Brame ends wife's hopes for a new life

When the police chief's private life became public, he made good on his threats

September 16, 2003 

Crystal Brame stood over a German chocolate cake, took a big breath and blew out the candles.

It was her 35th birthday, and this year she gave herself an early gift: She was starting a new life.

"She was so happy," recalled brother-in-law David Ahrens, who was there. "She looked 10 years younger."

At her parents' Gig Harbor home, she laughed easily as she opened presents with her family, including her 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son.

On April 24, the future was hers.

After 11 years of marriage to Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, Crystal was free. Finally, she was divorcing David after enduring years of manipulation and violence.

She bubbled with happy plans. She would go to law school, and raise her children as a single mother. She talked of making whipped cream pies for summer pie fights with them.

That same day at the keno tables in Las Vegas, David Brame played numbers representing his wife's birthday - 4,24,68 - even as his life lurched out of control.

For weeks, his mental state had see-sawed between depression and hope. One day, he barely functioned at work, the next he was the man in charge.

In dozens of phone calls that last week of his life, Brame reached out for support from family, friends and allies. He tried to discredit his wife's accusations of violence and sexual promiscuity, fearing they would ruin his career.

Crystal was "hysterical," her claims "without foundation," he wrote in court papers. "She's crazy," he told colleagues.

Now, as reporters from The News Tribune and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer looked into his divorce, he confronted his worst fear: His private life - his sexual obsessions, his history of domestic abuse - was becoming public. He hinted that something bad was going to happen.

On April 26, it did. With daughter Haley and son David Jr. nearby, Brame fatally shot Crystal, then killed himself.

The police chief's violence shocked and bewildered Tacoma. But Crystal had told friends and family for weeks that she feared her husband would try to kill her, despite her best efforts to protect herself.

"I don't want to become another Nicole Simpson," she wrote in a March 19 birthday card to her childhood friend Lori Ham.

Divided in their divorce, united in their fear of the future, Crystal and David Brame faced their final week.

Monday morning, April 21

Brame began his last week of work after moving from the couple's house on Eagle Creek Lane in Gig Harbor to a nearly empty apartment in the Gold Pointe complex in Tacoma.

He arrived at City Hall at 8:30 a.m. Monday for the weekly meeting of the city's department leaders. For Brame, it was a rare appearance. The 90-minute meetings were mandatory, but he missed them routinely, often sending an assistant chief.

David Otto sat at Brame's right. Manager of the city's information systems, he had known Brame for nearly a decade. The Ottos lived across the street from the Brames in Gig Harbor, and their daughters played together.

Brame looked haggard to Otto, who knew his neighbors were divorcing. Otto himself had been divorced, and cautioned himself against taking sides.

Otto's wife, Nancy, however, never warmed to Brame. He wouldn't look her in the eye and impatiently folded his arms whenever he saw Crystal talking with her.

Shortly after Crystal filed for divorce in February, Brame had pointed a gun at her, Crystal confided to Nancy Otto. She urged Crystal to never be alone with Brame.

"He is really screwed up," Nancy Otto told her husband later.

That Monday, sitting next to Brame, David Otto stared at Brame's gun. He couldn't help thinking of the chief pointing the weapon at Crystal.

"That is a damn big gun," he thought.

After the meeting, the chief canceled police union meetings set for 10 and 10:30 a.m. and called off a 1:30-3 p.m. meeting with his command staff. At 4 p.m. he got a briefing on the new police headquarters under construction.

Lt. Bob Ruiz popped his head into Brame's office to ask about their upcoming RV trip. Brame had tentatively accepted but now told Ruiz he couldn't go, because he needed to attend a police employment seminar in Las Vegas.

"Cancel that, and go fishing with me," said Ruiz, who'd recently noticed Brame was stressed. The chief still said no.

Ruiz was disappointed, but let it go. He noticed Brame seemed happy and upbeat in spite of his troubles.

About 4:30, Brame called his parents' house. He skipped a 6:30 p.m. East Side Neighborhood meeting, and sent assistant chief Don Ramsdell instead.

That night at his Tacoma apartment, Brame called his sister, Jane Brazell. Then he got ready for his trip to Las Vegas and called Capt. Mark Langford just before 8:15 p.m. to arrange a ride to the airport in the morning.

