Jury selection is under way in the Snohomish County trial of Timothy Blackwell, charged with shooting and killing four people inside the King County Courthouse in March of last year; among them was Blackwell's estranged wife, Susana. The Times went to Susana's hometown in the Philippines to learn about her life and to find out how a village girl from a remote tropical island ended up a murder victim so far from home.
The ambitious Susana Remerata wanted to leave the Philippines, to marry an American. On a whim, she allowed her photograph to be published in a catalog of potential brides. Pretty Susana got her Yankee husband. Then things took a terrible turn.
CATAINGAN, Philippines - There's no sign marking the entrance to the cemetery. It isn't necessary; everyone here knows where it is. At the end of a long muddy trail, it just appears, a city of tombstones in the middle of a mango grove.
Susana Blackwell's tomb is a simple block of concrete about elbow high. There's a man resting an elbow on it right now. It's Susana's father, Zucino Remerata. He's 65, with sweat on his forehead and thick knotty fingers that have spent a lifetime grasping tools. He spends his days here, building a cover for Susana's tomb.
There are others with him on this sweltering afternoon, townspeople who knew Susana, and who are now using her final resting place as a tabletop for an informal discussion.
The men are talking tough. The women fan themselves and speak of regrets. The group, on this occasion, has decided to pick on Timothy Blackwell. In this insular town of 39,000, where the only news medium is the nearest neighbor, he -Timothy Blackwell, U.S. citizen, Montana native, Seattle resident, estranged husband, triple-murder suspect, bearded burly white man in his 40s, and whatever else he may be - isn't called anything but Blackwell.
"Blackwell is a coward. I wish he were here. He would not last long," says one man, lifting his shirt to expose the grip of a .45. "He likes guns. I would show him one."
Susana's mother, Marcella, is crying. "Never mind Blackwell," she says. "Leave Blackwell to God. God will know what to do with him."
The gathering at the cemetery lasts the better part of an afternoon. Once in a while, somebody breaks off to look at Susana's picture framed at the head of her tomb. It's a school photo. She radiates warmth and earnestness and a certain awareness of her own allure.
It isn't unlike her photo in Asian Encounters, the bride catalog published 7,000 miles away in Bellingham, which promised subscribers access to "pretty single Asian women who want to meet you!" and from which Blackwell chose Susana, out of dozens of other smiling Filipinas, as his future mate.
A final picture is passed around by the people leaning on her tomb. It was taken just before Susana's casket was sealed. The bullet hole on her forehead is gone. She looks like a doll from a department-store showcase, a sleeping beauty, by some mortician's magic made perfect and remote.
It's a long journey to Susana's world, but it doesn't equal the distance she traveled. She went from village girl in that school photo to young woman for sale in a bride catalog to young wife shot dead in a second-floor hallway of a courthouse across the ocean in a remote place called King County.
She would have turned 27 next month.
Parts of her story are common to a great number of people here, and parts particular only to her. The common parts tell a sad story of this tattered nation. But Susana was not pure victim. Friends describe her as a dreamer, not of the wishy adolescent kind, but a serious one, someone inclined to take the necessary steps. She wanted to marry an American.
The opportunity came; she took some chances.
A sweet chatterbox
Susana was known first as the daughter of Zucino and Marcella, sister of Alex, best friend to Edith. She was known by a wider circle of people as the pretty cashier at her parents' mercantile store. She was petite and effusive; everyone seemed to like her, a girl from the neighborhood, but not exactly the girl next door.
She was smart. An honor student at Cataingan National High School, she studied nursing then, later, hotel and restaurant management at a college in Cebu, 12 hours away by ferry. Susana moved to Cebu and ferried home almost every weekend.
She had means. By American standards, her parents would be poor, but here the Remeratas are better off than many. They own two small stores and one of the nicest homes in Cataingan, a concrete house with a green, corrugated-steel roof. They have no car, stove, flush toilet or telephone, but do have several "katulongs," or helpers, to do the menial chores around the house.
