Special Reports

Two years after deaths, Brame lawsuits grind on

Two years ago today, Tacoma Police Chief David Brame fatally shot his wife, Crystal, then himself.

The couple’s two children, sitting in their father’s car nearby, ran to their dying mother. Paramedics and police swarmed, and took the children away.

That was the beginning. Scandal trailed death and roiled Tacoma: protests, investigations, revelations, recrimination and the ends of careers.

What remains? A cluster of lawsuits, inching toward resolution. Various people sued the city – the total of claims exceeds $80 million – and the city has played defense ever since.

Here’s a tally of legal actions related to the Brame scandal and where they stand:

Wrongful death

The largest single action comes from the family of Crystal Brame, a wrongful-death suit that began with an initial damage claim of $75 million. The family claims that city leaders knew of domestic violence in Brame’s marriage and problems in his past, wrongfully promoted him to chief, and looked the other way as his actions and behavior grew increasingly erratic.

As of Thursday, the city’s legal costs related to defense of the wrongful-death suit stood at roughly $1.3 million. That’s almost half the amount city leaders have budgeted for legal fees, and the trial isn’t scheduled to begin until March 2006.

The city’s costs climb swiftly because it pays for three legal teams, not one.

The Burgess Fitzer law firm is handling Tacoma’s defense, but former City Manager Ray Corpuz and former Assistant Police Chief Catherine Woodard, also named as defendants in the suit, have their own attorneys. The city pays their fees too, since both parties face accusations about their actions on the job.

The case is vast. The documentary record includes tens of thousands of pages from prior investigations and more than 300 individual filings. Both sides recently submitted their witness lists – individuals who may be called to testify. The combined total approaches 900 people, including scores of police officers, former chiefs, even the members of Brame’s high school basketball team.

That number is certain to drop as the trial date approaches. But for now, attorneys for both sides must adopt a catch-all approach to ensure that no one with possible knowledge is left out.

“Witnesses that are not named can’t be called,” said Paul Luvera, the attorney representing Crystal Brame’s family. “Therefore, you list everybody you think is a conceivable witness. Then as discovery and depositions are taken, valuation is made as to whether or not they’re going to be called at trial. The case has to be honed down.”

Depositions, stalled for months by a dispute among the attorneys, are moving forward, Luvera said. Former City Attorney Robin Jenkinson is scheduled for May 4. Lane and Patty Judson, Crystal Judson’s parents, concluded their depositions last week.

Before the suit was filed in October 2003, the two parties discussed a settlement, but negotiations fizzled. Luvera now says a settlement is unlikely.

City officials routinely decline comment on the specifics of the case, though they follow those details closely. Acting City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said she meets with the city’s legal team once a week and provides updates to the city council on the progress of the case.

The rape claim

The lawsuit filed by Sylvia Boskovich, the Gig Harbor-area woman who claims Brame raped her in 1987, now sits in Tacoma’s U.S. District Court. The case is in the early stages. Filings include little more than the initial complaint and the city’s answer. Since February, no new documents have appeared.

Boskovich’s initial damage claim, filed with the city in July of last year, sought $2 million in damages.

In October, the city rejected the claim, paving the way for the lawsuit, filed in December. The case started in Pierce County Superior Court with a trial scheduled for December 2005. In January, the suit shifted to U.S. District Court after the city successfully sought a change of venue. No new trial date has been set.

At the time of the incident, Boskovich worked at the Pierce County Juvenile Court and Brame was a police officer. She says he attacked her after a dinner date, forcing sex on her with his police-issued gun nearby in plain sight.

She later filed a complaint against Brame with the police department. An internal investigation followed, and then-Police Chief Ray Fjetland concluded that the complaint against Brame was “unsustained,” meaning it could not be proved.

After the 2003 shootings, Boskovich learned that police investigators believed her story and felt Brame was lying to them. She also learned the incident was never investigated as a crime.

The detective

One Brame-related legal action hasn’t reached the lawsuit stage. Tacoma police detective Mary Herrman, who says she was sexually harassed by Brame, filed a damage claim against the city in December, seeking $1.5 million in damages.

Herrman has said that Brame pressured her to participate in three-way sex with his wife and mentioned a possible promotion. Various public records show that Herrman and Crystal Judson rejected the idea.

Brame ultimately promoted Herrman, but she told state investigators he continued to pressure her despite her refusals.

Lack of a court filing from the city and Cliff Freed, Herrman’s attorney, could be a sign of settlement negotiations. Freed declined comment, but the parties have discussed the possibility, according to Pauli.

The human resources director

Phil Knudsen, the city’s former human resources director, filed a $5 million lawsuit against the city in December of last year, claiming wrongful termination and violation of his civil rights.

Knudsen was fired in June 2004. At the time, City Manager Jim Walton said he fired Knudsen for misconduct and lack of commitment to “cultural competence.” Knudsen counters that he was fired for being outspoken. He argues that the city retaliated against him for questioning the appointment of Brame as police chief in 2001.

He also claims city leaders sabotaged him after he spoke publicly about a controversial meeting regarding Brame, held on April 25, 2003, between human resources department heads and city attorneys.

The trial is scheduled for January 2006 in Tacoma’s U.S. District Court. Knudsen’s attorney, Paul Lindenmuth, sees little chance of a settlement.

“I don’t think so – I think we’re gonna try this one,” he said.

The assistant chief

A lawsuit filed by former assistant police chief Ray Roberts seeks $500,000 in lost wages and benefits.

Roberts retired as an assistant police chief Aug. 5, 2002, 30 days before completing 30 years of service in the department. He claims Brame forced the retirement by threatening to demote Roberts to captain. Roberts has said he asked Brame for a reason and the chief replied, “Because I can.”

Retiring allowed Roberts to maintain his salary as an assistant chief and avoid the pay cut that would have accompanied a drop in rank. He had hoped to stay on with the department through January 2003, when he would have been eligible for an 8 percent pay increase.

The case might hinge on the complex issue of Roberts’ employment status. Was he an “at-will” employee, subject to dismissal or demotion without just cause? The city says yes. David Murdach, Roberts’ attorney, says no and argues that Roberts enjoyed civil service protections.

Depositions are under way in the case.

The internet publisher

In terms of money, the smallest claim comes from John Hathaway, local Internet journalist. His web site, The New Takhoman, was the first to publish details of the Brames’ divorce proceedings, including Crystal’s allegations of domestic violence.

On April 28, 2003, two days after the shootings, Hathaway received what he described as a threatening e-mail from Tacoma police officer and police union President Patrick Frantz. About a year later, he filed a claim with the city, seeking $99,200 in damages. The city rejected it, and Hathaway sued in Pierce County Superior Court.

His case is scheduled for trial in October.

Sean Robinson 597-8486