In Gig Harbor Monday evening, Crystal gathered with her family at her sister's house to celebrate her brother-in-law's 34th birthday. It was a happy time, with cake and presents.

The family laughed about attending two birthday parties the same week.

Gossip about the Brames' divorce had echoed through city government and the police department in hushed tones. Now, the chief's private life was about to become public.

Early Tuesday, April 22

John Hathaway hit the send button on his computer at 2:11 a.m. Publisher of the Web newsletter The New Takhoman, Hathaway was e-mailing his story about the Brames' divorce to about 300 people, including members of the media, Mayor Bill Baarsma, the City Council and a dozen city employees, including human resources director Phil Knudsen.

Written like the script of a 1940s detective movie, the story said David Brame was frolicking "among the glitz and glamour" of Las Vegas while his wife "tried to put her life back together."

Then, eight paragraphs into the 11-paragraph article, it got to the point:

"What started out as an amicable divorce proceeding, filed in King County on February 24, has turned out to be the biggest scandal this 'Sin City' has seen since Commissioner Kerr got caught with his pants down on K Street more than 50 years ago.

"(T)here are accusations of requested sexual favors, a loaded service weapon left within children's reach and death threats."

The e-mail offered no details, and ended with a Hollywood fade-out.

Shortly before 8 a.m., Brame checked in by phone with his assistant, Jeanette Blackwell. About a half-hour later he called Langford, whose wife was to drive both men to Sea-Tac Airport for Alaska Airlines Flight 6520 to Las Vegas.

Then Brame twice called the Gig Harbor house, but got no answer. Crystal was spending time there cleaning before moving back with the kids. He also called his parents and brother, Gene Jr.

Before leaving town, Brame stopped at his office before 9 a.m. and read his e-mail, including Hathaway's newsletter.

Assistant chief Bill Meeks watched Brame as he stared at the computer screen, uttering words here and there as he read.

"What do I do?" Brame asked.

"You go to the conference, and you do your job," Meeks replied.

On the ride to the airport, Brame was quiet. His plane took off at 11 a.m. and landed shortly before 1:30 p.m. He checked into the Flamingo Hotel, located in the heart of the famed Strip.

Las Vegas held special meaning for Brame. Nearly a year earlier, he and Crystal had celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary at the luxury hotel Belagio, home of "Ocean's 11" movie fame.

This time, there was no Crystal. It was all business. Brame was there for a three-day labor seminar on collective bargaining, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and how police officers could be held liable for on-the-job misdeeds.

Brame called into the office about 3 p.m., speaking again with Blackwell and checking his phone messages.

By then, Hathaway's e-mail was circulating throughout City Hall, landing in the finance, police, public works and legal departments.

Some passed it along. Others deleted it, dismissing it as the ranting of a fringe journalist. City Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg and Councilman Kevin Phelps read the nondescript subject line - New Takhoman Vol. 3, No. 70 - and deleted the e-mail without opening it.

Reporters, whose questions about the divorce Brame had ignored for more than a week, renewed their inquiries.

That evening, Brame and the Tacoma police contingent left the Flamingo and headed to the Belagio.

The chief was with co-workers and friends he'd known for years: assistant chiefs Richard McCrea and Don Ramsdell, Langford, Lt. Mike Ake, detective Barry McColeman, Sgt. Sean Gustafson, officer Pat Frantz and department spokesman Jim Mattheis. By now, some of them knew about the chief's divorce and tried to distract him from his gloom. (None said they knew of the death threats.)

At the keno table, Brame played the numbers in Crystal's birthday, along with numbers his mother had given him. He also liked one of the Belagio's dollar slots where he had once won. He returned to the same machine in search of luck.

In Gig Harbor, Crystal sat at a computer upstairs in her parents' Canterwood home, learning a word-processing program. She worked late, reviewing court papers in her divorce case.

Wednesday, April 23

At the Flamingo, Brame began the day with a 9 a.m. orientation session, where he listened to his longtime friend and mentor, Will Aitchison.

When he was sworn in as Tacoma's police chief a year earlier, Brame praised the Portland attorney for his brilliance. Now he listened as Aitchison outlined the topics the cops would cover over the next few days.