"Susana never had to wash clothes or clean house. She was a senorita," says her friend Liza Orbiso, who runs a contracting business on the island. "Whatever she wanted, she got - a meal served on a tray, or a trip to Cebu or Manila. All she had to do was ask."
She was a local beauty queen - Miss Cataingan, Miss Masbate, a contestant for Miss Cebu. In the Philippines, home of the most infamous former beauty queen of all, Imelda Marcos, beauty queens hold a revered status. They turn intomovie stars, marry powerful politicians or become politicians themselves. (Marcos is now a congresswoman in a northern province.)
Susana's pageant titles, judging from the framed pictures on her bedroom wall and throughout her parents' house, were important to her and her parents.
Her friends called her Miss Madaldal, which means talkative. A chatterbox, that Susana. Sweet, but don't get her started. Movie stars, romance, adventure - these fueled her talk. Even in quiet moments, said lifelong friend Edith Villamor, Susana seemed occupied by a world of concerns far removed from here.
Typhoons and elections
Cataingan is a town of fishermen, farmers and miners; of barefooted children chasing goats, and young women washing clothes at a river's edge; of dusty roads, nipa huts, small concrete storefronts and one very large, almost cathedral-like, Catholic church. There's no sign outside the church, but everyone knows it's St. Vincent's.
Susana was baptized, married and eulogized there.
Except for the church, the whole town has a lean-to feel about it, as if blown together by a strong Pacific wind. Nothing appears quite squared, from the lazy angles of ramshackle buildings to the carefree plats of streets and power lines.
Electricity reached the town 12 years ago. Phone service and cable TV are on the way. Meanwhile, cockfighting remains the top entertainment in town.
Cataingan is situated in the southeast corner of the island of Masbate, a mound of land shaped like an arrowhead, about two-thirds the size of King County. Masbate is the main beef supplier to the rest of the Philippines. Three-fourths of the island is grassland.
Half a million people live here, segmented into six dialects, living in or around 21 scattered towns connected by one main road. It isn't a good road. It's 2 1/2 hours of rough riding from the airport to Cataingan, a distance of 35 miles.
They've been working on improving the road for years, but there's always one disruption or another, lack of money being the most constant. Masbate is visited regularly by two other disruptive forces: typhoons and elections.
Typhoons hit a dozen times a year, sometimes leveling entire towns. Elections aren't as frequent but wreak as much havoc. People die at election time. Since 1980, five prominent leaders, including a former governor and a congressman, have been assassinated. Three barrio captains have been missing since the last election. Nobody bothers to count minions who have disappeared.
The bodyguard of a local congressman, the Hon. Fausto Seachon Jr., said, as he showed off his arsenal of weapons: "Elections are a good time to take a holiday off the island."
Masbate is one of the 7,100 islands that make up the Philippines. It's one of the poorer provinces of one of the poorest nations in Asia. The average urban worker in the Philippines earns the equivalent of $140 a month. In farming regions - which is to say, most of the country - that amount would be closer to a year's earnings.
It's why the lines in Manila for visas to other countries never end; why 600,000 Filipinos go abroad each year to work as domestic helpers and laborers; why thousands of Filipinos go to extraordinary lengths to attract foreign spouses. The national obsession is to change nationalities.
An estimated 20,000 Filipino women leave the country each year as wives or fiancees of foreigners. The largest number, 5,000, marry Americans; 2,000 marry Australians; the rest go to Europe, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Many of the relationships begin by mail.
As widespread as the term has become, "mail-order bride" is a misnomer. Women aren't ordered or delivered like appliances from Sears, as was done on the American frontier in the 19th century.
Nowadays, women are made accessible to men through agencies that provide the women's names and addresses for a fee. It's up to the man to initiate a correspondence and up to the woman to respond. Some agencies arrange "tours" in which men travel to meet prospective brides in person. In these ways, agencies are no different from the legal introduction services that have come into vogue all over the Western World in the past decade.
More than 100 agencies in the United States specialize in international matchmaking, and the Philippines is only oneof a host of target countries. The entire developing world, including much of Latin America, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics, is seen as a bargain bin of accessible women.
