Special Reports

Crystal kept her family in the dark

During the 13 years Crystal Brame spent with David Brame, her family saw signs of the Tacoma police chief's controlling nature, but never knew he was physically abusing her until she was ready to leave him, her sister, Julie Ahrens, said Wednesday.

"We were close, but she didn't tell us," Ahrens said. "If I knew about any physical abuse, I would have gotten in my car and gone to get her and the kids."

When she was ready to file for divorce, Crystal Brame told her sister and brother-in-law that David Brame, police chief since January 2002, had held a gun to her head and had choked her during their marriage, Ahrens said.

And she told them what finally convinced her she had to leave.

After years in what she said was an abusive, controlling marriage, David Brame started pressuring her to have sex with other people, the Ahrenses said.

Crystal Brame flatly refused, she told her sister and brother-in-law.

In February, she finally did what her family said she had been afraid to do for years: She filed for divorce. In later court declarations, she said Brame had choked her, pointed his police gun at her and threatened to kill her. He made allegations that she had been abusive to him.

David Brame fatally shot Crystal Brame and then killed himself, with their two children nearby, April 26, the day after the allegations in their divorce became public.

Beverly Brame, David Brame's mother, said Crystal Brame's accusations of violence and sex aren't true.

"Oh, brother," she said. "He was a great kid and a great man. And they better stop taking it away from him, because it's not right. What we've not been able to understand is when her allegations came out, they (media) ran with it like it was gospel."

The mother of four said news reports about her youngest son have been painful.

"I don't want to be hurt anymore," she said, declining to talk in detail because of a pending investigation. "We've had a tragic loss, too. We've lost four people" - David Brame, Crystal Brame, and their two children.

Beverly Brame said she has been kept from her two grandchildren because a psychologist and the children's court-appointed guardian said it would be too traumatic - and she doesn't have the money for a custody battle.

Julie Ahrens, named in David and Crystal Brame's wills as the person they wanted to raise their children if they died, has started custody proceedings with her husband, David Ahrens. They say they aren't preventing the Brame family from seeing the children.

The couple spoke to The News Tribune on Wednesday in their Gig Harbor home, where pictures of 8-year-old Haley Brame and 5-year-old David Brame hang among others on the refrigerator doors, and a chalk drawing of two flowers, "by Haley," decorates a kitchen wall.

With her parents and the children, Julie Ahrens has filed a $75 million wrongful death claim against the City of Tacoma, alleging they gave David Brame power and failed to protect Crystal. The family will sue if necessary, said their lawyer, who picked the dollar figure.

"We're seeking the truth," David Ahrens said. "This isn't about the money, and I really resent some of the letters (to the editor) that imply Crystal's family is trying to profit from her death. I'd trade my life for hers back."

David Ahrens said he thought Crystal, an intelligent woman and a good decision-maker, knew how her family would react if she told them that Brame abused her, and how Brame's reaction to that could exacerbate the situation.

He said rather than being deceptive, he thinks Crystal Brame was trying to decide when and how to leave without hurting her children.

David and Julie Ahrens said the family thought becoming police chief - his dream - would mellow David Brame, and make him happier and therefore less demanding of Crystal.

The opposite happened, they said.

"He was controlling ... before he became chief and the type and level of abuse increased after he became chief," David Ahrens said.

Julie Ahrens, crying at times during the interview, said that Crystal gave her the impression that David Brame had tried to push her into group sex for the past year or two.

"When she was getting ready to file for divorce," Julie Ahrens said, "she told me - and it was very vague - about threesomes and foursomes he wanted her to take part in."

She said she asked Crystal early in the divorce process whether she thought he was having affairs.

"She said she didn't know, but that she thought he probably was," Julie Ahrens said.

As the weeks passed and the divorce got messier, Crystal learned more, the Ahrenses said.

"She told me David bragged about his conquests, and that if she divorced him, he could have any woman he wanted," David Ahrens said.

Crystal told her sister and brother-in-law that when she and David Brame were in Palm Springs, Calif., in the summer of 2001 or 2002, they met a couple from Canada.

"David wanted them to have a foursome, and my sister didn't want that," Julie Ahrens said.

When David and Crystal Brame got back home to Gig Harbor, he wanted to call the couple and propose a rendezvous, Julie Ahrens said Crystal Brame told her. Despite Crystal's objections, David Brame took a cordless phone out into the garage to call the couple, Julie Ahrens said.

