Special Reports

All clamor, little action

The final chapter of the David Brame scandal reveals some police commanders resisting their deteriorating police chief’s commands. Others went over his head for help, but got little from then-City Manager Ray Corpuz.

Tales of defiance and missed opportunities pour from more than 20,000 pages of public records the City of Tacoma released Oct. 14.

New information shows three police officials fought off Brame’s abuse of his authority. Two more raised concerns with Corpuz, who responded by telling Brame he could take a vacation.

The records come from an administrative investigation of possible employee misconduct, conducted in 2004 and released to the public more than a year later.

Here and there, unheard voices fill gaps, providing new detail. The records expose layers of knowledge: skimpy at lower levels, more detailed among high-ranking police commanders and Corpuz, Brame’s boss.

The lead players don’t change. The story ends the same way: On April 26, 2003, Police Chief Brame fatally shot his wife, Crystal Judson Brame, and himself. The shootings followed Brame’s slow collapse, his painful divorce and increasingly erratic behavior at work.

The aftermath spawned convenient conspiracy theories. They revolved around the notion that Brame’s colleagues and Corpuz deliberately concealed Brame’s actions to protect themselves.

The city’s records deflate that scenario, exposing something more complicated: fumbling neglect, reluctance to intrude on the chief’s personal life and failure to recognize multiple warning signs.

Above all, they show Brame lied to his co-workers and his boss, who believed him. A few employees complained to Corpuz about Brame. Those who didn’t believed the city manager was aware of what was going on.

Multiple sets of records show Corpuz was warned about Brame’s behavior at least five times in the weeks before the shootings.

Investigators interviewed 53 people linked to the scandal, chiefly current and former Tacoma employees. They were asked what they knew, when they knew it and whether they told anyone else what they knew.

A darker story

More than two dozen Tacoma employees knew the police chief was messed up in spring 2003. Far fewer knew why.

They couldn’t help knowing Brame was estranged from his wife. Seeking sympathy, he talked endlessly about his divorce.

“It got to be very draining,” said Jeannette Blackwell, administrative assistant to the chief of police.

Records show she told investigators she pushed Brame to work, only to watch him drift back to talk of his divorce.

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

Some employees knew about accusations of domestic violence. Brame said they were lies.

He spoke to Assistant City Attorney Shelley Kerslake and asked her if she knew any good divorce lawyers.

A handful of co-workers heard a darker story, skewed by Brame’s self-serving lens: He’d tried to lure his wife into group sex with Mary Herrman, a police detective. Brame said Herrman was into it, and Crystal, too – at first. Then she got angry.

“I screwed up,” Brame said to Assistant Chief Rich McCrea, his old patrol partner.

McCrea couldn’t recall the precise date of the conversation, but thought it could have taken place in March 2003.

“I just said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” McCrea told state investigators. “I said, ‘You can’t be doing this kind of thing.’ He says, ‘Oh no, no, no, it’s not like you think.’”

Brame told no one the seamy truth: His repeated calls to Herr-man, her refusals, Crystal’s refusals, and the lies he told to each woman, suggesting that the other was interested.

Knowing only what Brame told them, McCrea, Assistant Chief Catherine Woodard and other police department confidants hesitated, records show.

McCrea never talked to Herr-man. In his interview with state investigators, he said he was in a difficult position – he knew the city’s sexual harassment policy, knew it frowned on relationships between supervisors and subordinates.

He also knew Herrman hadn’t complained, and didn’t appear to be upset. Brame was telling him the relationship was consensual.

“What do I do?” he said. “Do I go up and, and contact her and say, ‘You had lunch with the chief and you brought some things up. Is he harassing you?’ I mean, I suppose I could have done that. But you know, what if she told me, ‘Stay out of my business’? It did not occur to me that he was actively pressuring her.”

A suggested vacation

Woodard also knew of the Herr-man situation. Brame told her about it in mid-March 2003, telling much the same story he later described to McCrea.

