Tacoma city leaders are backing away from a letter that indicated they planned to publicly release nude photos of Crystal Brame, slain wife of Police Chief David Brame.
Leaders responded Thursday to a sudden public relations tempest sparked by media inquiries and infuriated objections from Crystal Brame’s family.
“I have no intention whatsoever of releasing those photos,” City Manager Walton said Thursday. “I’m opposed to having to release the photos, so I’m glad to have a third party express interest.”
A week ago, the city took a different position. A Nov. 9 letter signed by Walton and addressed to an attorney representing Julie Ahrens, Crystal Brame’s sister, states the city intends to release the photos as part of its disclosure of documents related to an investigation of the David Brame scandal.
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“The city is required to disclose these photos under the Public Disclosure Act and intends to do so,” the letter reads, going on to offer the family a chance to object to disclosure. The letter set a deadline of Nov. 19 for the family to respond and noted that without an objection, the photos would be disclosed Monday.
Brame fatally shot his wife and himself April 26, 2003. The shootings led to multiple investigations of city employees and their links to the police chief.
While their existence has not been publicized, the photos – reconstructed from four shredded negatives – are not a new discovery. They were found a year ago during a criminal investigation of the shootings, conducted by the Washington State Patrol. The shredded negatives were in a wastebasket in David Brame’s office.
At the time, investigators could not determine why the photos were there, or who had shredded them. In a 2003 interview with state investigators, Jeannette Blackwell, Brame’s administrative assistant, speculated Brame shredded them himself shortly before the shootings.
A brief description of the photos appeared in the 7,000-page record of the state’s investigation, publicly released last year. The photos were part of the record, but the State Patrol did not release them.
Subsequently, the city hired the State Patrol to conduct an administrative investigation into allegations of misconduct by city employees linked to the scandal. The second investigation, not yet complete, cited information from the first criminal investigation, including the photos of Crystal Brame.
Though the State Patrol didn’t release the photos, the city’s legal department took a different view, and decided they should be released. The Nov. 9 letter to Ahrens cites “numerous public disclosure requests from the media” for documents related to the investigation.
The News Tribune has not sought the photos but is one of the organizations requesting investigative documents. In response, the city, citing privacy interests, has repeatedly stated it will not release the names of employees accused of misconduct, even in cases that lead to sustained findings of wrongdoing.
“The information we’re interested in is anything to do with public officials in the performance of their duties at taxpayer expense,” said David Zeeck, the newspaper’s executive editor. “We have no interest whatsoever in personal photos of Crystal Brame and have never asked the city for any such thing.”
In deciding which documents to release publicly, Walton has relied on advice from Jean Homan, an assistant city attorney and a member of Walton’s “review team” – a group of advisers assisting him with analysis of the city’s administrative investigation. In June, Homan wrote a 16-page summary of public disclosure law that has served as the city’s guide.
Walton signed the letter sent to Crystal Brame’s family, but it originated in the city’s legal department. Homan reviewed and approved the text, said acting city attorney Elizabeth Pauli.
Homan did not respond to a request for comment about the letter from The News Tribune.
Pauli said that, in spite of the letter’s tone, the city has not made a decision to release the photos. Such letters are commonly sent in public disclosure matters where a third party might have an interest in objecting to disclosure, she said, adding the wording of the letter might have given the wrong impression.
“I recognize that the letter has set off a firestorm, and I looked at how it was worded, and I understand it,” she said, adding she has spoken with attorneys representing Crystal Brame’s family.
“I apologized for the miscommunication, for the panic that has ensued from language that came from the city and this office that was unnecessary and certainly not intended,” she said.
David Beninger, one of the attorneys representing the family in a wrongful-death suit against the city, said the city’s actions show questionable judgment.
“When the city decision makers are holdovers from a culture of corruption you’re going to get decisions which violate the public and end up depleting the public trust funds,” he said. “From my point of view, the two fundamental rules for any public servant are, rule No. 1, you don’t victimize the victims. Rule No. 2, you fire anyone who violates rule No. 1, because they have judgement problems that will cost you money and harm people.”
Beninger was one of the attorneys involved in a similar case a decade ago that involved autopsy photographs of Gov. Dixy Lee Ray and Tacoma Mayor Jack Hyde. The case prompted a 1998 Washington State Supreme Court ruling that reinforced a “common-law right to privacy,” and a series of lawsuits ultimately settled by Pierce County.
“Every public official should have been aware of that Supreme Court decision, and taken the utmost steps to protect all autopsy and private photos,” Beninger said. “To even expect that the City of Tacoma would be contemplating to disclose and violate that Supreme Court decision is unconscionable.”