Braae called charming transient who preyed on women

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Two are dead, two are missing and a fifth is fighting for her life.

All are linked to the same man.

As police from several communities begin to question 41-year-old transient Michael Braae, friends and family of women he was last seen with are startled by the parallels.

"I look at all (the) women, and I think, `Damn. Dark hair, dark features. ... In a blur, they all look kind of similar,' " said Brian Larson, the ex-husband of 37-year-old Velina Larson, whose skeletal remains were found in a vacant lot in 1998. "Damn, that's weird."

Police say the smooth-talking Braae preyed on women he could charm and impress, meeting them in bars, on life's fringes. Some were down-on-their-luck, looking for something positive.

"This is typical. What he wants and what he looks for in the women he dates is women who, for the most part, won't go to the police," said Angela Blanchard, a deputy with the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office in Oregon.

Velina Larson was homeless when she met Braae in the Gladstone, Ore., area during the summer of 1997. She had just been divorced from Brian Larson.

She met Larson — her second husband — at a bar about seven years earlier in Portland. Velina Larson was arrested for driving under the influence more than once, and the drinking eventually wrecked their marriage, Larson said. But they remained friends after she started dating Braae.

The last time Larson saw his ex-wife, in September 1997, he dropped her off at a Gresham, Ore., coffee shop, where she was going to apply for a job before hopping a bus to Gladstone to collect her stuff and get away from Braae. "She said Michael told her something that he probably shouldn't have told anybody," Larson said. "She was scared to go back, but she wanted her jewelry."

Authorities found her remains with the clothes she'd been wearing when he last saw her, Larson said. She never told him what Braae had said.

What Kathi and Denny Titus remember from living above Braae and Deb VanLuven at the Ranch Hotel in Lacey, Thurston County, for a few months in 1997 is a lot of screaming.

"We were worried about her," recalled Denny Titus, who manages the hotel and apartment complex with his wife. "They were arguing and fighting, and it just seemed like Mike would get so upset."

VanLuven, 45, was bubbly and happy and loved to dance, said Becky Rundquist, a bartender at Bailey's Motor Inn Lounge, an Olympia bar VanLuven went to regularly.

Although VanLuven moved to Douglas County, Ore., to get away from Braae, she was last seen with him there in March 1997, according to Lacey police.

Susan Lynn Ault, 39, argued with Braae in the early hours of June 24 outside a trailer in Rosburg, Wahkiakum County, where Ault had been staying for several weeks on the property of a childhood friend, Susan Howard.

At daylight, Ault was nowhere to be found, said Howard. "Everything seemed to be there except her and her purse," she said.

Ault, an avid horsewoman and animal enthusiast, married two years after graduating in 1980 from Des Moines' Mount Rainier High School, Howard said. Ault and her husband had a daughter soon after but divorced in 1993.

Ault met Braae at a Yelm bar in December, said Howard. After an eviction in March from a house in Tacoma, Ault lived out of her car until she moved into a recreational vehicle with Braae.

Braae continued to call Ault regularly and made several trips to Rosburg to see her. It was on the last visit that Ault disappeared.

Lori Jones was popular among residents of the Summer Ridge Apartments in Lacey, where she lived and worked part time doing maintenance, said Lacey police Lt. Tom Nelson. She also used to manage the complex, he added.

Although friends say the 44-year-old mother of two didn't often go bar-hopping, Jones was with Braae at Bailey's Motor Inn Lounge, the same Olympia bar VanLuven frequented, the early-morning hours of July 7, said police.

The next day, her body was found under the bed in her apartment. Lacey police would say only that the cause of death was "homicidal violence."

Marchelle Morgan, 50, of Yelm, was seen last week with Braae at Susie's Saloon in Yakima. An asphalt-company worker later found Morgan, who had been shot in the head, in bushes by the side of a road five miles south of Yakima, according to Lt. Dan Garcia of the Yakima County Sheriff's Office.

Morgan remained in critical condition yesterday at Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital.

Seattle Times staff researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.