Category Archives: Tacoma History

Keeping Tacoma

The streets of Tacoma are safer than they've been in years.

The streets of Tacoma are safer than they’ve been in years.

It’s been 94 days since there was a homicide in the city of Tacoma. In 2013 we only had ten homicides. Tacoma earned its reputation as a dangerous city in the early 1990s when California gang members relocated to Tacoma’s Hilltop. In 1995 I was in Los Angeles and ran into some gang members there. I told them I was from Tacoma and they respected that. Now, a generation later, Tacoma has changed in a lot of big ways.

Downtown isn’t quite the ghost town it used to be. You’ll still find empty shops, but it’s a far cry from the mid-1980s when there were just blocks of empty buildings including Tacoma’s Union Station. Similarly, Hilltop isn’t nearly the crime magnet that it was years ago. You’ll still find gangs and street crime in Hilltop but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

One of the reasons I write about homicides in Tacoma is to simply show how rare they really are. I’ve seen bumper stickers and t-shirts that say, “Keep Tacoma Feared” and while I can relate to that sentiment, I don’t think that’s what Tacoma needs.

I’ve also seen people talking about Tacoma being a ‘second city’ with some sort of endless comparison to Seattle. We’re 30 miles away from a much bigger, much more-well-known city. This is true. Half the time when a movie is filmed in Tacoma, they call it Seattle. Recently when the mayor of Tacoma was interviewed on PBS after the State of the Union, they did it against a backdrop of Seattle’s skyline. There seems to be this idea that we are somehow the Randy Quaid to Seattle’s Dennis. I disagree with this idea.

Tacoma has never been interested in being Seattle. We’ve never tried to be. As a life-long Tacoman, I’ve spent almost no time comparing Tacoma to Seattle. We’re entirely different cities. Yes, Tacoma is smaller and less well known, but what most of us Tacomans know is that we don’t care. We’re too busy doing our own thing to worry about what Seattle’s doing.

Part of the issue as I see it is that Tacoma refuses to be identified by any one major thing. We aren’t just the Port. We aren’t just the Tide Flats. We’re not just our museums. We’re not just our poets. We’re not just our bars or our breweries. We’re just our incredible waterfront or our world class Pt. Defiance Park & Zoo. We’re all of these things and more. The one thing we can shed if we cared to is our reputation as a dangerous town. We simply aren’t anymore. I’m not saying bad things don’t happen here, but compared to a lot of places, it’s a rarity.

You can keep fearing Tacoma if you like. For the rest of us, we’re just going to keep Tacoma.

- Jack Cameron

Sixth Tacoma Homicide of 2013: Frank Rossiter, Jr.

FrankRossiterJrThe text came a little after 8pm on Thursday night. One of my close friends who lives near North 46th and Ferdinand sent the following message: ‘Wow. Someone just shot up our neighborhood!’  I quickly called him. He told me that he was working in the back yard when he heard a series of gunshots then silence, then a few more gunshots. He went inside the house and told his wife and infant son to get on the floor. He then went into the bedroom, got his pistol, and locked the doors.

Outside what had happened was that a neighbor had fired off his pistol from his back porch before walking up and directly confronting 55-year-old neighbor Frank Rossiter, Jr. He then shot and killed Frank and threatened other neighbors before leaving the area. The shooter was a known heavy drinker who neighbors called ‘a bit crazy’.

Tacoma police swarmed the area and would later discover the shooter went to a friend’s house in Gig Harbor where he killed himself.

Frank Rossiter, Jr. by all accounts was a well liked guy. He was the father of a 12-year-old boy. He liked fishing. His son and my friend’s older son are friends.

This is the sixth homicide this year in the City of Tacoma. Sadly, this is about average for our city. Most years we have between 12-15 homicides. Each loss is felt by hundreds of friends and families. In this case a boy has lost his father. The purpose of this site is to focus more on the victim than the perpetrator because the shooter tends to get most of the attention from the media.

On Saturday I had dinner with my friend. We talked about the recent murder. While not a close friend of the victim, he knew of him. My friend mentioned that his older son told him after the murder that the shooter would frequently threaten to shoot kids who cut through his yard. His son had never bothered to tell him until after the murder. Every neighborhood has a crazy guy in it. Unfortunately this one was actually dangerous.

As always, the comments section is reserved for friends and family of the victim. Share your thoughts and memories of Frank with us. His Tacoma Story deserves to be told.