Cherry Blossoms, of Honolulu, one of the oldest and largest mail-bride agencies in the United States, used to market only Asian women. Now, roughly half its prospective brides come from Russia and Poland. Cherry Blossoms publisher Bob Burrows says his agency gets 2,500 orders a month for his catalog.
For whatever reasons, Burrows says, there's a strong pull among many Americans to marry foreigners, and government statistics bear that out. U.S. Immigration reports that 200,000 Americans - men and women - marry foreigners every year. These couples meet while on vacation, business or exchange programs - and sometimes through mail-order catalogs.
Men are the exclusive users of the mail-order method, and it's the catalogs that most often elicit protest. They, in fact, do have the feel of a Sears catalog, with pages and pages of smiling women as the commodities along with the requisite captioned enticements:
"Beautiful Latin Ladies Ready to Meet You!" "Gorgeous Pacific Women! Pearls of the Orient - Beautiful Ladies Known for their Beauty, Charm, Grace and Hospitality!" "Russian Beauties Looking for American Friends!"
His desire, her escape
In a very real sense, the men who get wives through this route are "buying" their way into marriage. Their affluence is a primary appeal, which isn't to say there aren't other attractions. Motives are usually a confluence of desires, not the least of which may be a want for companionship and family.
Still, the man buys the catalog, the address, the airline ticket to the woman's country, and then pays for the wedding and travel expenses to bring the new wife home. The whole process, according to Jerry Davis, the Bellingham matchmaker who brought Susana and Blackwell together, costs $4,000 to $6,000 if done efficiently. Blackwell claimed to have spent $10,000.
The asymmetry strikes at the heart of what's perverse about the business of matching First World men to Third World women. The two groups are driven by completely different imperatives: the men by the luxury of choice and desire, the women by the more urgent need to escape a life of fixed poverty.
The men enter into a power relationship in which it's easy for them to be the absolute power. The women leave their communities, land in a foreign culture often with no money or contacts, and are, at least in the beginning, totally dependent on their new spouses.
Certainly in some cases, the men are counting on a certain kind of inequality. Many buy into the image of Asian women as exotic and submissive, and some men fully expect it. It's what the catalogs promise.
The "pen-pal" catalog
Susana was a small-town girl looking for a bigger life, always talking about finding an American husband and settling down in a land across the ocean where she didn't sweat day and night, and maybe there'd even be snow.
She told her friend Liza Orbiso she wanted an American husband "so they could have beautiful children. . . . Everyone knows that children of Filipino and American parents are handsome. It's that American blood. It makes us stronger."
"Mangangarap" is the word Orbiso used to describe Susana. Dreamer. It comes from the Tagalog word "pangarap," one definition of which is "ambition."
The reason she went into hotel management, friends say, is because she was drawn by romantic visions of travelers coming from distant places, bringing with them the mystique of lands she'd seen only in magazines. If she couldn't be a traveler, she could at least be near those who were. In her eyes, and in the eyes of many in developing countries, everyforeigner is a messenger from a world of dreams.
This is the story Susana told her mother and best friend Edith Villamor:
While at college in Cebu, Susana and a group of her friends found out about an older Filipino woman who knew how to find American pen pals. The woman, it turned out, worked for Jerry Davis, the Bellingham matchmaker who published Asian Encounters. Davis paid the woman a small finder's fee - one source said 10 pisos (about 40 cents) - for every Filipina she recruited.
It all seemed so easy. Susana and her friends filled out an application, had some pictures taken and went back to their boarding house and laughed about it. They did it to see what would happen. They had no idea.
Sometime afterward, Susana and her friends visited a palm reader on a whim. The palmist told Susana that her future husband would not be a Filipino; he would come from another country. The presage confirmed her own wish, and she was excited by it.
13 letters a day
In the April-May-June 1990 issue of Asian Encounters, Susana's picture appeared with this unprepossessing caption:
Susana (age 21) 5'3", 105 lb. Philippines.
Roman Catholic. Hotel & Restaurant Management.
Hobbies: dancing, reading, cooking.