Brame, a one-time vice president of Tacoma's police union, loved to talk shop. Here, at least, he was among his own, even as his disintegrating home life dominated his thoughts.

At 10:30 a.m., Brame attended another session led by Aitchison, who talked about union basics: selecting members of a negotiating team, developing bargaining priorities and dealing with unfair labor practices.

Brame turned off his cell phone and spent most of the day in class.

In Fife, Crystal handed her attorney, Joseph Lombino, her notes for the response to Brame's counter-claims. (He accused Crystal of being the aggressor in a violent relationship.) She wanted a protective order to keep her husband away from her.

She waited at her lawyer's office from late morning to early afternoon to give him some papers.

"You still being sued?"

Aitchison tossed the smart-aleck greeting at Brame at the 4:15 p.m. reception for conference-goers.

Brame responded with grim wit.

"No," he answered, "but I'm being sued by someone else."

Aitchison was talking about the contentious 1999 lawsuit by Tacoma police Lt. Joe Kirby, who alleged Brame and others treated him unfairly, passing him over for promotion while others got away with serious, even criminal matters.

But Brame was agonizing over his own divorce.

"I'll tell you about it later," he told Aitchison.

Later that evening, Brame and a few of the Tacoma contingent returned to the Belagio, where he spent some time back at his favorite slot machine.

Thursday, April 24

At 7:45 a.m., Brame again called the house on Eagle Creek Lane. This time he left Crystal a message:

"I was calling to wish you a happy birthday," he said, his voice sullen. "I guess this is the thing I should do."

A while later, Aitchison met Brame for breakfast, and the two talked about the divorce. Brame said he was worried about his relationship with his children and his ability to spend time with them.

Aitchison had been divorced himself, and Brame's colleagues hoped he could offer the chief a dose of optimism. But when Brame returned from breakfast, he felt worse, not better, he told friends. He hinted that he might never recover financially from divorce.

Brame had kept tight control of his family's finances, amassing $70,000 in savings and doling out $100 to Crystal every two weeks for food and other day-to-day expenses.

After a divorce, Brame's financial resources would shrivel. Under Crystal's demands, he would have $52,061 left of his $115,661 annual take-home pay. Crystal and the children would get $63,600 in child support, spousal support and mortgage payments. He wouldn't do much better under his own counterproposal, netting about $56,153 after paying $59,508 to Crystal.

The idea of paying his wife more than half of his net income galled Brame. He told friends he'd even thought of moving back in with his mother and father.

Brame went back to class at 9 a.m. About mid-morning, Jim Mattheis pulled him out to let him know the Seattle P-I would run a story about the divorce the next day.

As far as Brame was concerned, the conference was over. He went back to his room and began a frenzy of cell phone calls, no fewer than 38 during the next 12 hours.

First he phoned his divorce attorney, Anne Meath. Minutes later, at about 10:43 a.m., he dialed City Manager Ray Corpuz. Then he checked his cell phone messages four times in 10 minutes.

At 12:17 p.m., he tried to reach his assistant, Blackwell. By 2:22 p.m., he'd put through three other calls to her before reaching her for a five-minute conversation.

Brame next called City Councilman Rick Talbert, seeking a friendly voice. Talbert, like Brame, was an East Sider who had attended Gault Middle School and Lincoln High School.

The chief worried about his job.

"What you need to be most concerned about right now is your family," Talbert told him, unaware of the allegations of violence. "Take care of your kids, and everything will be OK."

"My job is everything," Brame told Talbert.

On her 35th birthday, Crystal was radiant and happy. She wore jeans, sneakers and a sweater in her favorite color - bright yellow - to set off her tan. Her jeans were baggy from the pounds she'd lost. At 5 feet 1, she weighed 99 pounds.

Crystal showed up at Oasis Tanning in Gig Harbor with her mother and daughter for a 4:14 p.m. appointment. She tanned for 13 minutes.

Oasis was just that for Crystal. She had visited 227 times since March 2001, when her sister, Julie, gave her a $150 gift membership entitling her to unlimited visits. Days after Crystal got her membership, Brame went to the salon to get his own.

Crystal often talked with Oasis owner Debbie Phillips, who had left a bad marriage of her own in September 2002. The two commiserated and laughed sarcastically at their husbands' bad taste in gifts. On his visits, Brame would saunter through the salon, unaware that Phillips knew just about everything he had said or done to Crystal.

