Officer Charged With Murder -- Sergeant Could Face Death If Convicted

A veteran King County Police officer was charged today with aggravated first-degree murder in the death and disappearance of a 35-year-old Preston man this summer.

The charge against Sgt. Mathias "Matt" Bachmeier, 49, of Renton, means he could face the death penalty, if convicted.

Bachmeier is charged in the disappearance and presumed slaying of James Wren, 32, in August. If King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng chooses not to seek the death penalty and Bachmeier is convicted of the crime, he would be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Maleng, who announced the charge against Bachmeier today, has 30 days from the time of arraignment to decide if he will seek the death penalty.

James Wren was last seen alive Aug. 10, sitting in the back seat of Bachmeier's patrol car in front of Wren's home. The officer had responded to Wren's residence on a report of a dispute between Wren and his roommate.

What connection there is between the officer and Wren has not yet been revealed.

Bachmeier was arrested at his Renton apartment Wednesday for investigation of murder and arson. The arson refers to fires set at Bachmeier's Renton home in July. Bachmeier has not been charged with arson.

Bachmeier is expected to be arraigned Tuesday. By numerous accounts, Bachmeier, a 25-year veteran of the King County Police Department, has been a straight cop and good guy.

He got into some trouble as a teenager in South Dakota, but that didn't keep him from his dream of becoming a policeman, relatives say.

Then, last July, when the police veteran was remodeling his house in the industrial flats of Renton, someone set fire to it.

Investigators sifting the ruins soon focused on Bachmeier himself as the prime suspect, in part because valuable materials - things a homeowner might not want destroyed, were removed from the house before it and the detached garage were doused with gasoline and torched.

"In plain view on the ground (outside the burned house on the day of the fire), I observed a pile of articles including clothing and other items" (taken from the house)", said Renton Fire Department arson investigator Becky Gibbs, in an affidavit used to obtain a warrant to search Bachmeier's home.

The affidavit also speaks of "derogatory writing toward police" painted on the side of an outbuilding in the rear of the lot. Police say the writing included the name Rios. In 1988 Guadalupe Rios was shot and killed by Bachmeier in the line of duty. An inquest panel cleared him in the shooting. Investigators now believe Bachmeier may have applied the graffiti himself to make the fire appear as an act of revenge, according to sources. The motive for the fire may have been to collect insurance money.

Then on Aug. 10, James Bradley Wren, a convicted child molester, disappeared.

Friends and neighbors say they last saw Wren in the back seat of Bachmeier's patrol car.

Bachmeier told investigators that Wren accompanied him to the county-police substation at Fall City. After giving a statement on the dispute with his roommate, Wren left the substation alone, Bachmeier said.

Police believe the arson and Wren's disappearance are connected, although they are unsure exactly how, sources said. No body has been found. One key piece of evidence, sources say, is blood found in Bachmeier's patrol car that matches Wren's DNA.

Friends, neighbors and relatives were dumbfounded when Bachmeier, who has been on paid administrative leave since Sept. 11, was arrested.

In Seattle District Court yesterday, Judge Mark Chow ordered Bachmeier held without bail. Bachmeier waived his right to appear at the bail hearing, where he was represented by attorney John Wolfe.

Bachmeier has been separated from his wife, a postal worker, for eight years, according to court

cords. Cheryl Bachmeier filed for divorce on Oct. 3. Their son, Jeff, said the filing was a coincidence and had nothing to do with the case.

Matt Bachmeier is described by neighbors, his son, several other relatives and friends as a "straight shooter" who coached youth football, had a knack for working on cars, and loved to bowl.

His friends say he is a relatively quiet man who came from a large and responsible, religious family.

He was reared in South Dakota, the second oldest of 11 children.

His dad, Michael Bachmeier, operated a service station, according to Luke Bachmeier, an uncle who still lives in the police officer's hometown of Sturgis, S.D.

When Matt Bachmeier was a teen, he was arrested with a brother and some friends for altering checks, said the uncle.

They were sent to a reform school in Plankinton, S.D.

An aunt in Piedmont, S.D., also confirmed the juvenile arrest.

Both the uncle and the aunt said the youngster was not a troublemaker, and his punishment sobered him. The two relatives said he came from a "wonderful" family and was a good person.

In Plankinton, Matt Bachmeier met a young woman named Cheryl Staller. They married in August 1967. Their son, who is their only child, was born the same year.

A short time later, Bachmeier's father moved to Renton because his service station was not thriving and he was offered a job at a station in Renton, the uncle said.

The father took the job and a few years later became a Boeing machinist. Now retired, he declined to comment last night.

Most of the family, including Matt Bachmeier, followed the father to Washington state. Eight of Bachmeier's siblings still live here.

Matt Bachmeier worked for a few years at Bryant Motors, a large mechanic shop and equipment dealership in Renton. Bryant Motors owned an attached gas station at the time, and while Bachmeier was pumping gas there and lubing cars, he would discuss his dream of becoming a police officer, said Larry Krall, a former co-worker.

Bachmeier studied law enforcement at a local community college, Krall said. "He was a fine, good, energetic, clean-cut kid," Krall said. "It's quite surprising what he's accused of."

William G. Bryant, an owner of the company, says he doesn't believe a thing police are claiming about Bachmeier. "He's a straight shooter. A good guy."

