Domicile of Dysfunction

The aroma of Tacoma, the states biggest small town, has nothing to do with industry.

LIKELY NOT EVERYONE in Tacoma heard that former Pierce County Sheriff Mark French was being investigated for child porn recently. According to news reports, French's computer was confiscated in a probe of a Russia-based pornography Web site. Once accused in court of unsubstantiated claims that he beat his wife and used drugs, the stories noted, French was also wrongly investigated a few years back in connection with the apparent murder of a newspaper reporter who later turned up alive in Alaska.

Mind-boggling as that news was, Tacoma was transfixed on the actions of another local law-enforcement officer that day, April 26. Police Chief David Brame, 44, had mortally wounded his estranged wife Crystal, 35, in proximity of their two children, then killed himself. Coincidentally, driving onto the killing scene at a Gig Harbor business mall shortly after the shooting was a juvenile court official who, horrified, days later revealed she had once been raped by then-officer Brame. Reaction swamped the Tacoma Police Department and City Hall, where the rape allegations had been covered up, along with a psychologist's warning two decades earlier that Brame was unfit for police work.

A police chief not even qualified to be a cop, who also raped and murdered. It was tragic. It was astonishing. It was Tacoma, the state's biggest small town, where some say the fabled industrial smellsthe aroma of Tacomawere often second to the odor in its courts and the decay of its government offices. Even a partial review of the City of Destiny's recent history reads more like Newark's: a sheriff imprisoned for taking payoffs, an auditor imprisoned for soliciting bribes, a county jurist permanently barred from the bench for accepting a free Cadillac, and an oddball assortment of local judges including one who decided cases with a coin flip, another who threatened traffic offenders with life sentences, and one who invited jurors into his chambers for beer.

AS MORE OF the Brame story unfoldsat least four investigations are under way this weekthe locals worry that Tacoma, its dismal business core finally staging a rebirth, has slipped backward. "You see the ups and downs, and you hope that's all they are, blips on the road to success," says Stan Naccarato, a trim 75 and a lifelong Tacoma businessman, sportsman, and civic booster. "The past decade has been among the best in Tacoma's history. And I think we should wait to see how all this shakes out, and how the city handles it, first." He was waiting to speak last week at a packed City Council session in the art deco City Hall on St. Helen's Avenue. Some of those ahead of him had already made up their minds, lining up to tell the bickering, finger- pointing council and its mayor, Bill Baarsma, that they were making things worse. Baarsma, a craggy-faced college professora young David Brame was once among his studentsspoke heartily to the crowd and his colleagues like they were in his class: "Excellent point!" he'd observe. "Well said!" The council sat under the white-hot TV lights, absorbing the political heat as citizens and civic gadflies such as flower peddler Will Baker, once arrested for refusing to stop speaking at a council meeting, told them they "have a problem being honest with the citizens of Tacoma." The facade of the city's recovery suddenly seemed cracked.

STILL, AS NACCARATO NOTED, how much of this is about the Tacoma way? There are elements of local corruption but also the unfortunately more-common aspect of a bungled case of domestic violence. "How would anyone really know Brame would do anything like that?" Naccarato earnestly asks. By most accounts, Brame was outwardly a good cop and administrator. But he bore a burden of secretsof failing a rookie test, of having committed a felony, of dodging answers on his chief's r鳵m鬠of being an abusive husband and a control freak. (A complete "investigative audit" of his 22-year police career is under way.) When he was inducted as chief, Brame, a Tacoma native, said, "I've lived and breathed the Tacoma Police Department my entire life." He followed his cop father into the profession in 1981, joining three additional family members under the badge. Within seven years, Brame stood quietly accused of rape. But the 1988 internal- investigations complaint was washed by the department. Then-chief Ray Fjetland deemed the victim's claim "not sustained," ending the case before it could be seen by a prosecutora break that citizen suspects don't get. A fellow police officer says Brame admitted the rape to him, although the cop agreed not to squeal if Brame went for counseling. A detective who investigated the case nonetheless now says there was enough evidence to sustain a charge.

That information was available before Brame was elevated to chief Dec. 28, 2001, by City Manager Ray Corpuz, a longtime bureaucrat. Brame had also submitted what some job screeners called a questionable list of personal references that were incomplete and misleading. He still got the job. By then, his marriage of a decade was on the rocks. In court papers, his wife says he tried to choke her four times the first year he was chief. Early this year, she moved out and filed for divorce, saying he'd been threatening her with his gun. Brame, a foot taller and 70 pounds heavier, insisted it was really Crystal who was the abuser. As far back as 1996, court papers indicate, he was telling Gig Harbor police that he was being physically abused by her and was ashamed to admit itpossibly laying groundwork for a defense should his abusive habit come to light.

ON APRIL 11, some of it did, when the chief arrived at Crystal's door. In a 911 call, she sounded not unlike Nicole Simpson did with O.J. at her door: "The reason that this is such an issue," she told a sheriff's operator, "is because he is the chief of police for Tacoma. He does carry a firearm." The sheriff's department did not respond to take a report, even though that is considered standard procedure. Two weeks later, April 25, news broke of the divorce battle and allegations. Corpuz still insisted Brame was "doing a great job." City Attorney Robin Jenkinson rejected an internal proposal by other city officials that Brame be disarmed, and Corpuz went along, feeling it was a civil matter. The next day, Brame shot his wife and himself. (Corpuz this week announced his pending retirement.) Foremost among the questions was what else could Crystal Brame have done to protect herself? How, exactly, do you call the police on the police?

Lara Herrmann hopes she has the answer. She and a group called Women for Justice have proposed legislation called the Crystal Clear Act. It is likely to become law in Tacoma and, Herrmann fancies, perhaps even nationwide. The novel proposal would create for spouses, partners, and family members of police, firefighters, and public officials a safe, independent agency other than police to which to report incidents of domestic assault. Blue would no longer investigate blue. "As it is right now, police spouses really have nowhere to turn," says Herrmann, a young Tacoma attorney whose grandfather is former state insurance commissioner Karl Herrmann. "As you've seen in Crystal's case, a tragedy will occur if they don't have anyone to listen to them." The law, in fact, could be a cornerstone in the city's other recovery effort. "We can learn from all this," Herrmann says. "And Tacoma will be a better city because of it."

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