Three or four months later, David and Crystal were in Palm Springs again, and ran into the couple. Crystal told Julie Ahrens she was mortified to see them there, knowing what David Brame had suggested.

Crystal said the couple was "just there," but Julie Ahrens suspected that David Brame had set it up.

But, Crystal told Julie Ahrens, the other couple wasn't interested.

"My sister said the couple was like, 'Hell no, we think your husband's a (jerk),'" she said.

Julie Ahrens said she never liked Brame. But she saw only subtle signs of his dominating behavior, not domestic violence.

Early in their relationship, as Crystal was looking for a job after college, Brame told her not to apply anywhere she would have to work with men, Julie Ahrens said.

Julie Ahrens told her she shouldn't let Brame control her, especially when she wasn't married to him.

"She just kind of seemed like she just wanted to please him," Julie Ahrens said. "The feeling I got was she could rethink where she wanted to apply for a job so he could be happy and she could be happy, too. She was the kind of person who wanted to please everyone."

More recently, when Crystal asked Julie Ahrens for directions to a relative's house, David Brame interrupted to tell Crystal that he was a police officer and therefore knew the city and could give her directions.

He told Crystal on their wedding day that her ring was the last piece of jewelry she'd ever get from him, Julie Ahrens said Crystal had told her. He stuck to that, refusing to buy even a $6 pair of earrings for her from the drugstore, she said.

David Brame's clothes were new and meticulously kept; most of Crystal's were "barely more than rags," David Ahrens said.

When Crystal Brame worked for district court for four years before she had children, she handed over her paychecks to her husband in exchange for $25 every two weeks. Over the years, they said, her allowance grew to $100 every two weeks.

Crystal Brame still saved money a dollar at time, and offered to buy her sister lunch now and then at the Subway sandwich shop downtown.

"She just would be so happy she could buy me a Subway sandwich," Julie Ahrens said, crying. "How horrible to scrimp and save every nickel, and then she'd want to take me out to lunch."

None of what they saw Brame do was illegal, Ahrens said.

"What were we supposed to do, go to (City Manager) Ray Corpuz and say, 'David Brame is controlling'?" Julie Ahrens said.

But Julie Ahrens said she did try to get Crystal to leave.

"I'd say, 'Why don't you just leave? He's such a jerk to you,'" Julie Ahrens said. "The first thing out of her mouth was 'The kids.' She was worried about her kids."

She wanted them to be old enough when she left that they could tell her what happened when they were with their father, Crystal Brame told her sister.

Over the years, Brame was an uninvolved part of their family, the Ahrenses said.

"He would come to family gatherings, but he might as well have not been there," Julie Ahrens said. "If the whole family was in our family room, he would be in the living room by himself. Even before we had furniture in there, he would lie on the floor."

Brame would read, watch television, sleep or just sit by himself, away from Crystal Brame and her family.

David Ahrens said at those events - where parents Lane and Patty Judson made food and started intellectual conversation - "it felt like you had to beat a conversation out of the guy."

Brame insisted the family call him "David," although he apparently let co-workers and friends call him Dave.

Julie and David Ahrens said they attended the 2001 community forum at which citizens evaluated David Brame and Patrick Stephens, the two finalists for the Tacoma chief's job.

"We went because we wanted to hear what his voice sounded like," David Ahrens said.

Julie Ahrens added, "We joked afterwards that was the most we'd heard him say in the 10 years we'd known him."

Crystal Brame told her sister she wanted to leave David Brame, but he had told her for about five years that he had let his co-workers know she was crazy and unstable.

"She was like, 'Who can I turn to when he's told everyone in the police department that?'" Julie Ahrens said.

Crystal Brame's main concern was that David would try to take the kids away from her - something she thought was possible because of the lies he spread about her mental stability, the Ahrenses said.

"She felt trapped," her sister said. "She didn't love him, but nobody was going to believe her."

Beverly Brame said David was the abused rather than the abuser, in the relationship.

"The reason he stayed is he wanted to protect his children and be with them as long as he could," she said. "I don't say that David did right, but I do say that David snapped. He wouldn't have lifted a finger to Crystal."

Karen Hucks: 253-597-8660