-       Jack Cameron

An Important Announcement About TacomaStories.com

ShannonTank

Shannon Tank

Last Friday, 38-year-old Shannon Tank was not feeling well. Hours later she’d be at the hospital. Over the next few days they’d discover she had uterine cancer and substantial tumors as well as an infection. She unexpectedly passed away this morning.

About two years ago Shannon was my new coworker at Guardian Fall Protection in Kent. Soon after I met her we learned this was not the first time we’d seen each other. She went to Wilson High School in Tacoma. Class of 1992. I was class of 1993. We didn’t know each other back then but we knew of each other.

As I worked with Shannon I found her to be funny, opinionated, and utterly unafraid. You never wondered where you stood with Shannon Tank. She talked often about her family. She loved to share. And she was a native Tacoman.

Today Tacoma also lost firefighter Al Najmeh. He’d been a Tacoma Firefighter for the last ten years. He was well loved and respected. He was on a call earlier today and collapsed. He was taken to St. Joseph’s hospital where they were unable to revive him.

For years now I’ve chronicled the last stories of the people in Tacoma who lose their lives to violence. My initial reasons for this were to show how infrequently homicides happen in Tacoma and more importantly, share the lives of the victims rather than the murders. But I’ve been acutely aware that I was leaving a lot of final Tacoma Stories out of this site.

The people Tacoma has lost include everyone who commits suicide, all vehicular homicide deaths, accidental and natural deaths, and deaths that occur outside of Tacoma but whose lives still revolved around Tacoma. Given that I don’t have the time or the resources to research all of these deaths, I’ve chosen to stick to homicides.

But today, another former coworker of mine asked me if I was going to write about Shannon Tank on my TacomaStories.com site. I didn’t really know what to say; “No, because she wasn’t murdered, only taken way too young.”?

And so from here on out, I’d like to invite anyone who has lost someone from in or around Tacoma to send me any Tacoma Stories I miss. This city is made by its people. When we lose one, no matter the cause, it changes our city. Tacoma was different when they were here. We should share those stories and I invite you to do that here.

Send any stories you’d like to share of those who pass away in and around Tacoma to jackcameronis@gmail.com

-          Jack Cameron

Fourth Tacoma Homicide of 2013 Chayson Colley-Jones

Chayson Colley-JonesTwo-year-old Chayson Colley-Jones spent his last night in a downtown apartment building on Saturday, March 30th. His mother was going out to celebrate her birthday. Chayson was being watched by his mother’s 19-year-old boyfriend who had moved in five weeks earlier. At 4am Sunday morning someone called the police because they saw the boyfriend with a badly injured Chayson in the lobby of the apartment building.

The police arrived and found Chayson not breathing. His mother’s boyfriend told them that the child had fallen. Chayson was taken to the hospital where he died hours later. His injuries were extensive and extreme. The two-year-old’s blood alcohol level at the time of his death was .12. There was also evidence that he’d been raped. The boyfriend has been arrested and charged for his crimes.

It’s difficult to imagine a worse crime than the death of Chayson Colley-Jones. There is no rational understanding of horrific final hours of Chayson. Murders such as this are often shown as an example of why we must continue to have the death penalty. Here in Washington we still have the death penalty and that did not deter Chayson’s murderer which may be just as powerful an argument against such a practice.

Chayson’s murder is tragic. He was someone who never got to show Tacoma what he could have been. He has been lost to us and the city is a little worse off for it. The only consolation is that the person responsible has been apprehended and that events such as this are rare.

Typically I ask that comments be left strictly for those who have memories to share of Chayson. Sadly, I fear his life was far too short for any comments at all. If friends or family of Chayson are reading this, please share your favorite memories with us. My thoughts are with you.

Rest in peace, Chayson. You are not forgotten.

-          Jack Cameron

Surviving Pacific: Thee Barber Shop

Construction On Pacific Avenue

Businesses on Pacific Ave are not having an easy time keeping things going during construction.

Downtown Tacoma has seen better days. Walk any given block and you’ll find at least a handful of empty storefronts. This is even more apparent on Pacific Avenue. Currently there is a major construction project underway on parts of Pacific Avenue. According to the city website this project is for ‘beautification’ and to install ‘innovative stormwater improvements to improve the business opportunities and livability of Downtown’s core street.’

That’s all well and good and hopefully the project will be every bit as successful as they say it’s going to be when they complete the work at the end of this year. The question is, will any of the businesses that are there now survive until then?

I’m going to take a look at some of the businesses in this construction area over the next few months and see how they’re doing and what they’re doing to get by.

Pete Lira, owner of Thee Barber Shop is mentoring aspiring haircutters

Pete Lira, owner of Thee Barber Shop is mentoring aspiring hair cutters. He’s also offering night classes.

