the judge and the jury accepted. And, in effect, it was a wrongful death case. 

Robin Lindley: You created the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes. How did you create a legal team for the civil case, and who was on the team?

Michael Withey: I was very close friends with both Jim Douglas and our elder statesman John Caughlan. Both were political activists and people’s lawyers. We also asked Liz Schott, who worked for legal services, to provide us balance and advice. Then we added Jeff Robinson for the actual trial of Marcos. 

Robin Lindley: As part of the civil case, you met Marcos in Hawaii after he was overthrown, and you deposed him.

Mike Withey: Yes. He was frail, but his mind was very sharp. He had dialysis for his kidney condition, so we agreed to only four two-hour sessions over two days. Because of dialysis, he was always changing shirts. But his mind was sharp and he unknowingly gave us a lot of information about his intelligence operation. He took the Fifth on financial matters and matters related to Mabuhay and to the murders. 

Our argument wasn’t that Marcos ordered these guys killed. Our argument was that he created this conspiracy in the US and Silme and Gene were targeted. Aquino’s assassination was another over act of the conspiracy he created. We showed the video of that assassination by [Broadcaster] Ken Kashiwahara. 

Robin Lindley: Did you uncover evidence of other violence against Marcos opponents in the US?

Mike Withey: Yes. There were five key witnesses we presented at trial: Rene Cruz and Geline Avila were KDP activists who detailed the harassment of their members at demonstrations and meetings. In addition, we called as expert witnesses Bonifacio Gillego (a former Philippine intelligence officer), Raul Manglapus, former Foreign Minister of the Philippines, and Steve Psinakis, who had direct experiences being physically threatened by Marcos thugs-- big body builders who came up to them at demonstrations and told them to quit their activities. 

Robin Lindley: Did you also depose Imelda Marcos?
Michael Withey
: Yes. She was vacuous. Every response was in threes. “Freedom, justice and liberty.” But she was a dragon lady. She was seen as a kind of crazy lady who bought lots of shoes. No. She was a power behind the throne. She was very close to General Ver [Chief of Staff over intelligence operations under Marcos]. She had many people killed. 

Robin Lindley: You won the case—and it’s extremely difficult to prove a civil conspiracy of this complexity.

Michael Withey: It must be proved by more than a preponderance of evidence under the clear, cogent and convincing evidence standard, which is a tough one. It was a difficult burden. 

We had a choice: whether to put the US on trial as part of the conspiracy or prove that it knew that Marcos was operating here. The US had been dismissed from the lawsuit. So we made a tactical change. Instead of saying the US was involved, we said the US knew about the conspiracy. We used the Defense Intelligence Agency report that names Marcos spies here to operating against the opposition. We presented State Department cables show its people knew and warned Marcos against spying on his opponents. So it wasn’t just our assertion. It was the US government saying that Marcos was running an intelligence operation.

Robin Lindley: And for years, the King County Prosecutor failed to go after Baruso. How was he finally brought to justice?

Michael Withey: After the Marcos civil action, we turned over all of our depositions and witnesses to [prosecuting attorneys] Becky Roe and Kathy Goeter, a new regime at the prosecutor’s office. Becky and Kathy were fantastic in getting Baruso convicted. 

Robin Lindley: How did the evidence from the civil case lead to the arrest and conviction of Baruso—almost a decade after the murders?

Michael Withey: We supplied the Prosecuting Attorneys with all of the evidence we had obtained plus the expert witnesses we had called to prove the conspiracy. I was also called to testify about all of the evidence we had gathered against Tony Baruso, from the fact the murders occurred in Baruso’s union hall, with his gun, and with hit men paid by him. We proved the motive by showing Baruso had traveled to the Bay Area on May 17, 1981 to receive the $15,000 from the Marcos intelligence slush fund for the murders. He really should have been charged in 1981. 

Robin Lindley: And you also learned in the course of your investigation that there was an FBI informant, LeVane Forsythe, at the scene of the murders. You’re still working on that aspect of the case. When did you first learn of Forsythe? Did you interview him?

