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Seattle’s creepy Donut Shop: The inside story

First & Pike was former Seattle police officer Ken Conder's beat. Credit: Credit: Allyce Andrew

Editor's Note: This is the second story in a two-part series.

The streets of downtown Seattle were a dangerous place for runaways back in the 1980s. But it took a series of scandals, murders and revelations of pedophilia in high places to finally raise awareness about this urban ecosystem of youth exploitation.

The Donut House at First & Pike was in the middle of it all. Rocked by scandal in the early '80s, the infamous hangout for young street kids was closed and its owner sent off to prison for running a robbery ring that recruited youngsters to do the dirty work. In the eyes of the law, the man who had run the shop, Guenter Mannhalt, was a modern-day Fagin, an exploiter of the exploited.

Mannhalt certainly wasn't the only exploiter on Skid Road, but the Donut Shop became a legend nonetheless. The scandal came at a time when the public was becoming more aware of the plight of Seattle's street kids. Indeed, the Donut Shop goings on likely helped raise that profile.

Roberta Joseph Hayes was a former Donut House regular who appeared in the 1983 documentary “Streetwise,” a chronicle of Seattle's homeless youth. Hayes would eventually become a victim of Green River Killer Gary Ridgway, who preyed on the Northwest’s young runaway population from the early 1980s on. The plodding progress on the Green River case, and the fact that most of Ridgway's victims came from the streets, emphasized both the dangers of the street lifestyle and the seeming reluctance of law enforcement to catch a killer who targeted prostitutes and young runaways. The fact that Ridgway acted with impunity for so long and killed so many was seen as the failure of a society that preferred to look away.


Seattle's Monastery Church. Credit: georgefreeman.com

The Donut House  wasn't the only dangerous nightspot in the city. The Sanctuary (above), also known as The Monastery, was a disco on Boren Ave. near downtown, which attracted young people and met every "den of iniquity" criteria: public sex, drugs, child prostitution. Check, check and check.

Many Streetwise-era kids partied in The Monastery's parking lot. That is, if they couldn't sneak inside; the place was known for its underage patrons and gay sex.

Monastery founder, George Freeman, operated his establishment as a Universal Life Church, arguing that his club was a haven for gay kids in a homophobic society. A crackdown by law enforcement forced the disco to shut its doors and spawned the city’s restrictive Teen Dance Ordinance in 1985. Freeman saw the disco/church as "a family of dancers in primal communion." The judge whose ruling in a civil case that closed The Monastery for good, disagreed, calling the club "a dangerous nuisance and a breeding ground for drug and alcohol abuse that attracted many of the weakest, most confused and disturbed children in our society."

In 1988, Seattle learned that Gary Little, a prominent city judge, had for years been molesting and manipulating young boys, including the street kids he encountered in his juvenile courtroom.

One of Little’s victims was Justin Reed Early (at left), a Donut House regular and Streetwise star. When Little's out-of-court contacts with some juveniles was first officially and quietly investigated in the early '80s, he justified his actions as necessary interventions to save the troubled boys. Right before the full nature of his predatory behavior was about to be made public by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Little killed himself.

Ken Conder, a police officer who patrolled the First & Pike beat on foot during the Donut House heyday, says that "walking police" like him tried to get their SPD superiors to do more about the problems of street kids. But back then, says Conder, addressing "the exploitation of urban youth was not a high priority."

The boy prostitutes who frequented the Donut House — a kind of break room for those working the streets at 2nd and Union — were less a concern than an embarrassment. "Street kids are street kids" was the general attitude, says Conder. Social resources were better spent elsewhere because there was nothing that could really be done about these homeless youth. That wasn't how Ken Conder felt. "When you're spending eight hours a day with kids who have been victimized and abused, you become kind of protective of them," he reflects. What Conder didn't like about Mannhalt was the way the Donut Shop owner used the kids for profit.

After Mannhalt's conviction, the Donut House shut down. It had a brief stint as a Burger King, which many in the neighborhood opposed, fearful that it would either cater to the same element, or ruin the character of the place by allowing a fast-food chain into the Pike Place Market neighborhood. Later on, the old Donut Shop became the temporary home of the legendary Turf restaurant, a hangout for Skid Road's adult denizens. The Seattle Shirt Company occupies the site these days, catering to the tourists drawn by the Pike Place Market and a gentrified neighborhood of fancy hotels, upscale chocolate shops and the Seattle Art Museum.

Mannhalt saw himself as the guy who helped kids, offering shelter, food and a nudge in the right direction. At his trial, social workers testified that he allowed them to come into the Donut House and never interfered with their attempts to connect with kids. In his memoir, Street Child, Justin Reed Early writes about how his abusive father once tracked him down and confronted him in the Donut House. He demanded that Early come home, then slapped him hard in front of everyone at the shop.