Phillips also helped Crystal rebuild her self-confidence. Crystal watched her learn accounting spreadsheets and move her company out of debt. Little by little, Crystal began to think that she could also make it on her own.

That Thursday at Oasis, Crystal's mother, Patty Judson, and her daughter, Haley, chattered away. Crystal, content among friends and family, smiled as Phillips fed a customer's baby.

"I remember when Haley and David were this small," she said.

At City Hall, senior leaders fretted as they learned of the Brames' bitter divorce.

"There are some ugly rumors out there about Brame," human resources director Phil Knudsen told City Manager Ray Corpuz.

"Yes, I know," the city manager replied.

At one point, Mayor Bill Baarsma was concerned enough to call Brame in Las Vegas. Brame asked Baarsma whether he would back him.

"Yeah, I'll support you," Baarsma said, interpreting the question as a request for emotional support.

Brame handed the phone to Mattheis, who asked what the mayor had heard about the divorce. Baarsma said reporters had called him with questions about Brame's divorce, and the allegations of domestic violence shocked him.

About 6 p.m., Crystal drove to her parents' house, where she had been living since moving out of the Eagle Creek Lane house Feb. 24. Julie and David Ahrens were there, along with Crystal's children and her parents, Patty and Lane Judson. For the first time in years, Crystal celebrated her birthday without Brame. Her mother made the cake she wanted - German chocolate with coconut frosting, not the cream cheese style Brame liked.

The family ate dinner and cake and opened presents. Julie gave her a cornflower blue Ralph Lauren blouse with pink Hawaiian flowers. She opened another present, a bottle of perfume.

In Las Vegas, Brame hopped into a nine-passenger van and rode with his co-workers to an Outback Steakhouse for dinner about 6 p.m. Tacoma's finest sat in two adjacent booths. Brame was sullen and ignored his dinner and the others. Growing tired of his dark mood, they left him out of the table talk.

About 8 p.m., the group headed to the Hard Rock Cafe, where Howard Stern was performing. It was too crowded, so they tried the Aladdin.

Brame wanted to go to the Belagio, but no one wanted to tag along and share his mood. So they dropped him there. The van door slammed shut and the others drove off.

Brame spent some time alone at the Belagio, then returned to the Flamingo. He called Crystal at least four times between 8:38 and 9:44 p.m. His mood darkened when they discussed his plans to pick up the children Friday. Crystal's mother listened in after Crystal turned up the volume on the phone.

Recalling the conversation, Patty Judson said Brame began referring to his wife in the past tense. At the time, Crystal and the family assumed Brame was referring to a possible custody battle.

"You were the mother of those children," Brame told his wife.

"I am the mother of those children," Crystal replied.

"No, you were the mother of the children," Brame said.

"I am the mother of the children," Crystal said emphatically.

"You are not listening to me: You were the mother of those children," Brame said.

Later that night, he called Crystal again.

"I have a really big birthday gift for you," Brame said. "But you'll have to wait until I get home, because I have to give it to you in person."

Crystal later told Nancy Otto, her friend and neighbor, that she took Brame's remarks as a threat. Otto repeated her warning to Crystal to never be alone with her husband.

Brame also spoke of reconciling. Trying to keep her husband on an even keel, Crystal told Brame that wasn't impossible. But her real reaction, expressed to Nancy Otto, was, "Yeah, you're nuts."

When he met Mattheis and McColeman at the Aladdin about 10:30 p.m., Brame's mood was dramatically different. He was excited about the thought of reuniting with Crystal.

Brame's appetite returned. The notoriously frugal chief wolfed down a roast beef sandwich and bought Mattheis a milk shake and McColeman a slice of apple pie.

Later, Brame joined the others at the Aladdin before walking back to the Flamingo with Ramsdell. Brame talked about seeing his children the next day.

About midnight, the others went to bed to get ready for the next day's session while Brame and Ramsdell talked and played the gaming machines.

Friday, April 25

Brame began the morning with a 6:11 a.m. call, the first of 45 that day. He phoned his assistant at her home. She read him the online version of the Seattle P-I's story detailing the allegations of violence in his marriage.

As planned, the chief skipped the final day of the seminar.