Michael Withey: Forsythe came forward at the eleventh hour of the defense case in the criminal trial of Ramil and Guloy claiming that he was an eyewitness to the murders, that the two men on trial were not who he saw walk into the union hall, and that Silme Domingo didn’t know who had shot him. The jury didn’t believe him but in 1985 we took his deposition and found out he had worked for years as an FBI informant. But he denied being used by the Seattle FBI office. In 2015 we brought a Freedom of Information Act request and the FBI admitted it had 1276 pages of documents from the Seattle FBI office about Forsythe. After a long delay we got heavily redacted documents which failed to identify who Forsythe’s control agent was. 

Robin Lindley: And you came up with bizarre background information on Forsythe, such as this contention that he knew and worked with Howard Hughes.

Michael Withey: It’s bizarre, but it’s true. There are people who vouch for Forsythe being a bagman for Howard Hughes and also knew his right-hand man, Robert Mahue who the Kennedy Administration used to contact the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro. But Forsythe denied any involvement with the Seattle FBI and said the agent controlling him was out of southern California. He did a lot of work in electronic surveillance and he would be told to stand at particular locations, observe activities, and report. 

Robin Lindley: Do you think that Forsythe actually witnessed the shootings of Silme and Gene?

Michael Withey: I do. He said his modus operandi was to be called by his control agent and told to go to a particular location, observe what happened, write a report, and send it to his control agent. Forsythe wrote a report on June 1, 1981 and actually showed it to his wife. I took her deposition and she said he came home from Seattle and told her about the murders. I believed her. It means someone, either in the FBI, or Baruso, or someone in the “off the shelf” cadre of former US intelligence officials, including Robert Mahue, sent him there knowing the murders were going to happen that day. 

Robin Lindley: You’ve done some pioneering work on a crime committed by a foreign power in the US. That’s very timely as we now have an investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 election. What lessons can you for attorneys and activists today who are dealing with powerful opponents?

Michael Withey: I think the first lesson is: don’t turn over to the organs of state power the responsibilities that we all have to build a mass movement to bring about justice. We must define justice not in terms of convictions or verdicts, but in terms of the movement for social justice itself. 

The Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes was a broad, united front that was able to accomplish justice, and that same movement in different forms is active today to seek justice today for government acts. We worked through the police department and prosecuting attorney’s office to accomplish a goal, which was to put pressure on the higher ups-those who stood in the shadows and covered their tracks. 

Marcos was trying to manipulate public opinion in the US and he did it through the press. The Mabuhay Corporate Statement of Expenses was the “smoking gun”—an intelligence slush fund used to pay for the murders also showed campaign contributions to US politicians, and the purchase of radio stations and media outlooks to publish pro-Marcos propaganda. And there’s the use of FBI intelligence that we now know was run out of the Seattle office. And that opens up a whole new investigation in terms of obstruction of justice. They have documents that are public record and they redacted all of the names in that public record claiming a matter of personal privacy. It turns out that three people in this investigation that Forsythe was a part of were indicted and convicted for loan fraud. Where’s the privacy?

Second, there are those on the left who say we can’t use the legal system because it’s dominated by banks and corporations. That’s true but then we don’t see a constant dialectic. It also has notions of justice and leveling the playing and it can be a vehicle for social change. Don’t reject working in the legal arena because you see it as a tool of the monopolies or something. That’s dogmatic.

And the third lesion is: Never give up!

To keep the memory of Silme and Gene alive, we’ve dedicated ourselves since June 1981 to do everything we can to hold everyone accountable that had anything to do with these murders. That effort is still ongoing, and we’ll hold the FBI accountable and the FBI has this responsibility. When we went to the FBI office, we were told that our petition and our supporting documents had been supplied to the Office of the Inspector General. We will continue to send them material.

Robin Lindley: Thank you Mike for your words today on your very personal account and your efforts to find justice after the horrifying assassinations of your friends. Best wishes on your continued work.

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