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News / Northwest

The mystery behind a private fireworks show that shook Seattle

By Mike Reicher, The Seattle Times
Published: September 27, 2023, 7:33am

SEATTLE — A private party became a public affair on Sept. 16 when thousands of exploding fireworks shells — in a display that rivaled Fourth of July shows — awed and startled people across the region.

Thousands saw the bright fireworks, shot from a barge on Puget Sound, or heard distant booms. The rumblings reached as far as 57 miles north in Mount Vernon, seismologists found.

Whoever paid to light up the night sky that Saturday has kept their identity in the dark. The event’s origins, as with similar shows dating to at least 1998, are a mystery — one hidden by shell companies and connected to millionaires, with clues in news archives, public documents and a flotilla of luxury yachts. It’s linked to veiled trusts, an intergenerational business secret and a secluded development on a mountain near Sequim.

However, hints in obscure public records point to one of Microsoft’s first employees, a man who The Seattle Times once described as possibly “the world’s foremost unknown billionaire,” and who has stayed out of the public eye.

It’s not uncommon for the ultrawealthy to hide their property transactions and business ties using shell companies. And it isn’t easy piercing that veil — even if their fireworks shows are viewed by thousands.

“To do it anonymously — I have a problem with that,” Bainbridge Island City Councilmember Joe Deets said. “When people are doing something that affects others it should be known. … You should own up to this instead of hiding.”

Ultimately, none of these properties or trusts or shell companies shed light on why someone hosted the fireworks show, or why shows took place on the same September weekend two years in a row.

But there are some things the organizers couldn’t hide. Large vessels typically transmit their location to an automatic identification system, and the data is stored by tracking companies.

Data reviewed by The Times shows four luxury charter yachts convened in the same spot southeast of Bainbridge Island, in time for the 9:30 p.m. display. Fireworks from the nearby barge lit the sky for about 20 minutes.

Shortly after, the yachts left in a procession, returning to the private docks at the Elliott Bay Marina in Magnolia. Three of the four same yachts also motored to last year’s mysterious show northeast of Bainbridge.

The yachts from this year ranged from 66 to 85 feet, but despite their size, they mostly advertise for groups of 12 guests each. The largest, which rents for $1,500 an hour, boasts heated marble floors, king- and queen-size beds, and “premium linens and towels to pamper the most discerning,” a charter listing says. Another has a “stunning mahogany finish.” One offers a “luxury journey beyond compare” aboard an Italian-designed yacht originally owned by former Seattle Sonics point guard Gary Payton, its website says.

Fireworks shows cost about $2,000 per minute, according to Michael Tockstein, a fireworks expert from California.

To find out who may have hosted the show, The Times obtained permit applications submitted to the U.S. Coast Guard and the Seattle Fire Department by Western Display, an Oregon-based fireworks company. In its permit application to the Seattle Fire Department, which authorized loading fireworks onto a barge, Western Display said the show would take three days of preparation and 15 to 20 crew members.

But the company did not get the required fireworks display permit from Kitsap County, which has jurisdiction over the area where it launched the fireworks, according to county fire Marshal David Lynam. He determined that Western Display “did their due diligence” and the county will not take any enforcement action. (Western Display did request a patrol boat from the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office but was denied.)

“Our hope and intention was not to be a nuisance to anyone,” said Heather Gobet, owner of Western Display. “We only hope we brought joy to as many people as possible.”

Indeed, some who saw the fireworks were impressed. “We sure enjoyed the surprise show,” one commenter on Reddit said. “Beautifully done display.”

But others, like George Beavis on Bainbridge Island, were shaken. A Vietnam War veteran, Beavis gritted his teeth and felt his heart race as the sounds rattled his house.

“It’s a problem for me regardless of who is setting them off,” he said last week. “But the fact it is a private party adds salt to the wound.”

The Bainbridge Island Fire Department posted on Facebook notifying residents two days before the event, after being tipped off by the Seattle Fire Department. But no other agencies widely announced the show.

Gobet from Western Display — which has put on several shows in the region, including last year’s Seattle Seafair Summer Fourth on Lake Union — said she believes the company followed state orders and obeyed all guidelines.

Western Display also coordinated the fireworks show with secretive sponsors a year ago in September — and in 2002 and 1998, according to news archives.

Western Display has passed through Gobet’s family since her great-grandfather founded it in 1948. In 1998, it was Judi Gobet, Heather’s mother, who wouldn’t tell the Kitsap Sun who sponsored an anonymous show off the southern end of Bainbridge.

It was just “people who like fireworks,” Judi Gobet said at the time, beginning the family company’s decadeslong discretion.

The Times tried to reach the operators of charter yachts that gathered near the fireworks displays in the past two years, but none would comment.

A caterer involved in last year’s show gave a clue as to why everyone was silent. She told The Times she signed a nondisclosure agreement, and said anyone involved in the displays had to sign one.

