The Toughest Bar in America
By Chris Rodell
Esquire
September 2003

Regulars at the Waterfront Seafood & Bar seem intent on making a good impression. The only problem is that for a bloody few a "good impression" has always meant a really deep dent in the skull. The Bellingham, Washington, saloon is the homicidal nexus for three of America's most notorious serial killers -- Ted Bundy, Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi and alleged D.C. sniper John Muhammad -- and they were all considered good customers. So what's the Waterfront's idea of a bad customer? "That would be anybody who steals, breaks something, starts a fight or dies during my shift," says bartender Cheri Rookstool.The dimly lit bar sits on barnacle-encrusted stilts above Bellingham Bay. On a recent Friday evening, there was no evidence, forensic or anecdotal, that there were any bad customers in the Waterfront. None of the 30 or so swaying inebriates seemed likely candidates to sever, ventilate or asphyxiate any unsuspecting heads. That benign nature made them all suspect in the eyes of bartender Wally Oyen.

"Bianchi was the nicest guy in the world," Oyen says. "That's why I wasn't surprised by Muhammad. Bianchi taught me you just never know."

Of course, it didn't surprise anyone when regular James Allen Kinney was convicted of the 1998 murder of a local woman: "Now that guy was an obnoxious ass," Oyen says.

No one can explain why the bloodthirsty choose the Waterfront when they're thirsting for non-corpuscular quenchers, but regular John Riley has a theory: The bar's situated at the lowest point in a hilly town that's as far as anyone can run in America without leaving the country. "Restless troublemakers roll into town and then gravity brings them down to the Waterfront," says Riley, who likes to boast he's the only man on earth who's been friendly with both Muhammad and the squirrely actor who played farm reporter Less Nessman on "WKRP in Cincinnati," at least one of whom is among history's worst monsters.

Posted signs advise proper conduct on everything from loitering (not allowed) to five detailed steps for check cashing (No. 2: "Locals only!"). Nothing gently hints thou shalt not kill anyone who doesn't really have it coming.

That's a pity because strangers invariably wind up immersed in gory discussions of how former Waterfront patrons, now incarcerated in penitentiaries or hell, have combined to dispatch a minimum of 51 innocent souls. It's enough to leave even soda-sipping designated drivers with real killer hangovers.

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