First up is Pete Lira, owner of the Thee Barber Shop just a couple doors from the corner of South 9th and Pacific.

I’ve written about him before. He’s been my barber for the last eight years and he’s been cutting hair forty-seven.

While the construction hasn’t stopped his regular customers from coming in, it has made business a bit more difficult. I discovered Pete because Pete was standing outside one day and talked to a friend of mine as she passed by. Later when I happened to ask if she knew a barber, she said she did. Such an encounter is near impossible with the current construction.

What is Pete doing to help his business? Something he’s done before and enjoys doing: He’s offering to mentor those getting into the hair cutting profession. With almost half a century of experience, Pete has a lot of wisdom to impart. He’s an old school barber who believes in precision and classic training.

If you’re interested in being mentored by a champion barber or if you just find yourself in need of a decent haircut, give Pete a call at 253-272-2663.

- Jack Cameron

Tacoma’s First Underground Tour

My friend Jenya and I before embarking on the Underground Tour

I’m not one for tours. For the most part I like exploring things on my own, but when I saw Angela Jossy’s announcement of a ‘Once In A Lifetime Underground Tour of Tacoma’, I had to go. The Facebook page spoke of the legendary Shanghai Tunnels, the vaulted sidewalks, Old City Hall, and Never Never Land figures. For those who are unaware of some of these Tacoma legends, here’s a bit of background.

The Chinese Tunnels are among Tacoma’s oldest legends. Depending on who you’re talking to they were for literally shanghaiing unruly customers at shady bars, sending the unsuspecting patrons to the basement, through the tunnel and onto a ship down on the waterfront or they were for smuggling Chinese workers after their expulsion from Tacoma in 1885 or they were used as  opium dens. But as many stories as there are, there is a distinct lack of evidence of these tunnels.

Old City Hall is one of Tacoma’s oldest and most beautiful buildings. Sadly, due to a series of unfortunate events, Old City Hall is now vacant and in some areas unsafe. It’s future remains uncertain.

Walk the streets of downtown Tacoma and look down. Occasionally you’ll see thick opaque glass. These are the vaulted sidewalks of Tacoma. In other words, there’s something under that sidewalk.

And then there was Never Never Land. As a child I remembered going to Never Never Land at Pt. Defiance Park. There was a meandering trail through the woods where various figurines acted out parts from famous fairy tales. It was kind of cool but kind of creepy. Never Never Land closed many years ago and left behind empty areas along the trail where once stood Little Red Riding Hood or the Three Little Pigs. Recently even the trail was removed leaving almost no evidence that Never Never Land ever existed.

Given all of this, I was excited as hell to go on this tour. Unfortunately in the days leading up to the tour, Angela had to cancel the Old City Hall portion of the tour due to lack of cooperation from the current tenants. She also reminded people that any tunnels were long ago filled in and we’d only be seeing the entrance to one and that this was not going to be like the Seattle Underground Tours. None of this deterred me.

It turned out that Jenya, an old friend from high school who I hadn’t seen in years was also interested in going on the tour. We met up in the early afternoon to catch up and then headed downtown.

We were supposed to pick up tickets any time after 3:00pm at the Gritty City Gift Fair at 9th and Broadway. We arrived at around 5:30pm. When we got there, the earliest group we could sign up for was 7:40pm. We met up with a couple of other friends and went to PSP (Puget Sound Pizza) for a couple drinks and some awesome pizza while we waited.

We came back at 7:30pm to find that the 7:20pm team was just now leaving. We wandered around the Gritty City Gift Fair. I ran into Kris Brannon otherwise known as Sonics Guy as well as ThanksGIVING founder Heidi Stoermer. I also saw Fingerprint Confection Owner, Clay Richart along with his wife who were selling their amazing caramels at the Fair. It was like a 5 Question Friday gathering.

A previous tour returned. We were told to grab the hard hats from them and be sure to sign the release form. I heard one returning person say that the tour was ‘underwhelming’. Not knowing this person, I had no idea what they expected it to be so this didn’t really bother me.

As the time crawled past 8pm, I became a bit concerned. Luckily the tour started a few minutes later. It turns out that two of the tour guides had gone home. One had hurt their ankle and the other, we were told, um, stepped in a puddle. The result was that Angela and another guide whose name I did not get were taking almost two tours worth of people at once to help get things caught up. We followed her down the hill to Pacific Avenue then took a left towards South 7th Street.

