10 years later: Looking back at former Tacoma Police Chief David Brame

Staff writerApril 21, 2013 

What do you do when the boss falls apart?

Tacoma Police Chief David Brame kept a picture in his office, a framed portrait of a young executive: Al Pacino as cold-eyed Michael Corleone, the freshly anointed Godfather.

The portrait was a gift, the punch line of a private joke among Brame’s closest friends in the department who rose with him. It also was a sign of respect, perhaps even fear.

Before Brame reached the chief’s office in 2001 at the age of 42, he’d been a union boss, known even among detractors as a cool negotiator. Passive-aggressive charm was his specialty. As chief, he promoted favorites, exiled enemies and brooked no dissent.

What do you do when this particular boss falls apart?

On April 26, 2003, Brame fatally shot his wife, Crystal, then himself. The couple’s 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son were sitting a few feet away in their father’s car.

The Brame scandal ended two lives and orphaned two children. It destroyed careers, sundered political alliances and devastated the Police Department. It touched off multiple investigations and shed light on officer-involved domestic violence. It led state Attorney General Chris Gregoire to describe the department under Brame as “culturally corrupt.”

It ended with a $12.5 million legal settlement, policy reforms and a domestic violence center named for Crystal Judson.

But the scandal wasn’t about money or fraud or standard notions of public corruption.

It was about a boss who killed his wife and himself. It was personal: a human-resources nuke, a road map of wrong turns and bad decisions.

A public man brought his private life to work and snarled his subordinates in the awkward details of his failed marriage. The only leader with direct authority over Brame, City Manager Ray Corpuz, didn’t know what to do about it.

Brame campaigned for chief and rolled up supporters, including elected officials. His vetting was iffy. Odd gaps appeared in his references. Asterisks surrounded his 1981 hiring; Brame took three psychological evaluations before he was deemed eligible. Few knew or noticed.

Old rumors of his behavior included an allegation of sexual assault, deemed unproven after an internal investigation led to a he-said, she-said impasse. The stories, privately known, were publicly forgotten, denied by Brame himself, or dismissed as jealous dirt-sifting: lawsuit dust, standard stuff.

He was a player. Everyone knew it. He looked good — blonde, blue-eyed, smart, young and fit. He spoke fluent management with purring deference. Above all, he was local: a second-generation police commander, a sports star straight out of Lincoln High School.

His appointment ceremony — Jan. 17, 2002 — was a pageant, unlike others before and after: the hometown boy, crowned next to his beautiful wife, Crystal, and their two children. Department wolves called it “The Coronation.”

Brame took office, unveiled grand plans and gathered accolades. He was untouchable.

Meanwhile, his marriage collapsed. On Feb. 24, 2003, barely a year after the coronation, Crystal filed for divorce, citing a long history of domestic abuse.

For the next two months, Brame was an untouchable shipwreck. He sank while everyone around him watched.

Over and over, in thousands of pages of investigative records and court testimony, the theme resurfaced. At work, Brame talked of his crumbling marriage to anyone who would listen, from assistant chiefs and captains to his administrative assistant.

Brame brought Crystal to a marriage counseling session with the police chaplain. He brought three subordinates to one of his divorce hearings. He sought legal advice on his divorce from city attorneys. To multiple subordinates, he confessed a seamy scheme to lure his wife into a sexual threesome with a female officer.

Always, he claimed to be an abused man, painting Crystal as an unstable spouse bent on destroying his career. Department duties fell by the wayside. His three assistant chiefs picked up the slack (“baby-sitting” was the internal description).

At work, he never stopped  talking of home. His administrative assistant, Jeanette Blackwell, described the numbing routine to investigators.

“It was all day, every day. Life was about Crystal Brame,” Blackwell said. “It was just all day, every day. And he made Crystal out to be crazy.”

The boss was the one going crazy, but the boss also happened to be ruthless, and subordinates knew it. They couldn’t go over his head — there was no other head but Corpuz, who hired Brame.

Old records, including sworn statements from Corpuz, show he had no shortage of information. He heard the stories again and again.

Two weeks before the shootings, Crystal complained of intimidation and death threats by her husband. She called 911 after a weekend transfer of the couple’s two children turned ugly; Brame brought Assistant Chief Catherine Woodard along for the exchange, enraging Crystal and her family.

A group of officers learned of the incident and anonymously sent a note to Corpuz, seeking an investigation and underlining a perceived double standard: one set of rules for the boss, another for everyone else. Police commanders also felt the incident warranted investigation. Corpuz declined to act, saying he wouldn’t respond to anonymous complaints.

Woodard told Corpuz of the alleged death threats and twice asked the city manager to do something about the troubled chief, according to records. Again, Corpuz did not act. Reportedly, Brame spoke to the city manager frequently about his divorce. Corpuz told him to focus on work.

Days before the shooting, as word of Brame’s divorce and allegations of domestic abuse became public, Corpuz said the chief’s divorce was a civil matter, and declined to take action.

April 24, 2003, was Crystal’s birthday. She turned 35. That night, Brame called her from Las Vegas, where he was attending a labor-management seminar.

“I have a really big birthday gift for you,” he said. “But you’ll have to wait until I get home, because I have to give it to you in person.”

On April 25, the day before the shootings, news stories surfaced about the chief’s divorce. Leaders of the city’s Human Resources Department met with city attorneys and discussed Brame’s situation.

The meeting, long disputed, led nowhere. Human resources leaders said they recommended placing Brame on administrative leave, taking his badge and gun. City attorneys said they heard no such recommendation.

Reached by The News Tribune that day, Brame denied allegations of abuse. Through her attorney, Crystal declined to comment. Corpuz told The News Tribune he would not investigate the chief.

“I’m not interested in investigating any civil proceedings that he is going though at this time,” Corpuz said that day. “There haven’t been any discussions (about an investigation) or complaints from within the department.”

That night, Brame returned from Las Vegas. Lt. Bob Sheehan, a longtime ally of Brame’s, picked up the chief at the airport. On the way home, Brame returned to his favorite subject: his divorce.

Sheehan dropped the chief off and called Corpuz.

“This babying of Brame needs to stop,” Sheehan said, adding that if Corpuz wouldn’t do something, he would.

“That’s fine,” he recalled Corpuz saying. “Somebody needs to do that.”

The shootings came the next day. As the news spread across the city, police spokesman Jim Mattheis drove Corpuz to the crime scene: a drugstore parking lot in Gig Harbor, where the chief fired the fatal shots.

In a 2003 interview, Mattheis recalled Corpuz asking a question:

“Why would he do this?”

JUDSON’S FATHER: Turning tragedy into fight for DV victims.
FAMILY JUSTICE CENTER: A look at the DV center that bears Judson’s name.
TACOMA POLICE: Long-time chief pushes reforms at battered department.
PROMISES: What reforms were, weren't or partially fulfilled.
10-YEAR ARCHIVE: Read past stories about David Brame.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486
sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

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