In Tacoma, reporters bombarded the department with questions about the divorce.

Detective Barry McColeman drove Brame to the Las Vegas airport. Brame seemed OK, McColeman thought, even as the grim charges and counter-charges of his divorce became public.

"He knew the substance of what would be printed," the detective said.

Brame kept talking about getting his kids that afternoon. He didn't want to be late.

Just before boarding his flight, Brame made an 8:24 a.m. call to detective Norm Conaway, a seriously ill friend who died from kidney failure about three months later. It was a short call and Brame soon flew home.

Northwest television stations had picked up the story and media inquiries flooded the Pierce County Sheriff's Department and Gig Harbor police.

Mattheis, moving up his departure to deal with the uproar in Tacoma, flew out an hour after the chief.

Brame arrived at Sea-Tac Airport shortly before noon. Lt. Bob Sheehan drove him to the office.

As a courtesy, Gig Harbor Police Chief Mitch Barker called Brame to let him know he would answer reporters' questions about a September 1996 police report Brame filed. In the report, Brame said Crystal had dug her fingernails into his left shoulder, causing pain and redness.

Brame was polite on the phone, but seemed sad, Barker said.

Sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer called Brame to say that he, too, would be responding to reporters.

"Are you a praying man?" Brame asked Troyer.

"What?" Troyer asked.

"We need some prayers to straighten this out," he said.

The minute-long conversation caught Troyer off guard, since he had spoken with Brame only a few times during the past year.

Meanwhile, within the Tacoma Police Department, Brame's supporters tried to deal with news stories that said Brame had threatened to kill his wife.

"Lots of phone calls here this morning, but it's calming down," Catherine Woodard wrote assistant chief Richard McCrea in an e-mail at 2:16 p.m. "Trying to keep a positive spin on for DAB. Too bad (John) Hathaway isn't reporting on the reconstruction of Iraq from the scene."

When Lt. Joe Kirby ran into Lt. Bob Ruiz, one of Brame's allies, he asked Ruiz what he thought about the violence allegations.

"Oh, Joe, that's not true," Ruiz replied, repeating what he'd heard from Brame himself. "I've already been briefed. Crystal's crazy."

Early that afternoon, Nancy Otto walked across Eagle Creek Lane to give Crystal a birthday gift. She didn't call, because Crystal had told her the phone might be bugged.

Otto gave Crystal a gift certificate to a Gig Harbor home furnishings store called Seasons By the Bay, and told her to get something nice for herself.

Crystal told her friend she feared Brame might try to harm her or her children. Otto suggested Crystal's parents meet Brame alone that evening when he picked up the children. Crystal refused. If she played by the rules, she thought, she ultimately would win custody in court one day.

That afternoon, Crystal also phoned Donelda Pim, a longtime friend of Patty Judson, whom the family called Auntie Donel. Crystal was apprehensive and said she didn't know what to expect from her husband's reaction to the day's news stories.

At City Hall, human resources director Phil Knudsen and assistant director Mary Brown met about 3 p.m. behind closed doors with City Attorney Robin Jenkinson and deputy city attorney Elizabeth Pauli to discuss Brame, his divorce and the news reports. Later, neither side could agree on just what took place.

Knudsen and Brown said they wanted the attorneys' help in getting Corpuz to put the chief on paid administrative leave, which would mean Brame would have to turn in his gun and badge.

Jenkinson and Pauli said they discussed the chief, but never talked about taking his gun and badge.

Late in the afternoon, Mattheis called the chief's office. Brame wasn't there. Mattheis hadn't read the P-I story but discussed the divorce allegations with Brame's assistant, Jeanette Blackwell. Brame's career looked to be crumbling.

"He's done," Mattheis thought to himself.

Brame drove to the Judsons' house about 6 p.m. to pick up Haley and David Jr.

Their bags were packed and sitting on the front porch. Frustrated she had to give up her kids and fearing for their safety, Crystal cried as she kissed her 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son goodbye.

Crystal stayed upstairs as Brame arrived to collect the kids. Lane Judson called to his grandchildren.

"Kids," he said, "your father's here."

Brame kept his head down and never looked Judson in the eye. Brame gave his kids a hug, and walked them to the car.

After they left, Crystal hugged her father tightly and sobbed.

