by: KIRO Team 7 Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne Updated:
The murder of a powerful Seattle union boss has been solved!
Seattle Hotel and Restaurant Employee Union President, Mario Vaccarino, was beaten then drowned in his Shorewood home October 24, 1985.
Now, King County detectives are naming the killer – but caution the case remains open because they believe other, unknown associates remain at large.
The King County Sheriff’s Office is looking for the killer’s associates. Review never before seen details on four unsolved homicides.
Members of the cold case homicide task force recently revealed the information to KIRO Team 7 Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne while Halsne was preparing a half-hour special report.
According to King County detectives, Vaccarino was murdered by a now-deceased Seattle police officer turned bank robber by the name of Gary Krueger.
For the past two years, Halsne has aired a series of reports about Krueger and his secret life as a professional killer, tied to at least three other unsolved homicides in the Pacific Northwest.
Mario Vaccarino was the outspoken leader of both Seattle's Local 8 and the International Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union. Around the time of his death, Vaccarino was leading emotional protests on downtown Seattle hotels and food establishments, pressuring owners to accept unions.
King County detective Scott Tompkins told Halsne, “He lived a contentious life as the president of the union - trying to unionize these shops who didn't want to become union. There were a lot of pickets - a lot of discontent in the restaurant scene back then. There was also some speculation on a national level about possible corruption in the overall union.”
Vaccarino's daughter, Nancy Cotton, says her father's confrontational rhetoric mirrored his passion to help the working class, but at home he was just a nice, regular family guy.
“He was a great cook you could smell the aromas coming from that kitchen. That's what he loved to do. He loved music. Loved to golf.”
She also says her dad was looking forward to retirement.
“He was ready to mellow out a little bit- get some down time; travel and spend some time with his family.”
There were rumors that Vaccarino was cooperating with a federal organized crime investigation. A commission in Chicago was looking into allegations of racketeering, kickbacks, tax evasion, and embezzlement of union funds. Nancy said it was "stressful" for her dad.
“It was sensational. It was good media and I think they jumped on that in the beginning. It wasn't always easy to read or hear about.”
On Thursday, October 24, 1985, Vaccarino was home alone in Shorewood, watching Game 5 of the World Series between the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals.
By 9 a.m. the next morning, Vaccarino's badly beaten body was found floating face down in his bathtub; his clothes and a bathrobe still on and water running.
King County detective Tompkins says they had no shortage of motives, but very few leads about the actual killer or killers.
“Nobody saw a suspect enter the home, leave the home and although the victim's car was removed from the crime scene and abandoned several miles away, no one saw the car leave the area.”
The union leader's new Buick Riviera was ditched in a White Center McDonalds parking lot, while his wallet was prominently left for anyone to find at a local strip club called My Place.
KIRO TV, along with the national media, reported details from the crime scene that made it appear organized crime henchmen had silenced Vaccarino for being a snitch. Here’s why, according to Tompkins:
“There was also parmesan cheese sprinkled over the victim when he was put in the bathtub as if it was some sort of a calling for a mob hit or a rat.”
Detectives didn't say it publicly, but privately, they thought Vaccarino's ransacked home looked a little "staged." As the years went by, Vaccarino's daughter kept hoping for justice, but the case went cold with no suspects.
“The longer time went on it was 'Oh, my God!’ We may never know. We may never have the answers as to the why and the who. But, you go on. You go on with life. You think about it on anniversaries and birthdays and Christmas. You do the best you can but you always hope; always hope that something will come of it.”
For the next 27 years, Nancy figured her dad's murder would remain a mystery forever,
but cold case detectives, working on the 2001 murder of Bellevue real estate agent, Mike Emert, started seeing a pattern.
Emert was killed and left in a bathtub of running water. Emert’s car was driven away from the crime scene and dumped in a public parking lot. Emert’s wallet was even placed in yet another location, on top of a payphone at the Coleman docks.
Detective Tompkins: “When we initially got the DNA hit linking Gary Krueger to the Emert murder, we obviously began investigating Krueger. As part of that investigation, we found where a long time person-of-interest in the murder of Vaccarino was also longtime friends with Gary Krueger. That peaked our interest.”
This month, in a candid interview, detectives told Team 7 Investigators they believe Vaccarino was not killed by the mob, rather by Gary Krueger as a favor to a friend. Police say that friend had reportedly told Krueger that Vaccarino was going to (or recently had) fired him and he feared losing his union benefits.
A police record provided to KIRO Team 7 Investigators says after Vaccarino was killed, that friend "remained with the union and moved up the chain of command."
Detective Tompkins: “We found a witness who Krueger confessed to - that he had murdered Vaccarino.”
Before detectives could ask why, Krueger died in March 2010; drowned in Lake Washington fleeing the scene of an armed home-invasion robbery.
Krueger has since been named as the prime suspect in the 1984 murder of Bellevue attorney, James Barry as well.
On February 7th, 1984, real estate attorney Jim Barry went to an unusually late evening appointment at his office with a mysterious client. His wife found his body at 3 a.m. - shot and stabbed - the office ransacked. Although his wallet, watch, and jewelry were missing, detectives always believed that Barry was no random homicide victim.
Bellevue detective Robert Thompson recently told Halsne, “I don't think the motive was burglary. We believe the motive itself was the murder and the suspects made it look like a robbery to cover their tracks.”
Bellevue police say evidence supported at least two killers inside Barry's office that night.
Just this month, they confirmed what KIRO Team 7 Investigators reported last summer that Gary Krueger killed Barry. However, we did not know or report the fact that Krueger likely had an associate with him at the time.
Thompson told Halsne, “The motivation in this case appears to be revenge. We know that Mr. Barry worked for Rainier Bank at the time. There was correspondence between the bank and Mr. Krueger that he had some outstanding loans that he needed to pay. There was some direct correspondence from Mr. Barry's office to the Krueger’s home that he needed to pay those bills and that was the motive.”
Vaccarino's daughter is now pleading for the public to help detectives identify Krueger’s associate or associates, still unknown and ‘at large.’
“I don't know how someone could live with knowing that they have knowledge of what happened. How can you live with yourself? I think it's time. We need some answers. Someone needs to answer for what happened to him.”