Susana was surprised when the letters started pouring in. Never did she expect this. By the time she got her first letter from Timothy Blackwell in the summer of 1991, she was getting an average of 13 letters a day from some 100 American pen pals. It was a lot of work keeping up with the correspondence. What began as a fanciful idea became a serious project.
She kept a photo album of her pen pals, pages and pages of captioned pictures of American men in various poses:
Here is Mark fishing. Here is Ronnie flexing his muscles. Here is Alex with his pet frog. Here is Donald standing next to his house. Here is Donald next to his swimming pool. Here is a close-up of Donald's swimming pool.
There were at least 30 names. Many were obviously trying to do their own image-selling, banking on the allure of The Wealthy American. It could be said that she had her own catalog to choose from.
Blackwell, then in his mid-40s, working as a handyman and eventually as a lab technician, was living in a small studio apartment in North Seattle. He was engaged in his ownserious project. He'd written as many as 24 women from Asian Encounters; half responded to his letters.
"A serving attitude"
Not much research has been done on the men who shop for wives through catalogs, but the little information available isn't flattering.
An informal survey done by a Filipino women's group found that a large number of the men were "socially or physically unattractive in their own culture." A significant number had chauvinistic attitudes, histories of abuse, or physical disabilities.
One Filipina declared more pointedly: "Your losers come here to get wives."
A study at the University of Texas found the men came from all socio-economic backgrounds but tended to be older and divorced, and many had gone through at least one traumatic experience with a previous partner.
An Everett man with a Filipino wife had this to say:
"You go through a couple of divorces in this country, you get a bellyful of American women and their liberated ways. Then you go over there (the Philippines), and these girls have a serving attitude - everyone does. It's part of the culture. They believe the man is the head of the home."
Despite what many critics want to believe, there isn't a great body of evidence showing that marriages-by-mail are more prone to trouble than other kinds of marriages - the state of marriage being what it is.
Kind, rich, old, about to die
The men in mail-order marriages face some risk, too. So eager to fall in love, some have been tricked by Third World brides into sending large amounts of money or being used to gain entry into a First World country. U.S. Immigration says it's a common scam.
Among bar girls in Manila, there's an inside joke regarding what characteristics they seek in foreign men: Mabait, Mayaman, Matanda, Malapit nang Mamatay. They're referred to as "The Four Ms," which translate into Kind, Rich, Old and About To Die.
It's clear, however, that women in mail-arranged marriages face the graver risks. Immigrant counselors say men risk broken hearts and broken bank accounts; women often risk life and limb.
The sense of "purchase" in the men can lead to a feeling of "ownership" of the women, says Ninotchka Rosca of GABRIELA, a women's advocacy group based in Quezon City. "A paid-for wife," Rosca says, "is a slave for life."
GABRIELA has documented stories of Filipina brides in Germany, Norway, Sweden, Holland, the Netherlands and Japan who were forced into isolation, slave labor, prostitution or suicide. Australia is unanimously singled out as the worst offending country, with 18 Filipino wives killed by Australian husbands since 1985. GABRIELA, though, has seen a recent rise in mail-order abuse by other Asian countries, Japan and Thailand in particular.
One 21-year-old Filipina told the story of how her Thai fiance confined her in a room, repeatedly raped her, allowed his friends to rape her, and fed her only rice and water for a month. She was then placed in jail for a year on charges never made clear to her. She was eventually freed and forced to earn her own fare back to the Philippines.
Rosca: "It's just unconscionable what's being done to our women."
The brutality of some of the cases pushed the Philippine government in 1990 to pass a law prohibiting the practice of matching Filipinas for marriage to foreigners through the mail. Republic Act 6955, though, is largely regarded as symbolic.
To get around the law, marriage brokers simply changed their label to "pen-pal clubs." Ads for pen-pal clubs can be found in any number of magazines in the Philippines. Not all of these clubs are fronts for mail-order operations.
If there's an attraction, people will find a way, and despite the horror stories, there's still an attraction among Filipinos to Americans and America in particular that goes beyond need to something resembling idolatry.
British-born writer Pico Iyer, in his travelogue of Southeast Asia, came close to the heart of it when he wrote: "American dreams are strongest in the hearts of those who have seen America only in their dreams."
