Gig Harbor helps Crystal's family, works on making community safer

April 28, 2004 

All eyes in the South Sound, it seemed, turned to Tacoma in the aftermath of the David Brame shootings one year ago.

But just 12 miles away, across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, an entire community was grieving.

Tacoma Police Chief David Brame chose to shoot his wife, Crystal, and then himself in a crowded Gig Harbor shopping center parking lot on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

"I think it was a very rude awakening and such a shock against the backdrop of what really was perceived as a very quiet, very serene, very safe town," said then-Gig Harbor Police Chief Mitch Barker, whose officers spent hundreds of hours investigating the crime.

Gig Harbor residents will not forget - and perhaps cannot forget - the blood that stained the Harbor Plaza parking lot and jarred the community's serenity that afternoon. To Peninsula residents, the Brames were more than players in a civic tragedy - they were neighbors.

But from school hallways to church sanctuaries to watering holes to walking paths along Gig Harbor Bay, residents are moving on. They're well past the initial stages of grief and anger, they say.

Now they're focused on what they learned, how they can make their community safer and what they can do to uplift Crystal's family and the Brames' children.

In the schools

Over the last year, friends, family, teachers and other school officials have enveloped the Brames' children, seeing that their childhoods are as normal as possible - and keeping prying eyes away.

"They've got a fabulous support system, not only the school community, but also their family - their grandparents and their aunt and uncle," said Carolyn Curles, their school principal at Discovery Elementary. "They're doing amazingly well."

And while protectiveness of the children increased, the Peninsula Schools community heightened its vigilance about the potential for domestic disputes to explode into violence on campus, Superintendent Jim Coolican said. The shootings gave school officials pause "to stop and look at what we were doing and say, 'OK, how can we do it differently?'" Coolican said.

All school employees have long been trained to pay close attention to nuances in students' lives.

But their senses are even sharper now, he added.

"Nothing is perfect when it comes to safety and security," Coolican said. "And no matter how good you are at it at any particular time, you have to work to get better."

At the courthouse

Nearly 20 victims of domestic violence have walked into the Gig Harbor Civic Center, fired up a special computer in an alcove and applied for on-the-spot protection orders since January.

The so-called "domestic violence kiosk," in the works for nearly two years, links Gig Harbor with the Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma, allowing victims to apply for and get a temporary restraining order without driving across the Narrows Bridge.

Taking the first steps toward protection are hard enough for many abuse victims, said Gig Harbor Court Administrator Paul Nelson. When you add the hassles of getting to the County-City Building, the task grows more difficult.

"It's discouraging to have to go downtown when you have kids, when you have a job, when you have to fight traffic and fight for parking," Nelson said.

A person doesn't have to wait until actual harm comes from a domestic partner, a boyfriend, a girlfriend or a date before she or he can seek protection.

If there's a reasonable fear of injury, a person can apply for a temporary protection order and ship it electronically to Tacoma, where a Superior Court commissioner will sign it as quickly as possible. Then the order is served. Victims also can find help from advocates and trained court employees at the civic center.

The kiosk is envisioned as part of a countywide system.

In the community

Nelson and others believe Crystal Brame's death was a call to action in the sheltered city that had logged only one homicide in its 57-year cityhood.

The Brame shootings taught peninsula residents the importance of picking up the phone and dialing 911 when the shouts and sounds of an argument gone out of control drift out the neighbors' windows or through apartment walls, Nelson said.

"Unfortunately, Crystal was a catalyst who brought a lot of people in our community to the point where they had to become aware of some ugly things," said domestic violence prevention advocate Nancy Hibbing, a board member of the Interdenominational Missions Pact. IMPact, started in 1996, is a group of churches working together to provide services to the peninsula's domestic violence victims. The group already has a safe house and is raising money for a shelter.

The shootings not only sharpened the community's focus on domestic violence but also gave people a common sense of purpose that few events can, said Stuart Bond, executive pastor at Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church.

"There is an awareness in Gig Harbor that we want to do better," he said. "We've been listening to the September 11th hearings and the whole goal is, 'How do we anticipate something before it happens?'" Bond continued. "How do we intervene and stop a tragedy before it occurs?"

Life goes on

Crystal Brame's family filed a wrongful death claim against the City of Gig Harbor last year, but it has not been converted to a lawsuit, and it hasn't received the notoriety the family's $75 million claim and subsequent lawsuit against Tacoma has.

"I think Gig Harbor is a strong community, so even with something like that, we're going to pull together and deal with it," said Spencer Abersold, a Tides Tavern manager who was on duty the day of the shootings.

"People were shocked that it happened in Gig Harbor," he told a reporter in the hours following the shootings. "Everyone was just silent. It was eerie."

Today, Abersold says topics like terrorism, the war in Iraq and the impending presidential election command people's attention and dominate conversation.

The tragedy doesn't always invade Jenn Pesta's mind - as it once did - when she drives into the Harbor Plaza shopping center for a trip to Hollywood Video or Rite Aid.

"I definitely think the community did a great job of moving on," she said.

But the 22-year-old Peninsula High School graduate sometimes finds her thoughts turning to Crystal Brame's children and parents when she happens by the site of the shootings.

She thinks it's occasionally "good to go back and reflect and remember - especially for the family. To put them in our prayers and remember them."

A few miles away in an upscale community of brick-fronted homes, a young family is moving into the home where the Brames once lived.

The new owners hesitated a bit before buying the house after learning about the fairy-talelike couple whose marriage crumbled within its walls. But the quality of the neighborhood, the friendliness of the neighbors and even the history of the house itself convinced them to buy the 2,374-square-foot, one-story home, said the new owner, who asked that his name not be published to protect his family's privacy.

The furnishings and care given to the children's rooms, along with conversations with Crystal Brame's family, told the story of a woman who worked hard to provide a haven for herself and her family, the man said.

The new owners are doing some remodeling to make the house their own, but they also want to honor the memory of the woman who lived there.

"The house needed someone to come in and love it," he said. "And it needed someone to love."

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659
kris.sherman@mail.tribnet.com



THE SERIES

SUNDAY: Many who knew of David Brame's troubles so far escape punishment. And we compare the Brame scandal to others in Tacoma's past.

MONDAY: Tacoma Police Department, still with an interim chief, rediscovers its pride.

TUESDAY: Shootings prompt awareness and reform to fight domestic violence.

TODAY: Gig Harbor moves on from the tragedy. And Crystal's loved ones carry her memory and a desire for reform.

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