At first, Woodard kept Brame’s confidence. She talked to his wife on March 31, 2003, and heard complaints about Brame’s death threats and his dalliance with Herrman. She took notes of the conversation, shared them with Brame and told no one else.

Woodard was the police department’s assigned representative for sexual harassment complaints. The administrative investigation found that she violated city policy by failing to report her knowledge.

Her attorneys disagree with the finding, saying she thought the relationship was consensual and noted that she did not learn the truth until after the shootings.

For two years, Woodard has declined interviews, referring questions to her attorneys.

She spoke to state criminal investigators in 2003, but was not interviewed by administrative investigators. As a result, the finding against her was preliminary.

Woodard continues to decline interviews, citing ongoing litigation from a wrongful-death lawsuit related to the scandal.

In September, the suit resulted in a $12.5 million settlement for Crystal Judson Brame’s family, but depositions are still being taken as part of the settlement agreement, and the case has not been formally dismissed.

Woodard’s attorney, Rob Leinbach, said she criticized Brame for his behavior with Herrman at the time, and also mentioned it to an attorney in the city’s legal department.

A week after the March 31 conversation, Woodard spoke to Corpuz, and suggested that he send Brame on vacation. During his 2005 deposition in the wrongful-death suit, Corpuz confirmed the conversation with Woodard.

April 11, 2003: Death threats

A brewing crisis began to boil later that week. Several employees, including Blackwell, detective Barry McColeman, police spokesman Jim Mattheis, McCrea and Assistant Chief Bill Meeks recalled lengthy conversations with Brame about his divorce. The chief was despondent.

He told them Corpuz knew what was going on. Blackwell told state investigators Brame spoke with Corpuz every day.

In his deposition, Corpuz admitted speaking to Brame regularly during this period, and urging him to focus on work.

On April 11, 2003, Brame and Woodard drove to Crystal’s parents’ home in Gig Harbor to pick up the couple’s children for a weekend visit. The encounter dissolved into a shouting match. Crystal called 911 to complain that Woodard was intimidating her. To a dispatcher, she repeated her allegation of death threats from her husband.

From that moment, knowledge previously confined to Brame’s inner circle began to spread through the police department and the city. Any police employee could pull the 911 report from department computers. Several did. The rumor mill began to churn.

Woodard left a phone message with Corpuz the same night, asking him to call her. Corpuz spoke to her the next morning.

She described the incident, and read Corpuz the transcript of the 911 report, including the death threat allegation.

During his deposition, Corpuz admitted the conversation with Woodard.

ramsdell’s story

That same morning – April 12 – Brame told Assistant Chief Don Ramsdell to get a copy of the police report from the Gig Harbor incident.

Ramsdell’s account, previously undisclosed, appears in his interview with state investigators.

Ramsdell, now the city’s police chief, wasn’t a member of Brame’s inner circle, according to department insiders. A shy sort, he avoided political intrigue and the factionalism that plagued the department.

He knew about Brame’s divorce and the domestic violence allegations.

Weeks earlier, Brame had told him he was the victim, and showed Ramsdell a picture of a bruise he said Crystal had inflicted. Ramsdell thought it was strange, but didn’t say so, instead offering a few words of general support.

The night of April 11, Ramsdell heard about the 911 call from a subordinate. He called Brame to tell him about it. Brame told him he already knew.

Ramsdell advised the chief to leave Woodard out of the divorce proceedings.

“I said, you know, best thing to do, is just, you know, not bring Catherine,” Ramsdell recalled. “Don’t get her involved with picking up the kids and all that, because it’s causing problems.”

The next morning, Brame called Ramsdell and told him to get a copy of the police report from the incident. Ramsdell refused.

“I said I don’t think that’s appropriate to do,” Ramsdell recalled. “You know, you can’t go down and get police reports because you’re a police officer … for your own personal use. That was my opinion. And he wanted me to do it. In fact, he told me to go down and do it.”

Brame backed off. Ramsdell called Woodard, and told her of the chief’s request.