"The palmist was right!"
A year after receiving her first letter from Timothy Blackwell, Susana stopped writing the other men. She testified in her annulment trial that she'd decided, "It would be Tim."
She told her friend Orbiso: "The palmist was right!"
Susana and Blackwell exchanged more than 40 letters, a few cassette tapes, and occasionally talked on the phone over an 18-month period before Blackwell decided to fly to Cataingan. He arrived in Cebu on March 3, 1993, met Susana in person for the first time in Cataingan on March 6, and the two got married at St. Vincent's on March 31.
It was a big Filipino wedding that was videotaped by a local professional filmmaker. Her mother replayed the tape, along with tapes of the wedding reception and Susana's "despedida," or farewell party.
Susana said she was in love with Blackwell, although the videos of both the wedding and reception didn't indicate overflowing affection from either Susana or Blackwell for each other. They appeared ill-at-ease, like two people from opposite ends of the Earth who'd just met, and who still didn't know how to act around one another.
He spent six weeks in the Philippines and, by most accounts, including his own, wasn't comfortable in Cataingan. He later complained of the heat and sanitation, and that he sometimes had to share a bed with two other people.
Susana's family did their best to keep him comfortable, preparing American meals for him, constantly offering cold drinks, and borrowing all the neighbors' electric fans to keep him cool.
Communication also was a problem. Susana's family spoke very little English, and Blackwell spoke none of the island dialects. He also said Susana, who spoke broken, halting English, was not as attentive to him as he was led to expect from her amorous letters, preferring to talk with her friends over him.
Meanwhile, money seemed to be flying out of his pockets. He said he spent $2,000 on the wedding, which included expenses to bring in a high-priced beautician from Cebu, another $2,000 on the reception and, later on, $600 for a TV and VCR for Susana's parents. Blackwell later complained of Susana's spending, but townspeople said Blackwell offered to pay for everything and acted as if he had money to spare.
He later testified that he broke off the wedding plans while in Cataingan and was trying to book a flight back to the United States when Susana persuaded him to stay and the two had sex for the first time.
"I spent a year-and-a-half corresponding with this woman," he said in court. "I felt I loved her very much."
Still, he preferred to spend most of his time in Cebu, where more people spoke English and where he could eat familiar foods and stay in an air-conditioned hotel room.
This might explain why he lost his temper the day after the wedding when he and Susana missed a ferry to Cebu. He blamed Susana for making them late to the ferry dock. Blackwell admitted he raised his voice to her. Susana said he raised his voice and choked her.
Susana told her mother what happened. Marcella said she didn't want her daughter to go to America with this man, but Susana told her she was willing to take a chance with him. She said she still loved him.
A 9-mm semiautomatic
Blackwell returned to the United States in mid-April. It took Susana almost a year to get the necessary papers to join her husband in his newly rented apartment in Kirkland. She arrived Feb. 5, 1994.
Based on her court testimony and that of people who came in contact with her, Susana was as disoriented in Blackwell's world as Blackwell was in hers.
Blackwell later testified that his new wife was cold, distant, uncommunicative and slept fully clothed. Susana's attorney, Mimi Castillo, argued that what Blackwell mistook for remoteness was really culture shock and homesickness, not to mention the kind of dissonance to be expected in a new marriage of virtual strangers.
As far as Susana sleeping clothed, she went from Philippine tropic to Seattle winter, the equivalent of moving from the Northwest to the North Pole. She never imagined the land of dreams could be so cold, Castillo said.
The couple spent exactly 13 days together.
The final parting happened after Susana claimed Blackwell choked and struck her, and pushed her head into a sink. She called the police. Blackwell, who told officers he was assisting Susana in washing her face, was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault. The charge was dropped when Susana failed to appear in court.
Blackwell has said her accusations of assault, including the alleged ferry incident on Masbate, were simply not true. He contends Susana, with cold calculation, used him for money and passage to the United States, and that she had no intention of staying married to him.
