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Saturday, April 24, 2004

Agonizing issues linger in Brame case - Seattle Post-Intelligencer

...Tacomans demanded answers. They wanted accountability. They wanted to know how a man like David Brame - who, it was soon discovered, had failed psychological tests when he applied to become a police officer, had been accused of rape after he joined the department, and had abused his wife after he had become chief -- could rise to the top law enforcement job in one of Washington's largest cities...

Agonizing issues linger in Brame case
Progress and pain a year after slayings that rocked Tacoma

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
By Jeffrey M. Barker
Saturday, April 24, 2004

TACOMA - Among the many ways to measure a year, there is the way a young boy who has lost his mother reacts to a Disney movie in which a young brown bear's mother dies.

Another way to measure a year: take an accounting of those who have come and gone - retired, or been fired, resigned or been placed on paid administrative leave.

There are also new laws and protocols. There are soon-to-be-completed investigations. There is the heightened sensitivity to issues of domestic violence. There are lawyers' fees.

One year ago Monday, Tacoma Police Chief David Brame confronted his estranged wife, Crystal, in the parking lot of a Gig Harbor shopping center. He fatally shot her and killed himself, while the couple's two children - 5 and 8 years old at the time -- waited in a car nearby.

The tragedy ripped open the city of Tacoma, revealing ills within its Police Department and City Hall.

Tacomans demanded answers. They wanted accountability. They wanted to know how a man like David Brame - who, it was soon discovered, had failed psychological tests when he applied to become a police officer, had been accused of rape after he joined the department, and had abused his wife after he had become chief -- could rise to the top law enforcement job in one of Washington's largest cities.

People here, having lost faith in their local leaders, wanted change. Some even petitioned to change the form of the city's government.

But little has happened. Or perhaps much has happened. It depends on which way you choose to measure a year.

Two children with questions

"It seems like this happened just two months ago," said Julie Ahrens, sitting at her kitchen table recently, trying to sum up the past year. "It doesn't get easier."

Ahrens is Crystal Brame's sister. She and her husband, David, now care for the Brames' children. The Ahrens won custody of Haley, 9, and David Jr., 6, in August.

"It's a reminder every day that their mom isn't here for them. We need to be here for them," Julie said.

The children have remained in the same school and continue with their normal activities, the Ahrens said. It's an attempt to make "life as normal as possible." Julie, for example, took a long-term leave of absence from her job so she can be at home at all times, just as the kids' mother used to be.

But Haley and David Jr. also receive counseling and sometimes ask questions about their parents. Recently they watched "Brother Bear," a cartoon movie about a baby bear whose mother has been killed by hunters. At the end of the movie, the bear sees his mother again as a spirit who rises to heaven.

"They had been begging and begging to watch it for weeks," said Julie. "It upset David. I used it as an opportunity to sit down and talk about things."

Now it's the boy's favorite movie. He watched it four times in one week.

"You can't always shield them from everything forever," Julie said.

The Ahrens, along with Crystal's parents, Lane and Patty Judson, continue to pursue a lawsuit seeking the truth of how David Brame got to be police chief and how his meltdown went unaddressed within the city and the Tacoma Police Department.

The Brames did not have to die, the family says. There were people who could have done something to prevent Brame from pulling the trigger on his department-issued .45-caliber handgun one year ago.

When family members initially filed their claim with the city in July they asked for $75 million, but they say they were willing to lower that number dramatically in return for the truth.

"To have to negotiate for the truth is frustrating," David Ahrens said.

The lawsuit has been stalled. Judges bowed out. Court venues were changed.

"A civil lawsuit is the only way we're ever going to find the truth," said Paul Luvera, a Seattle attorney working on the family's behalf.

He uses that lawsuit to measure the year, saying that if the city had been open and honest about the events that led up to last April 26 -- as many leaders said they wanted to do -- perhaps there would be no lawsuit.

"I think we would have been past this case by now," Luvera said. However, he has yet to take a single deposition.

Tim Gosselin, one of the attorneys representing Tacoma in the lawsuit, also said the case could have been settled long ago.

"The city made a very genuine effort to try to resolve this case very early on," Gosselin said.

But now, the city has a duty to defend against the suit and try to save taxpayers from paying out a large award, he said.

In Luvera's view, very little has happened in the past year.

"No one has been held accountable. No one has been disciplined," Luvera said. "What's happened in the past year in Tacoma: further scandals."


Accusations and denials of bribery of a police officer by a local architect.

The arrest of former City Manager Ray Corpuz on a drunken-driving charge.

Police Lt. Joe Kirby filing a $500,000 claim against the city, alleging harassment for being listed among people to be interviewed in the Brame investigation.

The state auditor condemning the city for sloppy accounting.

Another police officer accused of beating his wife.


Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma has a different take.

"The city's done all it can do," Baarsma said recently, counting off the number of investigations, committees, policies and leadership changes he attributes directly to the Brame tragedy.

"We have a new police chief, a new command staff. We have a new city manager. We have a new City Council," he said.

Indeed, there have been many changes at the top in Tacoma. Don Ramsdell has taken over the Police Department. Former Assistant Chief Catherine Woodard, a friend to Brame who is named in the lawsuit against the city and who briefly took over as chief after the suicide, has retired. Bill Meeks, another close friend of Brame's and a member of his command staff, voluntarily took a demotion in September.

Corpuz, who is also named in the suit and was responsible for promoting Brame to chief, was fired last year. His second-in-command, Jim Walton, was named city manager, and has agreed to stay on until the City Council can find a replacement.

The City Council got three new members in the November elections. Most of the new members campaigned for more open government and greater accountability within City Hall.

Also, in February, the Tacoma Police Department unveiled new protocols on how to deal with domestic violence cases involving officers.

"The good thing is, at least they have a policy," said Lara Herrmann, a Tacoma lawyer who last year helped lead Women For Justice, a group that first proposed a state law on domestic-violence policies in Crystal's honor. "But the question is: Is that policy effective?"

Herrmann, who now helps officers' spouses who have been victims of domestic violence, said the past year has seen a heightened awareness of domestic violence.

But it has not seen a restoration of public confidence in local government, she said. The city has not cleaned house and become transparent, as leaders had promised, she said.

"Here we are, a year later, and I can say that my city has failed me, failed the taxpayers of Tacoma, failed the Judson family."

Two investigations into the city administration -- tracing Brame from his hiring, through his promotion to chief, to the day of the shootings -- were delayed but are wrapping up. The city expects to receive the reports -- one by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, the other by the Washington State Patrol -- next month.

The State Patrol had concluded that no criminal acts had occurred. It is now looking into whether anyone violated city or Police Department policy. The sheriffs and police chiefs investigation will be handed to a citizens committee that was formed by former Deputy Mayor Bil Moss.

In addition, the FBI continues to scour Tacoma, looking into allegations of government corruption.

If any wrongdoing is outlined in the reports, Baarsma said, "action will be taken."


"At some point, something positive has to come of this," David Ahrens said, "because there's been so much negative."

He said the family owes it to Crystal -- and to her children and the grandchildren who may one day be born -- to make sure she made a difference in this world. And for now, that means pressing the lawsuit until everything is clear, and someone is held accountable.

"The longer this drags out, the more determined the family gets," attorney Luvera said.


Some of those who rallied to support Crystal Brame and other victims of domestic violence ask that people honor her by wearing purple ribbons on Monday and observing a moment of silence at the time she was shot: 3:10 p.m. Her family has set up a Web site inviting tributes: www.remembercrystal.com/

P-I reporter Jeffrey M. Barker can be reached at 206-870-7852 or jeffreybarker@seattlepi.com


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