That left one route to uncover details about people connected to the event: digging deep into public records and news archives. The Seattle Times traced shell corporations to properties, charities and more.

The first clue came from the permits: the party’s sponsor, a shell company called UHHC LLC.

A picture emerges

State business records show that UHHC is governed by a private trust whose registered agent — the party that receives a company’s legal documents — is the Seattle-based law firm McCullough Hill.

McCullough Hill is best known for handling high-profile and costly real estate deals and in the past has represented big names, including the Gates Foundation and hedge-fund billionaire Chris Hansen. The firm did not return calls seeking interviews.

A phone number for UHHC listed on one of the permit applications led to voicemail; voicemail and text messages were not returned.

UHHC’s corporate records don’t reveal much on their own, but when paired with other documents, a picture emerges.

UHHC once owned a Bellevue mansion on Lake Sammamish. When the shell company sold that mansion in 2020, the deed was signed by Brian Whitaker, senior director of client services for Laird Norton Wealth Management. Whitaker’s company bio describes him as someone who “truly understands the needs of ultra-high-net-worth families.”

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The investment management firm appears as a trustee on some property and business records for several shell companies linked to the 2022 and 2023 fireworks shows.

Whitaker and Laird Norton did not return calls seeking interviews.

Another detail connects the 2022 and 2023 shows: A phone number for UHHC appears on one of its first corporate filings, and that same number is listed for the principal office of WYBO LLC, the sponsor of last year’s show. (The number is disconnected.)

A group named WYBO Trust was behind the 1998 display, according to the Kitsap Sun. An Associated Press story from 2002 describes annual mystery displays stretching back four years. Back then, the shows were also around Bainbridge Island, though typically earlier in the year.

And WYBO’s registered agent? A woman named Marla Riggs, who leads back to that wealthy former Microsoft programmer.

Connections

Riggs is a difficult person to find. She’s an accountant with an office space in Lakewood, Pierce County, state business and licensing records show, but her company has little online presence.

Charity records show that Riggs served as the secretary for an inactive Lakewood-based nonprofit called the Wadsworth Foundation. The foundation’s president was a philanthropist named Rose Letwin.

Letwin now runs a high-profile charity called the Wilburforce Foundation, an environmental nonprofit focused on conservation efforts in western North America.

Letwin couldn’t be reached directly, but Paul Beaudet, the executive director of Wilburforce, said Letwin had nothing to do with this year’s fireworks show. Beaudet did not know who organized the display, and insisted that Letwin is not affiliated with UHHC.

Beaudet said Riggs worked with Letwin, as well as Letwin’s ex-husband, a man who helped finance Wilburforce in its earliest days: Gordon Letwin, one of Microsoft’s first employees.

Original Microsoftie

Before Microsoft grew into the tech behemoth it is today, Gordon Letwin was among the company’s first dozen employees. Among other software products, he’s credited with creating the company’s first email system.

Microsoft’s billionaire co-founder Bill Gates once described Letwin as a close friend and “one of the more unusual characters and brilliant programmers he’s ever met,” according to a 1988 Times article.

Letwin left Microsoft in 1993 — with a then-net worth of about $20 million — to “kick back with his wife,” he told The Associated Press in 2000. At the time, the article said he lived in Seattle and owned a ranch in Arizona.

It is unclear where he lives now, or what he’s up to. News stories have described Gordon Letwin, 71, as a mystery man and “Merlinesque.” To reach Letwin, The Times left voicemails with a number tied to him in a public records database, left messages with Laird Norton and McCullough Hill, and relayed a message to his ex-wife, through her nonprofit. They were not returned.

Gordon Letwin is linked to UHHC, the shell company behind this year’s fireworks show.

In 2021, he deeded a four-bedroom mansion in Redmond, which he’d owned for two decades and gotten in his divorce, to UHHC for $0. It was one of the rare times his name or signature actually appears on local records.

Other real estate deals also appear linked to Letwin or the fireworks organizers. The phone number listed on business filings for UHHC — the one linked to WYBO, organizer of the 2022 show — also connects to a group of shell companies involved in an early-1990s real estate development in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. At the time, the housing development made the news for its owner’s secrecy.

The 1,100-acre project on undeveloped forest land, called Lost Mountain, was backed by the same four shell companies listed on state business records as the current governors of WYBO.

“The people who own this property are all private people,” the project manager told the Puget Sound Business Journal. “They want to retain their privacy.”

The Times covered a King County land deal in 1995 that was similarly shrouded in secrecy, involving a “mystery buyer” who demanded anonymity. But The Times reported that, “Although the buyer insists on remaining unidentified, several county officials have said he is James Gordon Letwin, one of Microsoft’s earliest programmers.”

Whether Letwin was actually the organizer of this month’s fireworks display is impossible to tell.

But should any mystery sponsors decide to put on a show next year, Seattleites may not be as surprised. The Seattle Fire Department said it plans to notify the public.

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