Bachmeier joined King County Police in 1971. It's not clear whether the department knew of his juvenile record, but some officers said it would not necessarily have prevented him from being hired.

A former King County Police officer who trained Bachmeier as a rookie remembered him as a quiet recruit. "He was just kind of vanilla," said the retired officer, who did not want to be named. "No one thing about him was particularly remarkable."

Another officer, Gary Zornes, who worked with him in recent years, described him as "pretty good to work for, good for the troops."

Zornes, a master police officer, worked as an assistant to Bachmeier from 1993 until early this year in the North Precinct in Bothell. "In fact, he was probably one of the better ones I have worked for," Zornes said.

Before he was transferred to Bothell, Bachmeier patrolled the Renton area near his home.

His son said it was difficult sometimes to have a dad who was the local police officer, but that it kept him in line.

"He can be an imposing person as a police officer. He has learned how to be intimidating," said Jeff Bachmeier, 29, who's enrolled in computer programming at Washington State University.

But the younger Bachmeier said his dad is a "wonderful" father and a supportive role model.

About 16 years ago, the Bachmeier family moved to a one-story, three-bedroom house on Camas Avenue Northeast in the upper Kennydale area of Renton. His wife still lives there.

Longtime neighbors Gary Popovich and Dean Westcott remembered the police officer as a "straight-up guy" who was great with kids.

Both men said investigators must have made a terrible mistake.

"This is really devastating to us," said Westcott, a pipe fitter who coached Lions Club football teams in the Renton area with Bachmeier. "We coached real tough kids in and out of trouble. Matt was always square with the kids."

He coached football "to escape from being a police officer," and he was a terrific leader for teenagers, said Bachmeier's son, who played on one of his teams.

Bachmeier stayed out of the news until early one morning in February 1988 when he received a report on patrol of a suspicious person at a gas station in Renton.

When he arrived at the station, Guadalupe Rios, 32, lifted a .22-caliber rifle from underneath a poncho and fired two shots at him, including one that passed through his patrol-car windshield and pierced his leather gloves resting on the dash, Bachmeier later told an inquest jury.

Bachmeier testified that he ducked behind his front left fender and shot Rios twice with his 9-mm semiautomatic handgun. Then as Rios was lying on his back with two gunshot wounds in his chest, Bachmeier shot him a third time because he was beginning to raise his rifle again, Bachmeier told the jury.

Rios suffered from mental illness and was known to get agitated and violent. In May 1988, the inquest jury, in a 5-1 vote, said Bachmeier was justified in shooting him.

A year later, attorneys representing Rios' widow asked the county to reconsider the case because they said they had found three new witnesses who said Rios was not armed. However, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng declined to seek a new inquest because the witnesses could not be found.

Police say given recent circumstances, they will review the case.

Rios' widow, Lillian Angulo, says she thought most of the bad memories were over.

"I remarried . . . I had another baby . . . my life went on," she said today.

But a message on her telephone-answering machine Wednesday that Bachmeier had been arrested brought back memories of the death of Guadalupe Rios.

Angulo is adamant that Rios was not armed the morning he was killed. Bachmeier claimed Rios had a rifle. "My husband never owned a gun," she said.

She welcomes the reopening of the case. "They took Bachmeier's word for everything (during the inquest)," Angulo said.

She acknowledged that Rios had mental problems, which caused him to act out and be disruptive in the neighborhood. That apparently gave rise to what Angulo said were Bachmeier's attempts to drive her husband out of the neighborhood.

Angulo said that after the shooting, Bachmeier would sit in his patrol car outside the Rios home and then follow her daughter, who was 13 at the time, to her school-bus stop. Angulo said it was an attempt to intimidate her daughter, who was going to identify Bachmeier as the officer who had stopped Rios' car several times and threatened him prior to the shooting. But her daughter was scared and failed to identify the officer at the inquest, Angulo said.

"I hope and pray they do investigate," she said.

Neighbor Dean Westcott said the Rios shooting took a heavy toll on Bachmeier. The officers who worked with him said the officer was never what they call a "barrel stroker," a term for a police officer who is overly fascinated with guns. In fact, Bachmeier never hunted because he would not want to kill an animal, said his son.

"You could tell he didn't want to do that," said Westcott regarding the shooting. "It was like somebody punched him in the stomach."

Bachmeier separated from his wife around the time of the inquest jury's decision, but friends and family members say it wasn't the shooting that broke up the marriage.

The officer and his wife, who was a mail carrier, often worked different shifts. "They just basically drifted apart," said his son.

After Bachmeier separated from his wife, he moved to another house. A couple of years ago, he bought a much nicer house on North Garden Avenue across the street from the mechanic shop he had worked at more than two decades ago. This home, the one that burned, is in the Renton flats, a short distance from a Boeing plant. Friends said he was very proud of it.

It appears that most of the fire damage is being repaired.

Before he was suspended two months ago with pay, Bachmeier supervised officers working the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift out of the Bothell precinct. Rumors circulated within the department a couple of weeks ago about his possible arrest. Zornes, who works at the precinct, said he and the others there were quite surprised by the arrest.

"He and I never had a problem," Zornes said. "He may have had problems with other officers. But I don't know."

Seattle Times staff reporters Dee Norton, Dave Birkland, and Janet I-Chin Tu contributed to this report.