Brame returned home to his apartment in Tacoma's West End. The kids played a car-racing video game. Relatives of Brame, including his father, sister and niece, came by to offer support.

Crystal and her parents went to The Harvester restaurant in Gig Harbor for dinner. She had a salad, fish and a baked potato. She seemed preoccupied and didn't eat much.

That night, Brame called Crystal with questions. He demanded to know if she was dating anyone. Then he offered a parting shot.

"I'm sorry for the story that appeared in the paper today," he told her. "I'm sorry it didn't come out on your birthday and ruin your day."

Saturday, April 26

7 to 10 a.m.

Crystal awoke at 7. She pulled on a pair of blue jeans, a gray Ralph Lauren turtleneck and sneakers. She smoothed her hair back into a ponytail and fastened it with an ornament that matched her dark brown hair.

Despite the emotions of Friday evening, she felt refreshed from a night's sleep and hours of conversation and reassurance from her mom and dad.

She didn't sit down for breakfast, but walked around in the kitchen as she drank Diet Coke and ate red licorice sticks, a favorite combination.

Crystal left the house about 8 a.m., driving with her parents in separate cars to the house on Eagle Creek Lane. On the way, she bought toys, clothes and stuffed animals for the kids, beginning the process of moving back into their home.

At the Gold Pointe apartment, Brame called Mattheis, trying his cell phone and pager before reaching him at home about 8:50 a.m. Before long he got to the point.

"Tell me when my career is over," Brame said.

Mattheis offered his opinion of the morning's editorial in The News Tribune, which called for the city manager to investigate Crystal Brame's allegations.

"It's not that bad. They're asking for an investigation," Mattheis told Brame.

Brame cut the call short, and said he had to take his son to a half-hour class at the Gig Harbor Karate Academy at 9:30 a.m.

When Brame brought David Jr. to class, the chief seemed perfectly normal, said Bill Kortenbach, head instructor at the academy.

10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Crystal got ready to leave the Eagle Creek Lane house and drive to Mary Bridge Children's Hospital and Health Center for a 10 a.m. one-time parenting class she needed to complete her divorce paperwork.

Her mother offered to accompany her to Tacoma for the four-hour class. In the 61 days since Crystal filed for divorce, someone from her family was always at her side. Ever present in their thoughts was Brame's reminder that her wedding vows meant "until death do us part."

"I just don't want you to go by yourself," Patty Judson said.

"Oh, Mom," Crystal said, "I don't want you to have you sit there for four hours."

Once at Mary Bridge, Crystal made her way to a basement classroom. She walked in and sheepishly introduced herself.

"I'm the woman in the newspaper," she said.

"I'm sorry," one instructor replied, "but we don't know what you're talking about."

"I'm divorcing my husband," said Crystal, who told the class only that she was married to a high-ranking Tacoma police official.

Crystal listened as the two instructors covered custody battles, recognizing the warning signs of stress on children, hostile situations and managing blended families.

When it was her turn to talk, Crystal spoke bluntly about the threats Brame had made.

"My husband pointed a loaded gun at me and said, 'Accidents happen,'" she told the class.

She talked. And talked some more. To cover the rest of the material and give specific advice, the instructors offered to speak with Crystal after class ended at 2 p.m.

She spoke for nearly another hour with Rich MacLeod, one of the instructors and a licensed social worker. She told him how Brame had tried the night before to ruin her birthday. How he had damaged some of her belongings before he moved out of their house. How he wanted to know if she had a new love and whether she was moving on.

"This is a dangerous situation," MacLeod told Crystal, advising her to talk to Brame only through her attorney.

MacLeod was the latest of many people Crystal told about Brame's behavior since she'd filed for divorce. She had told others that her husband had confessed to having affairs and extorting prostitutes for sex and money. He had pressured her to participate in group sex.

She told grade-school friend Lori Ham that Brame wouldn't let go of her until she was dead. She told Nancy Otto and longtime friend Liz Zimmerman that Brame sometimes followed her when she drove.

She went further with Auntie Donel: Brame had bragged he could kill her and get away with it.

MacLeod was uneasy as he walked Crystal to the door after their talk. He had no legal requirement to report her comments to police. She was aware of the dangers. She wasn't a minor or incapable of assessing her situation.

