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Saturday, May 10, 2003

"She was the best mom in the world" - Seattle PI

...But those close to Crystal beg that she be remembered as more than simply a victim. She was a woman of uncommon grace and tenderness... She was also a woman who found the courage to seek a better life for herself and her children. "I think it took her a long time, but once she got her courage up, once she made up her mind, there was no going back," said Crystal's godmother, Judy Hellstrom of Tacoma. "She needed to get a happy life"...Crystal Brame mourned: 'She was the best mom in the world'

May 10, 2003

GIG HARBOR -- When she saw a first draft of her mother's obituary, the 8-year-old girl decided she needed to add a few thoughts.

Taking it off the computer printer, she grabbed a pencil and carefully wrote out a few words on behalf of herself and her 5-year-old brother.

Their mother, she wrote, "always let them have play dates with their friends and she was the best mom in the world."

The little girl's family and friends added another thought to Crystal Brame's obituary: "Her children were the loves of her life and she lived each day for them."

Her estranged husband, Tacoma police Chief David Brame, made their children orphans. On April 26, he took his service pistol from his holster and cut down Crystal in a Gig Harbor parking lot as the youngsters sat in his car nearby. He then killed himself.

The two had been involved in a contentious divorce with allegations of domestic violence. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer revealed those allegations the day before the shooting.

On May 3, Crystal, 35, died in Harborview Medical Center. Hundreds are expected at her 11 a.m. funeral today at Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church in Gig Harbor, just down the hill from the Brames' former family home.

Yesterday was an official day of mourning in Tacoma, and people gathered at a downtown park for a ceremony honoring Crystal. Among those attending, The Associated Press reported, was City Manager Ray Corpuz, who is on paid leave during an investigation of his role in appointing Brame as chief.

But those close to Crystal beg that she be remembered as more than simply a victim. She was a woman of uncommon grace and tenderness, they say, a natural beauty. She was also a woman who found the courage to seek a better life for herself and her children.

"I think it took her a long time, but once she got her courage up, once she made up her mind, there was no going back," said Crystal's godmother, Judy Hellstrom of Tacoma. "She needed to get a happy life."

Her family and Crystal's family have been close for 40 years, sharing holidays and important events together. Hellstrom was Crystal's godmother. Crystal's father, Lane Judson, is godfather to Hellstrom's son Brad Chatfield.

Crystal, her little sister Julie and Brad were constant friends growing up, and their families affectionately called them the Three Stooges. For nine years in a row, the families vacationed together at Ocean Shores every August for a week of barbecues, sand castles and go-cart rides.

Chatfield, a public information officer with the state Senate, remembers an affectionate girl who although only two years older, mothered both him and her little sister.

"She was always concerned about how everyone else was doing," he said. "She always looked out for me and Julie. That transferred over to her as a mother."

When she started ice skating as a young girl, she gravitated to competitions. She and her sister for years would hit the ice every morning at 4 or 5 a.m. to get their practice in before school. And when she decided at age 11 or 12 to turn her attention to ballet, she naturally got parts in productions such as "The Nutcracker," he said.

"She was just successful at everything she did," Chatfield said.

In Crystal's case, there just isn't anything bad to say, said Chatfield, who wrote her obituary. "She was the best," he said simply.

His heart aches now knowing the allegations of the abuse Crystal made in her divorce court files: her husband backing her into a closet with his gun, threatening her life, controlling her finances, her weight, where she went and with whom she spoke. He wishes she had said something.

"Crystal didn't want to burden us with that," Chatfield said. He thinks now that she feared "we would have looked at her differently."

David Curry met Crystal at Tacoma's Mount Tahoma High. Curry, the student body president, and his twin brother, Dean, were both friends with Crystal. The three graduated together in 1986. He remembers a pretty, sweet and hard-working girl, a tiny girl barely 5 feet tall.

"She wouldn't be the most gregarious person, but she was nice to everyone," he said.

Curry noted that Brame was nine years older than Crystal and that the couple married when she was 23.

"I can easily understand how she could have been overwhelmed by the charisma of an older man," he said.

Crystal, who was on the school's Daffodil Court, part of a venerable Pierce County festival, graduated with honors. Her high school English teacher remembered her fondly.

"She was one of the hardest-working students," said Lee Whitehall, who is now retired.

"In my opinion, she was the student any teacher would want, the daughter anyone would want."

Crystal worked hard to please, Whitehall said.

"I'm sure she approached marriage the same way: 'All right, I'll just have to work harder at it,' " she said. "She was lovely, and that's the truth."

Suzanne Stewart of Tacoma, who went to high school with Crystal, remembers a physically strong and self-confident girl.

"She was very determined," Stewart said. "I was completely shocked by this (abuse). She was not the kind of person who would shrink away."

The two drifted apart after high school. Stewart feels bad about that. "You just keep wondering that if we had kept in contact ...," she said, her voice trailing away.

Close friends of Crystal, a homemaker, are a little harder to find in recent years. Hellstrom said she believes David Brame didn't want his wife to have friends. One constant, Hellstrom said, was her sister Julie Ahrens, who also lives in Gig Harbor.

"It's been very hard on her sister," Hellstrom said. "They roomed together at the University of Washington, both majored in criminal justice and both married a (man named) David."

Michael Conmy, a neighbor on the cul-de-sac where the Brames lived, said Crystal often had a stooped, tightly wound look to her body. That changed after she moved out, he said: On a visit to the home to collect some items, she held her head tall, and threw her shoulders back.

"There was a strength to her, a defiance to her," he recalled.

She stopped to talk with him, and suddenly began detailing how she had been abused, Conmy said. He was shocked to hear that about the police chief of Tacoma.

"She said that he had put a gun her head," he said. "She said that the threats (to her life) were continuing. ... It was like a bomb going off in my head."

One friend in recent years was Linda Lee Clarke, owner of the home-decor shop Seasons on the Bay in Gig Harbor. Crystal loved the shop and came by frequently.

Clarke said the young mother had to scrounge for spare change to make her small purchases, because her husband controlled their finances so tightly.

"I'd see her count out these nickels and dimes, and I used to say, 'You're entitled to half of everything,' " Clarke recalled, her voice rising.

Crystal took her husband into the shop during the holidays to persuade him to buy the family a tall, flocked Christmas tree for which she longed, Clarke said. Crystal wouldn't or couldn't simply buy the tree herself.

"God bless her, Crystal got her tree," she said.

Not long after Christmas, Crystal took Clarke aside at the shop.

"She said, 'I want you to be the first to know, I left him,' " she said. "I hugged her and said I was so happy. I was so proud. That was a big decision for her. It has to be when you're so frightened. ... It must have taken an awful lot of love for her children to make that decision."

P-I reporter Elaine Porterfield can be reached at 206-870-7851 or elaineporterfield@seattlepi.com

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