In retaliation 10 days after she left him, he started the annulment process that would have forced her to be deported back to the Philippines. Shortly before the trial, records show, he offered to drop his annulment claim if she agreed to pay him $17,000 - the amount he said he'd spent on her, including court costs, since their first encounter four years earlier.
Susana didn't have that kind of money and had no prospects of getting it. Her attorneys, using a battered-wife clause inimmigration law, were working to keep her from being deported. The clause is the only protection against deportation if an immigrant doesn't remain married at least two years to an American spouse. In other words, if Susana could prove she was battered, she could get permanent-resident status.
The trial got ugly.
Susana said her new husband was not only cruel and brutal, but that he was impotent and possibly gay. Blackwell in court said his wife was a money-hungry con artist, and that deporting her would be "a small amount of justice."
"I feel very responsible," he said, "because I feel like I brought a disease into this country."
The details of Susana's life during the trial are sketchy. She lived with another Filipina from the same region in the Philippines. She worked full-time at O Boy! Oberto in Kent. She sent her parents and friends in Cataingan regular shipments of stuffed animals, perfumes, cosmetics and costume jewelry.
She got pregnant, she said, by someone who raped her during a party. She said she couldn't identify the man who raped her. Jerry Davis claims he has information indicating that a Filipino boyfriend impregnated her, possibly as another attempt to keep from being deported.
On March 2, 1995, minutes before closing arguments in the annulment trial, Susana and two friends who testified on her behalf, Phoebe Dizon and Veronica Johnson, were sitting on a bench in a second-floor hallway of the courthouse. Police say Blackwell calmly removed a 9-mm semiautomatic handgun from his briefcase, approached the women and shot them from a distance of one foot.
Susana, eight months pregnant, was shot three times in a straight vertical line - head, chest and abdomen - killing her unborn child, as well.
When he was subdued by security guards, Blackwell had an extra ammunition clip in his other hand. Inside his briefcase was an envelope containing $650 - he'd just closed his bank account - and a last will and testament that read in part:
"I am of sound mind and body and take full responsibility for my actions. I wish to thank the many friends and family members I have and others who have given me support. . . . I regret not being able to contact them and say goodbye as I want to very much. I believe they will understand my feelings."
He faces three counts of aggravated first-degree murder, and one count of manslaughter for the death of the unborn child. Blackwell has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges. Because he has no criminal record, court observers say, his defense likely will be some form of temporary insanity.
`In a cold place'
The Remeratas don't plan to attend the trial. It's too far away, and that world across the ocean too strange. "I don't speak English. I don't know how anything works," says Zucino Remerata. Besides, he says, "whether I go or not, my daughter will still be dead."
In the minds of her family, Susana left the island in white and returned in white. They videotaped her memorial service and entombment. They were eerily similar to her wedding and reception - the same church, same crowd, with her parents looking equally lost in the proceedings, and Susana dressed in elegant white, the center of it all.
At the end of the memorial service, only a pane of glass separated her from the people who stood in a long, sweltering line to get one last look. A parent who attended the service spoke of her young child's reaction: "How come she's not sweating?" the child asked.
The mother said, "She's in a cold place now."
Everyone here knows what she meant. In Cataingan on most days, cold is a thing to wish for. Cold happens in places far from here, better than here.
Susana made it to one of those places, at least for a short time. So many others want a taste of that other, dreamed-of life - risks be damned. The vast majority won't get past just thinking about it; then there are some who'll take their chances, and a few who'll find a cold unlike any other.
Many of the quotes in this story have been translated from Masbateneo, Cebuano and Tagalog.
----------------- THE OTHER VICTIMS -----------------
Phoebe Dizon, 46, of Seattle, and Veronica Laureta Johnson, 42, of Mountlake Terrace were immigrants from the Philippines. Dizon came from Masbate, the same island as Susana Blackwell. Dizon and Johnson both provided shelter and support for Susana after she left her husband, and both testified on Susana's behalf during the annulment trial. They were killed along with Susana Blackwell in the shooting spree March 2, 1995, at the King County Courthouse. The two women were sitting on a bench with Susana in a second-floor hallway at the time of the shooting. Dizon was married and had three children. Johnson, who worked in insurance sales, had two children.