Nevertheless, MacLeod feared for Crystal. She walked down the hall, looked over her shoulder and gave a little wave.

"Take care," he said.

"I will," she said, with a small smile. "Thank you."

After his son's karate class, Brame and the children returned to the Tacoma apartment, where David Jr. changed out of his karate outfit.

Then they headed to Gig Harbor for some shopping. Brame bundled his young daughter and son into the car. He wore his .45-caliber Glock semi-automatic. The gun, issued to him by the city, rested in a hip holster under his shirt.

Back in the apartment, Brame's dark dress suit, still on the hanger, lay on the bed. An e-mail from a fellow officer, offering moral support and suggested Bible verses, rested on the nightstand.

At 2:17 p.m., Brame took his 2001 maroon Camry through the Great Car Care Center on Kimball Drive. He left 10 minutes later.

He went to the Bartell Drugs store on Olympic Drive, where he and the children bought coloring books, toys, light bulbs and candy. He left by 2:47 p.m.

A minute later he walked into Fred Meyer and bought some groceries.

At 3:02 p.m., Brame crossed Highway 16 on the Olympic Drive overpass. He was headed for Rite Aid drug store in the Harbor Plaza shopping center. David Jr. wanted Fun Foam for his bath.

Crystal drove off from Mary Bridge in her black 2003 Camry. As she drove to Gig Harbor, Crystal called her mother on her cell phone at 2:54 p.m.

She talked about the class.

"Everyone was so nice," Crystal said.

She was now off to tan at the Oasis.

"Why don't you come home, and I'll go with you?" her mother asked.

"Oh, Mom," Crystal said. "I don't want to go home and double back. I won't be long."

She crossed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, took the second exit ramp off Highway 16 and turned left onto the Olympic Drive overpass.

Gig Harbor Police Chief Mitch Barker believes this is what happened next:

That day, Crystal had a cold. She'd run out of medicine and was going to Rite Aid at Harbor Plaza before going to the tanning salon.

Still continuing her 13-minute call to her mother, Crystal pulled into the shopping center parking lot on Point Fosdick Drive Northwest from the east. She made a quick right and left turn, and parked in the fourth slot on the left.

Brame drove into the lot from the same direction, passed Crystal's car and parked five spaces away on the right.

Crystal walked toward the drug store, still talking to her mother.

Brame saw her, turned to Haley and David Jr. and said he was going to talk to their mother.

"Wait in the car," he said and locked the doors.

"I think I see David," Crystal told her mother.

At home, Crystal's father, Lane Judson, listened to his wife's conversation.

"If she sees him, tell her to get the hell out of there," he said.

"I gotta go, I gotta go, I gotta go," Crystal told her mother.

It was 3:07. It was the first time in years Crystal hadn't said, "I love you" before hanging up.

Patty tried to call her back. Crystal didn't answer.

In the parking lot, Crystal retreated to her car and opened the driver's door. Brame appeared at her side.

He slid between Crystal and the open door. He sat side-saddle in the driver's seat, with his feet on the pavement, preventing her from getting into the car.

They talked. Others nearby heard them raise their voices.

Brame pulled his gun from the holster.

"Oh, no don't!" Crystal pleaded.

The split second before the shooting remains a mystery. Crystal might have crouched to protect herself. Brame may have pulled her toward him. Either way, the gun was inches from her head.

He shot her behind the left ear.

He watched his wife fall forward, a quarter turn to the right near the rear of the car. Crystal crumpled to the asphalt.

Brame raised the gun to his right temple and pulled the trigger again. He fell back, dying.

Haley and David Jr. ran to their mother's car. Haley saw her father covered in blood. She went to her mother's side, saw her struggling to breathe and tried to help.

She tore through her mother's fanny pack for the cell phone, trying hard to be a big girl and call 911. She never found the phone. It was hidden in her mother's hand.

Haley saw her little brother run nearby. She had to choose: care for her dying mother, or look after little David and keep him out of the way of cars.

A woman ran to the children. Haley gave her grandmother's phone number.

Witnesses called 911. The news flashed over the police dispatch system: "At 3:11 p.m.: Just now in. Location: parking lot. Somebody's down. Advising aid."

Sirens blared, ambulances rushed to the scene.

