On April 3, 1977, an arsonist sets fire to the Top of the Ocean Restaurant in Tacoma, extensively damaging the landmark building. A suspect, David W. Levage (b. ca. 1950), is arrested the following day and charged with setting the fire. In June 1977, Levage will be convicted of first-degree arson in Pierce County Superior Court and be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years imprisonment. Although planned, the Top of the Ocean is not rebuilt and Metro Parks Tacoma will use the property to construct a planked walkway over the restaurant’s original pilings, one of the several public attractions along Ruston Way in Tacoma.
Thirty Years of Dining and Dancing
The Top of the Ocean, 2211 Ruston Way in Tacoma, was a popular restaurant and nightclub resembling a luxury ocean liner, built on pilings along the shore of Commencement Bay. It was designed by architect Charles Alonzo Kenworthy (1876-1952) and constructed by the Tacoma Boat Mart at a cost of $262,000. “The Top,” as it was known locally, opened for business on December 15, 1946, and quickly became a popular choice for club meetings, formal parties, and other celebrations and gatherings. The three-deck facility could accommodate some 700 patrons and had a floating dock that could accommodate 20 visiting yachts. On Sundays, seaplane taxi service was available.
In 1948, the restaurant was purchased by the Tacoma Athletic Commission, which used the top deck as their headquarters and allowed the public to partake of its beautiful lounges and fine restaurant. An orchestra provided dance music for its patrons from Tuesday through Saturday. In November 1951, Tacoma Athletic Commission sold The Top of the Ocean to Tacoma businessman and former University of Puget Sound athletic coach Roger W. Peck, and moved its headquarters downtown. And there were other owners over the ensuing years.
A Restaurant Torched
At 6:55 a.m. on Sunday, April 3, 1977, the Tacoma Fire Department responded to a fire at Herringbone Tucker’s Top of the Ocean Restaurant. The structure was fully involved in flames when the first fire trucks arrived and a second alarm was almost immediately broadcast. Approximately 61 firefighters using 12 major pieces of equipment, including a fire boat, battled the blaze for more than two hours before bringing it under control. During the action, five firefighters suffered injuries and were sent to Saint Joseph Hospital. One man required surgery for a severed tendon; the other injuries were relatively minor.
It was immediately obvious to arson investigators the fire had been set deliberately, using paint thinner as an accelerant. The arsonist carelessly left behind eight one-gallon containers bearing his fingerprints. Damage to the restaurant was initially estimated to be approximately $500,000. A thorough inspection of the structure, however, determined the structure was unsalvageable and would cost at least $1 million to replace.
Having Trouble Remembering ...
After hearing about the fire, taxicab driver Richard Black told arson investigators about a man he took to the Top of the Ocean parking lot early Sunday morning. The man had several gallon cans of paint thinner, which Black helped to load and unload. On Monday, April 4, 1977, investigators arrested David Willard Levage, age 27. Restaurant employees identified Levage in a police lineup as a customer who had repeatedly been ejected from the bar on Saturday night for being drunk and disorderly. Black picked him out of the lineup as his Sunday morning fare. Investigators also located the hardware store where the suspect had recently purchased eight gallons of paint thinner. Levage was charged in Pierce County Superior Court with first-degree arson. He was released from custody after posting $10,000 bail.
On April 11, Levage appeared before Superior Court Judge Waldo F. Stone and pleaded not guilty to the charge of first-degree arson. The jury trial was scheduled for June 6, 1977. Because Levage had numerous arrests, three failures-to-appear in Municipal Court and relatively weak ties to the community, Judge Stone increased the defendant’s bail to $50,000. He was taken into custody after the court’s ruling.
Levage’s jury trial commenced in Pierce County Superior Court before Judge Stone on Monday, June 6, 1977. The trial was short, lasting only four days. Testifying in his own defense, Levage gave a rambling, disjointed account of his activities on the morning of the fire. Under direct examination by defense council Murray J. Anderson, Levage readily admitted buying several cans of paint thinner on the day proceeding the fire, but claimed it was mere happenstance. The thinner was being used to finish homemade furniture. Levage remembered drinking heavily at the Galley West and Top of the Ocean restaurants Saturday night, and then taking a taxicab to the apartment of his ex-wife, Carol. He recalled leaving a stereo set in the furnace room at the Top of the Ocean, intending to sell it to some unidentified person. Levage said at about 6 a.m. on Sunday, April 3, he returned to the Top of the Ocean in a taxicab and sold his stereo to the mystery man. He flatly denied bringing any gallon cans of paint thinner along, as taxicab driver Richard Black testified earlier.
On cross examination, Levage blamed his apparent loss of memory about certain events on a recent skull fracture. During closing arguments, Pierce County Deputy Prosecutor Michael Johnson said Levage’s story was ridiculous; there was absolutely no doubt he had purposely set the restaurant ablaze. The jury of seven women and five men apparently agreed. After deliberating for just one hour and 15 minutes, they found the defendant guilty of first-degree arson. On Thursday, June 23, 1977, Levage was sentenced to a maximum of 20 years imprisonment and sent to the Washington State Correctional Center in Shelton.
The Real Story
On December 8, 1978, a federal grand jury in Seattle indicted local crime boss John J. Carbone, Pierce County Sheriff George V. Janovich, David W. Levage, and 12 others, for racketeering. Levage was described in the indictment as one of Carbone’s hired arsonists.
The jury trial was held in U.S. District Court, San Francisco, and took three months to conclude. On June 19, 1979, the jury returned the verdicts, finding all defendants but Levage guilty of racketeering and a variety of other crimes. It was of no consequence, however, as Levage was already serving a 20-year sentence for torching the Top of the Ocean Restaurant.
After the Fire
For providing information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist, Richard Black was honored at an awards luncheon and presented with a check for $1,500 from the Washington Insurance Council. When it was discovered the insurance settlement wouldn’t cover the cost of rebuilding the restaurant, the property lay dormant for almost 20 years.
In December 1997, Metro Parks Tacoma acquired the property and constructed a planked walkway over the water, atop the Top of the Ocean’s original pilings. Located on the north end of Marine Park, it is one of several public attractions along the two-mile-long Ruston Way greenbelt.
On October 28, 2007, the Tacoma Historical Society, City of Tacoma, Tacoma Athletic Commission and other sponsors, dedicated a bronze monument by sculptor Paul R. Michaels, to the “fond memories” of the Top of the Ocean. The monument, a three-dimensional replica of the faux ocean liner, sits at the walkway’s north entrance.