Seattle loses its chronicler of vice: journalist Rick Anderson

A 2015 photograph with Rick Anderson at far right, and friends from left, Joe Frederickson, Bruce Lloyd, and Tony Johnson. (Courtesy of Joe Frederickson)

I wish Rick Anderson had written his own obituary because he was the most passionate storyteller in town. But Anderson wasn’t interested in documenting his own life, much as it might have fit his knack for writing about Seattle’s grittier side. He was a legendary local journalist, columnist and author always looking for the next story. That searching ended as Anderson, alone at his daughter’s home, was found dead of congestive heart failure Dec. 24, according to his ex-wife of some 30 years, Monica “Mo” Trinkl, a local investigator. Anderson was 77 and was beset with health and financial problems in recent years.

But those issues didn’t stop Rick from writing. Nothing could, really. I was Anderson’s editor at the Seattle Weekly, where he worked for two decades (and where, in 2006, he became the first writer to accumulate 1 million views for his stories). I was also a lifelong fan. I remember as a kid asking my father why we subscribed to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and not The Seattle Times. “The P-I has the best columnists,” he replied, “Emmett Watson and Rick Anderson.”

“The number one thing in his life was his work, his writing,” says Trinkl. At the Weekly, he once told me, he couldn’t stand an issue of the paper coming out without his byline in it. If I passed along a story tip he liked, he would simply say, “Beauty.”

Anderson was a longtime staffer at the Seattle P-I, The Times, the Weekly, and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and more recently Crosscut. He wrote and reported on a wide variety of Northwest subjects. His most recently Crosscut story, from mid-November, was titled “The Kirkland Con Man Who Just Couldn’t Stop.”

Anderson had a kind of cherubic face, but his stock in trade was Seattle’s angel-impoverished underbelly. During the time when I edited him at the Weekly, he stood out from the staff of college-educated yuppies, hippies and up-and-comers. Below that cherubic countenance, one that could also look very no-nonsense, he wore black pullover nylon shirts that revealed gold chains around his neck, which matched the blond hair he inherited from his Swedish genes. A long black overcoat or leather jacket completed a wardrobe that suggested the fashion sense of Johnny Cash. One person who knew him well described his outfits as looking like “one of those guys throwing his life away at the casino.”

It might have eased his entry into the world he found so inspiring. Anderson made journalistic gold writing about Seattle’s dark side. He was the Boswell of the city’s late Skid Road era of the 1960s and into the 21st century. He literally wrote the book on that with his Seattle Vice: Strippers, Prostitution, Dirty Money and Crooked Cops in the Emerald City, published in 2010. One Anderson line from that book captured the then-seedy Pike-Pine corridor of the 1970s and early ’80s, a world of pimps and prostitutes, street kids, thieves, dealers and drunks. A local denizen, Andy Brodie, spotted a friend crossing First and Pike. “He shouted ‘Hey asshole,’ [and] everyone in the street turned around.” These folks were often the stuff of Anderson’s work.

Anderson grew up in the timber town of Hoquiam in southwestern Washington; his father was a millworker. But Anderson wanted to escape small-town life and be a writer in the city. He worked for numerous newspapers on the West Coast, from San Francisco to Mount Vernon, climbed his way up from copy boy to reporter and sports columnist, and finally a free-range columnist for the biggest daily in the state at The Times. He worked in an era when his fellow newsroom buddies at the P-I included folks like Tom Robbins, Frank Herbert and Darrell Bob Houston.

Anderson was passionate about justice. He liked exposing con men and corrupt cops. He continued to be fascinated by the murder of civil rights activist Edwin Pratt, a cold case from 1969 and what was almost certainly a political assassination. He also cared about veterans. He wrote bios of the fallen and a book, Home Front: The Government’s War on Soldiers, about the systematic failure to provide health care for service members and veterans.

He often introduced readers into places they passed but would never go into. His best pal, Tony Johnson, a former printer at the P-I and The Times, recalls that back in the late ’70s, before Belltown and Pike Place had condos, he and Anderson took then-Mayor Charles Royer on a barhopping tour in the neighborhood. They came to one very rough place and the tour guides balked at taking the mayor into such a dangerous place. “I’m mayor in there, too,” Johnson recounts the mayor as saying, and so they went in.

Anderson’s longtime watering hole of choice was Lowell’s in the Pike Place Market, where he, Johnson and other pals were regulars. For Anderson, his fellow patrons weren’t just drinking companions but sources. Here is where Anderson picked up scuttlebutt, stories about police payoffs, corrupt doughnut merchants, strange characters, crime families. Anderson also met Trinkl there. She was a bartender. On their first date to the sketchy and notorious Nitelite Lounge nearby, he thought he might shock her, but instead everyone in the place already knew her. Anderson must have been smitten.

It was at the Nitelite that Anderson witnessed the nightlife figure Frank Colacurcio beat a drunken patron with a metal bar on the front sidewalk. Colacurcio headed a family that was involved in topless clubs and various illegal activities and racketeering. Not Mafia, but a family-run business that Anderson said “never quite made the criminal bigtime.” A kind of semi-Sopranos.

No story in my years of working with Anderson better suited his experience and knowledge than the so-called Strippergate city council scandal in the early ’00s, when the Colacurcio network made illegal campaign contributions to several city council members in an apparent effort to influence a land-use decision to expand a parking lot at their Lake City strip club, Rick’s (the name bore no relationship with Anderson). One of the council members then under a cloud for having accepted contributions, Judy Nicastro, described the scandal as “like a bad episode of the Sopranos.” Still, Anderson was well-positioned to tell the story. He had sources in and outside the Colacurcio sphere and reminded the city of the family’s criminal past and present. A former governor, the late Albert Rosellini, who owned adjacent property, was also tied to the affair. No big deal in a place like Chicago or New York, perhaps, but headlines locally.

Rick’s interest in local crime has inspired a new generation of Seattleites. Mark Siano and Opal Peachey turned Anderson’s “Seattle Vice” into a musical cabaret comedy for ACT Theatre in 2015. It focused on the seedy Pike-Pine years of the ’60s and dramatized the story of a naked man who woke up on the floor of a bar one morning and asked the bartender for a drink. The bartender said, “No, first because you are naked and don’t have money, or you have the money and are hiding it on you, and in that case I don’t want it.” Anderson loved the performance, and so apparently did members of the Colacurcio family who attended, says Sciano. Needless to say, Anderson’s coverage of their family had not endeared him to them.

A few years ago, Anderson and I had coffee to talk stories and he told me, “I have Frank Colacurcio’s couch.” Apparently, Anderson and Trinkl had gone to a Colacurcio family yard sale in Lake City and had picked up a love seat and a set of champagne glasses. I asked Mo about it. She says, “That’s why he’s dead.” She said that since getting that couch, Anderson had a string of bad luck in terms of health and other issues in his life. “I told him, ‘Frank is getting back at you.’”

“Columnist Cursed by Criminal Boss’ Couch” sounds like the perfect headline for a Rick Anderson story. I wish he were around to write it.

This article has been updated since it first appeared to correct Rick Anderson's age and the spelling of Mark Siano's name.

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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.