Two minutes later, a 911 operator typed an update: "Possible murder/suicide. Female shot, male shot self in head. RP (reporting party) standing near the possible .45 cal handgun. Male is still alive."

Patty Judson called her daughter's cell phone again and again. Seven times in 12 minutes. No answer. She began to panic.

Moments later, the Judsons got an anonymous call.

"Something serious has happened," the caller told Lane Judson, whose first thought was that the man might be making a prank call after reading the morning paper.

"There's been a serious incident," the man said, telling Crystal's parents to go to Point Fosdick Drive, near Rite Aid.

"Is my daughter OK?" Lane Judson asked. "Is my daughter OK?"

The man hung up.

At 3:20, another update appeared on the emergency center computer: "This is TPD chief involved, unk (unknown) if he's gonna make it."

Emergency operators notified 911 director John Pirak and called Tacoma police chaplains to St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma.

Crystal's parents called Julie and David Ahrens. The Judsons rushed to the shopping center, where they comforted Haley and David Jr. Bystanders had taken the children into a video store to get them away from the chaos.

Medics strapped Crystal to a gurney and did the same to Brame. Separate ambulances sped them to St. Joseph. Minutes later, a helicopter airlifted her to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

The news traveled like lightning. Ramsdell called McColeman and said the chief had been shot.

"The children are with him," McColeman thought.

Within the hour, even retired police officers across the country heard from Tacoma about what Brame had done.

As Brame barely clung to life, colleagues he had known for years descended on the crime scene.

City Manager Ray Corpuz and Jim Mattheis met in the North End and drove to Gig Harbor.

"Why would he do this?" Corpuz asked.

Mattheis drove, phoning the police desk for any details about what had happened. His pager buzzed incessantly with calls from the media.

At the shopping center, police encircled the shooting scene with yellow tape. Investigators worked out of the Tacoma Police Department's new command center, a 36-foot-long RV Brame had unveiled two months earlier.

At 6 p.m., a 911 operator typed a new message:

"Chief Brame deceased 10 (minutes) ago."

For the next seven days, Crystal's family stood by her side at Harborview.

Despite her horrible wound, she seemed to improve a bit. She moved her left hand and toes. She raised her left shoulder. She tried to open her eyes.

Auntie Donel was there during those long hours.

She'd known Crystal as a baby, watching her smear her mom's lipstick on from ear to ear and crawl under the crib. When Patty was pregnant with Julie and couldn't bend over to pick up the toddler, Auntie Donel scooped her up.

Now, she gently held Crystal's hand and spoke to her.

In another six days, at 4:40 p.m., the little girl who grew up to have two babies of her own would be dead.

But now hope still lingered.

"Hi, honey. It's Auntie Donel. You're safe now. Your children are safe."

Martha Modeen: 253-597-8646
martha.modeen@mail.tribnet.com

Sunday: Public triumph, private tension

Monday: Sex, lies and death threats

WHO'S WHO

David Ahrens: Brother-in-law of Crystal Brame

Julie Ahrens: Sister of Crystal Brame

Ray Corpuz: City manager, appointed Brame chief

Lane Judson: Father of Crystal Brame

Patty Judson: Mother of Crystal Brame

Jim Mattheis: Tacoma police spokesman

William Meeks: Assistant police chief appointed by Brame

Debbie Phillips: Crystal Brame confidante; owner of Oasis Tanning

Don Ramsdell: Current interim police chief

Bob Ruiz: Police lieutenant and Brame confidante

About this series

To compile this three-part story, News Tribune reporters Sean Robinson and Martha Modeen spent four months investigating the 15-month tenure of Tacoma Police Chief David Brame and his life with Crystal Brame.

They traced the final days of the couple's lives, up to the moment when Brame fatally shot his wife and himself.

Reporting contributions also came from staff writers Kris Sherman, Lisa Kremer, Stacey Mulick, Karen Hucks and Jason Hagey.

Reporters interviewed more than 60 people, including 25 current and former members of the Tacoma Police Department. Information also came from public and private records, including court documents, e-mails, correspondence, telephone records, video records and appointment calendars.

Former Tacoma City Manager Ray Corpuz, Tacoma assistant police chief Catherine Woodard and Brame's divorce attorney, Anne Meath, declined interviews.

Comments or quotes attributed to them were gathered before the shootings or from other sources.

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