Mannhalt, writes Early, “… shot out from behind the counter, grabbed my father and threw him up against the wall. My other friends ran up to get in on it and started to 'charge' my father, aggressively, rendering him useless which prevented him from harming anyone else. They robbed him of his wallet and a tape recorder he had hidden in his coat." Early fled, giving his father's car a nice kick as he ran down the street.

Some street kids were saddened by Mannhalt's conviction in 1981. "That's our papa and we love him," Donut Shop regular Michele Rhoads told The Seattle Times. Prosecutors were unmoved, allowing that Mannhalt was a father figure all right — a "Godfather figure."

To patrolmen Ken Conder, the language about "papa" makes perfect sense. Homeless kids try to recreate family with "street" dads, brothers, sisters, cousins, etc. They try to recreate the structure that failed them at home. The idea of Mannhalt as surrogate father makes sense in that context.

Conder remembers two "hardcore" kids coming up to him on the street one day. One of them told him something he hasn't forgotten more than 30 years later: "He said, 'I feel safer when you're on the beat than I do when I'm at home.'"

Jim Theofelis of The Mockingbird Society (at left), a foster care advocacy group, worked with Donut House kids. He would often take them outside the shop for private conversations, trying to make a connection as a first step to getting them into a shelter or foster care. He remembers the Donut Shop’s creepy vibe. But there seemed to be a street-kid ethic not to rat the place out, he says. The kids had their own motives for keeping quiet about the illegal activities that went on there. The Donut House was a kind of stand-in for home.

Theofelis tells about one night when he had coaxed a young Donut House habitue out into a nearby alley for a talk. The boy couldn't have been much older than 13. Theofelis pushed a little too hard and a little too quickly and the traumatized youth reacted by pulling a gun from his waistband and sticking it in Theofelis's chest.

Theofelis simply sat down in the alley and apologized for going too far too fast. The boy put the gun away, burst into tears and fled. It was two weeks before Theofelis could talk to him again.

The gun, says Theofelis, was a response to vulnerability, a reminder that many street kids — often victims of horrendous abuse — feel the need to protect themselves. The compulsion to control their relationships, to control who they allow in their "family", emerges from a deep mistrust of their own birth families. Many, he says, felt more at home, more congruent, when things were going wrong than when they were going right. Some had even found that blowing things up was a successful survival strategy. Theofelis recalls a girl he once worked with who avoided abuse by her stepfather — he was already abusing her sister — by acting out, doing anything to disrupt the violent family dynamic. In her situation, juvenile detention was safer. So were the streets.

In the immediate post-Donut Shop era — the early '80s — people in the First & Pike neighborhood complained that things got even worse. "[T]hose familiar with the First and Pike corner [say] the youths have been replaced by transients, by hard-core drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps,” said a 1983 news story about the corner. A police officer who had been walking the beat for six years told reporters that things "are as bad as they've ever been." The kids might have been a nuisance, some said, but they weren’t as bad as some of the grown-ups who replaced them.

Some social service workers lamented the loss of the Donut House too. However sinister, it was a gathering spot for street kids, which made it easy to find and try to help them. "It was the hub, a nexus of sorts,” Justin Reed Early says via Facebook. “There were no cell phones or computers, so it was the main place where everyone knew to find each other or relay messages to others regarding one another. It was our office."

Today's runaways have become part of a digital Diaspora — dispersed, mobile, connecting via smart phone or text. "At least you knew where the kids were," says Theofelis about the old Donut House, even if it did offer a "perverse dynamic."


The corner of First & Pike in the Donut House days. Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives.

The Donut House was a touchstone of its era. It was also an example of something common in the ecosystem of the streets where the vulnerable seek makeshift comforts in a self-built community. But it was also a place to repeat the patterns of exploitation and trauma that the street kids were fleeing in the first place.

For Seattle, the Donut House was a place to blame and shut down for the sake of public safety. But doing so gave us a false sense that the larger problem of youth homelessness and exploitation had been taken care of. Not true. Homeless kids are still on the streets, and as vulnerable as they ever were in the Donut Shop days.

We have a better support system today, more shelters, more programs, more teen drop-in centers. But social service agencies still struggle to find kids before they fall prey to the kinds of dangers that cling to places like the Donut Shop. The problem of youth homelessness goes way beyond the Donut House, but the goings on at that one downtown bakery was a wake-up call.

Go here for Part 1 of the Donut House series.

Justin Reed Early photo courtesy of justinreedearly.com.

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