Thomas J. Stewart, former Vashon resident, and 4 others killed in Arizona helicopter crash
February 16, 2010 · Updated 5:15 PM
Thomas J. Stewart, a controversial political and financial figure who delighted Islanders for years with his huge fireworks displays over Quartermaster Harbor, died in a horrific helicopter crash in a desert wash in Arizona Sunday.
Also killed in the fiery accident were his wife Madena and their young daughter Sydney, friends of the family reported. Rick Morton, his pilot of many years and a former Vashon resident, also perished in the accident, Morton's family members said Monday night. A fifth person was on the copter whose name has yet to be released by authorities.
Stewart, 64, the largest private landowner on Vashon whose estate Misty Isle Farms has been for sale since 2007, was apparently en route from the Flagstaff, Ariz., area to Scottsdale Air Park when his personal helicopter began to malfunction.
According to an eyewitness to the crash on Sunday, the copter was in obvious distress, tailspinning as it descended and exploding into flames after hitting the ground.
"Parts were flying off the helicopter," said John Hoeppner, a longtime resident of Cave Creek, Ariz., who lives just 200 yards from where Stewart's Eurocopter went down. "It went by our house making lots of noise, rattling the windows and then crashed."
Hoeppner, one of the first on the scene of the disaster, said he saw three bodies ejected from the helicopter — a man, a woman and a young girl. It was a "grisly" scene, he said, and he was unable to rescue anyone from the aircraft.
The cause of the crash is unknown, and investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration, National Transportation Safety Board and local law enforcement agencies are conducting an investigation of the scene to determine what may have caused the copter's malfunction and ensuing crash and fire.
Stewart was the chairman and CEO of Services Group of America, a privately held food service corporation that he founded more than 20 years ago and that currently boasts 4,000 employees and annual sales of more than $2.5 billion.
The company was based in the Delridge neighborhood of West Seattle for years until he moved both his business and personal residence to Arizona in 2006. He relocated to the Southwest, he said at the time, because of the Washington Legislature's decision to enact an inheritance tax that would have cost his estate millions had he been a Washington resident at the time of his death.
The owner of Vashon's 525-acre Misty Isle Farm, which was put on the market for $125 million in 2007, Stewart was a stalwart Republican who held summer picnics at his expansive Island estate that drew GOP luminaries such as Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp and Trent Lott.
Stewart was an adventurous traveler who took a horseback trip with his family across the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada and a jeep safari across Africa, according to a Services Group of America press release issued Monday. He was also an avid golfer, rancher, fisherman, skier and scuba diver.
A self-made man with a larger-than-life personality, Stewart ran afoul of both Seattle and state campaign laws in 1996, when he was found to have illegally funneled $60,000 to promote a ballot measure to change Seattle's citywide council elections to district races.
According to press reports, he tried to influence the outcome of the ballot measure because he wanted the Seattle City Council to approve a controversial helipad at his company's headquarters. He was fined $570,000 for violating public disclosure laws, the largest civil penalty in state history at the time. His helipad, which he wanted so that he could easily commute from Vashon to his corporate headquarters, was never built.
His reputation was further tarnished in 1998, when he was found guilty of violating federal election laws, laundering $100,000 in campaign contributions to GOP candidates through his company's employees. Most of that money was directed toward the congressional campaign of his friend and former Vashon neighbor, Pete Von Reichbauer, currently a King County councilman.
Stewart was ordered to pay $5 million in fines and serve 60 days of house arrest for his crime, the third-largest penalty in U.S. history for a violation of that kind.
But on Vashon, the sometimes controversial figure was also considered a generous man who supported a number of Island organizations and helped to shape the Vashon business scene. Stewart was the silent partner at the Back Bay Inn and other Island establishments.
He also funded the enormous fireworks shows in Quartermaster Harbor for years before leaving the Island in 2006. And he donated $10,000 to the construction of the Ober Park playground and opened the equestrian trails on his expansive ranch to local horseback riders.
"I think he was very generous to this community, and I think it was a loss when he left," said Melinda Sontgerath, owner of The Hardware Store Restaurant. "He supported a lot of do-good organizations on the Island."
Stewart was "a complex man," said Luke Lukoskie, owner of Vashon's Island Spring Tofu, who knew Stewart for 32 years.
"He was a wonderful man, and all of a sudden there's just this huge hole in my brain that has to be sorted out without him," he said. "This reminds you how quickly everything can disappear."
Lukoskie said Stewart was an important person in his life, and he extended his condolences to Stewart's surviving family, which includes four adult children.
"More than anybody else that's died in my life, I was devastated by the news," he said. "It reminds us how fragile we all are."
Stewart was a faithful member of the Vashon Eagles club, said Eagles member Nici Dawber. He often donated Misty Isle Angus beef to the club's dinners, she said, and even after moving to Arizona, he visited the Eagles club every time he was on Vashon.
"I didn't necessarily agree with his politics, but I think he meant well on Vashon; he certainly spent money on the Island, and we were all benefactors of his benevolence," she said. "People at the Eagles remember him fondly. He would come in here, and a lot of people may not even have known who he was. He just dressed in regular clothes — he didn't flaunt his money."
Stewart leaves behind an enormous estate that includes Misty Isle Farm on Vashon. Though the huge ranch off Wax Orchard Road was put up for sale in 2007 for $125 million, its price has since dropped by $30 million and the property is no longer being actively marketed for sale.
Ken Zaglin, owner of John L. Scott Real Estate on Vashon, said he did not think Stewart's death would affect the operations of Misty Isle Farm.
"I don't see this as having any impact at all on his property," Zaglin said. "I can't speak for his heirs, but to the best of my knowledge this will have no impact. ... I would think they'd (sell) it when the time is right and they can get a fair market value."