“I’m not gonna do it,” he recalled telling her. “It’s not the right thing to do.”

Ramsdell then called Assistant City Attorney Tom Orr, the police department’s legal adviser. He complained about Brame’s request, and Orr told him he was right.

an anonymous complaint

Orr, also interviewed by state investigators, is another source of previously undisclosed information in the records.

He told investigators he was vaguely aware of “something personal” going on with Brame in early April, and said he learned of it from Woodard, who added that Corpuz was aware of Brame’s problems.

Later, he said, he learned more about the divorce, and talked with Brame about it, offering encouragement.

He confirmed the call from Ramsdell on April 12, and said he called Brame about it afterward.

“I called Chief Brame and said it was my advice that he not order Chief Ramsdell to do that, and Chief Brame agreed with me,” Orr told investigators. “And so nothing happened.”

But something was happening. On Sunday, April 13, Woodard talked to Kerslake, telling her of Brame’s behavior. On Monday, Woodard spoke to Corpuz again, asking if he’d done anything about Brame.

Tuesday, an anonymous group of police officers, angered by the April 11 incident, sent a complaint letter to the department’s Internal Affairs division, urging an investigation. The letter referred to the 911 call and Crystal’s allegations of death threats.

During Corpuz’s 2005 deposition, Leinbach, Woodard’s attorney, asserted that Woodard hand-delivered the complaint to Corpuz’s assistant, Celia Holderman.

Corpuz admitted discussing the complaint with Holderman, and admitted deciding that he wouldn’t pursue it, because it was anonymous.

He also acknowledged talking to Woodard about the complaint, and admitted that Woodard asked him to investigate it.

“She may have said that, yes,” Corpuz testified. He also said he asked Brame if he needed a vacation. Brame said he didn’t.

Brame found out about Woodard’s complaint to Corpuz that week. He called her into his office and chewed her out, according to Leinbach. Other records and previous interviews show Brame began to tell his associates that Woodard was after his job.

‘a very weird conversation’

In the Internal Affairs division, Lt. Bob Sheehan, a longtime ally of Brame who had supported his campaign for chief, felt his frustration growing.

Sheehan told investigators he had learned of the April 11 incident from Woodard, who said she had relayed the information to Corpuz.

Sheehan also had a copy of the anonymous complaint from the officers. He discussed it with McCrea, his commander. Both men told state investigators they felt it warranted investigation.

They soon learned from Woodard that Corpuz wouldn’t investigate, because the complaint was anonymous. Sheehan started an investigative file anyway, and kept it open.

Later that week – he wasn’t sure of the date – Sheehan and McCrea met with Brame. To investigators, Sheehan described it as “a very weird conversation.”

Again, Brame talked of his divorce, in a manner Sheehan found overly dramatic. He thought Brame sounded ridiculous.

Brame suggested he might call Sheehan as a witness in the divorce case. Sheehan wasn’t interested.

“I believe my response was something like, ‘Don’t drag me into your divorce,’” he told investigators.

Chaos erupted the following week, as the media discovered the allegations in Brame’s divorce filings. Internet publisher John Hathaway wrote his version of the divorce story on April 22, e-mailing the article to city leaders.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer followed with its own story of the case on April 25. Everything was public now.

Corpuz told reporters Brame’s divorce was a civil matter, and that he didn’t intend to investigate.

In a meeting at City Hall still disputed by the participants, Human Resources leaders spoke to city attorneys about Brame, and raised the possibility of administrative leave. Still, Corpuz did not act.

That night, Brame returned from a labor-management seminar in Las Vegas. Sheehan picked him up at the airport and drove him to Tacoma. Brame was still talking about the divorce.

After dropping him off, Sheehan called Corpuz, telling him, “This babying of Brame needs to stop.” He added that if Corpuz wouldn’t do something, he, Sheehan, would.

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

Minutes after the April 26 shooting, the news flooded the city. Mattheis drove Corpuz to the scene in Gig Harbor, working the cell phone for news of Brame.

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

“Why would he do this?”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486