As we approached Meconi’s Pub, we were split into two groups. One went into Meconi’s. The other group (my group) was taken around the back of the building to find a man named Darryl who would show us where to go.

Around the back was an open door and Darryl. He led us to a spiral staircase covered in plastic sheeting that went down to the basement. In this basement, there were dozens of figurines. Every one of them creepier than I ever remember them being. The idea that at one point these were meant to entertain children is disturbing. That I was one of those children is even more bothersome.

Here are some photos of these almost forgotten relics:

Three Little Pigs

Big Bad Wolf

Assorted Characters

Ummm…

Past the figurines walking towards the direction of the street was a dark area where the flashlights were absolutely necessary. The stone floor was wet. There was thick glass above us in certain areas that I recognized as part of the sidewalk. These were the vaulted sidewalks of Tacoma. You can’t really see through the glass, but it was clear that if it was day, the sunlight would have provided at least a little illumination.

Vaulted Sidewalk

We walked back past the Never Never Land figures and up the stairs to switch places with the other group. Once inside Meconi’s we were led through a door, down another staircase to another vaulted sidewalk. This one had a substantial pool of water on the ground. I assumed this was the puddle that took out a previous tour guide. I walked through it with no problem.

Back in Meconi’s we walked through to the back of the bar where we went through another door and another staircase. Here there was a wall of brick and cement framed by a doorway. This we were told was once an entrance to a tunnel that went all the way to the docks.

In the 1880s, this area of Tacoma was full of illicit activities so a secret tunnel to the docks wasn’t even a little far fetched.

We left Meconi’s and head back up towards 9th and Broadway by way of the Spanish steps, near the old Elk’s Lodge that McMenamin’s has recently purchased and promised to turn into what might end up being one of the best night spots in Tacoma. It seemed fitting to end the tour through Tacoma’s past with a glimpse of what’s in Tacoma’s future.

The entire tour took about twenty minutes or so and if I had been expecting something out of Indiana Jones, I suppose I too would have been underwhelmed. As it was, I had a great time with my friends exploring forgotten bits of the City of Destiny. That to me was more than worth the $10 price of admission.

As a side note, Angela Jossy recently found out that they’re not destroying the vaulted sidewalks in January like she thought and there may yet be time for another round of Underground Tours for those who missed it this first time around. If she does, I’ll post that information on this article when I have it.

I’d like to publicly thank Angela Jossy and everyone else who helped her put on this tour.

- Jack Cameron

Seventh Tacoma Homicide of 2012: Sgt. Prince Gavin

Prince Gavin was a combat medic in the US Army. A sergeant. He was stationed at Joint Base Lewis/McChord. He’d done two tours in Iraq. He carried a .45 pistol for protection and had a permit to do so. As far as anyone can tell, he’d never pulled it on anyone. On Friday his ex-girlfriend was helping him move from his place on Mildred. He’d been recently been transferred to a base in Colorado. At some point there was an argument between the two or something happened that caused the police to respond. The officers arrived to the place on Mildred but found no one there. They had information that they may have gone to a house on the 0800 block of South M Street.
As Gavin and arrived in a truck on South M Street, a police officer pulled up. Reports say that Gavin ran from the truck towards the house. What happened next is unclear. There was some sort of confrontation between Gavin and the officer. The officer says he was in fear for his life and fired his service weapon twice killing Prince Gavin. Sgt. Gavin was 29 years old. Gavin’s pistol was found near his body. Friends say that Gavin was likely trying to show the officer that he was armed and the officer misunderstood. It’s unclear what exactly happened and the shooting is currently under investigation.
This is the second shooting this officer has been involved in. It would be easy to make the leap that the shooting was unnecessary and that this is just the latest in a recent string of questionable local police involved shootings over the past few years. However, as tempting as it might be to paint such a picture, doing so leaves out the fact that we don’t actually know what happened. All we know is that two armed men had a confrontation and that one killed the other.
I’ve known many police officers. Some of them have been involved in shootings. Not one of them wanted to kill anyone. I think the same is true of Sgt. Prince Gavin. Given what information we have, it’s difficult for me to see Gavin turning his weapon on a cop. At the same time, I have a hard time thinking that the responding officer’s actions were malicious. This is a tragedy. And I hope that the resulting investigation will uncover more facts.
My heart goes out to Gavin’s family and friends. And to the family of the officer involved in the shooting.
Sgt. Prince Gavin was the  seventh homicide in the city of Tacoma this year. As always, the comments section is reserved for those who knew Gavin to share their memories of the man and let the rest of us know who he was.
- Jack Cameron