TACOMA — On the day Police Chief David Brame was buried, and his estranged wife was declared dead, city officials were mired in a controversy over whether they ignored warning signs that foreshadowed the two deaths.
Brame's wife, Crystal, whom he shot in the head before turning his police handgun on himself one week earlier, died yesterday in a Seattle hospital.
The latest turn in the tragedy mixed uneasily with politics yesterday when City Hall began to struggle with the question: Who knew what, and when did they know it?
Last night, the City Council decided not to force City Manager Ray Corpuz Jr. on administrative leave. Some council members are questioning his role in the hiring, promoting and protecting of David Brame, despite early warnings about Brame's psychological fitness for the job and accusations by his wife and another woman that he was abusive.
The council said Corpuz will have no involvement in the investigations surrounding the case. But a majority said that when they consider a formal resolution Tuesday they will vote to keep Corpuz on the job.
The council began its emergency meeting with a moment of silence for the then-still alive Crystal Brame. By the time the meeting was done, she had been pronounced dead.
The mayor and at least one other council member donned purple ribbons and stickers that said, "Crystal, we believe you!"
The council appears split 6-3 in favor of keeping Corpuz.
"I've spoken to a lot of community leaders who are very concerned about putting the cart before the horse," said City Councilman Kevin Phelps. He said there had been no proof Corpuz has done anything wrong.
But others said the investigation could be hampered with Corpuz still in charge.
"The very fact that he continues to lead the government may lead others who serve under him to be a little reluctant to be completely open with the investigation," said Mayor Bill Baarsma.
Corpuz last night expressed sympathy to Crystal Brame's family, particularly her two children. He said it's important that the investigation be thorough and fair, and that he would work to rebuild trust in the city government.
Crystal Brame had appeared to be battling back, beyond doctors' expectations, but she deteriorated Friday night and was declared dead at 4:40 p.m. yesterday.
The news of her death was made public just as a group of women appeared in the council chambers to say she deserved better from public officials.
The group calling itself "Women for Justice," and handing out stickers supporting Crystal's allegations of abuse, urged the council to find someone other than the association of police chiefs to investigate the hiring of Brame and what led to the death of his wife.
"These are the same groups of people that have let her down, and to ask them to investigate their own is an outrage," said Debra Hannula, a Tacoma attorney.
David Brame rose from patrolman to chief of police despite a psychologist's report that he should not be hired by the Tacoma Police Department more than 20 years ago. Over the years, there have been red flags about his résumé, a rape allegation, an internal-affairs investigation and warnings that he should have his gun and badge taken away.
"What you hope you see come from this is somebody, if not the City Council as a body, rise up and really get a strong grip on where to take the city from here," said state Auditor Brian Sonntag, a Tacoma resident and former Pierce County official whose family has a prominent political history here.
"How do we regain confidence in city government?"
Corpuz, who hired Brame as police chief in December 2001, said he never knew about the psychologist's report nor the accusations that Brame had raped a woman. He says he relied upon the recommendation of then-Police Chief Ray Fjetland to promote Brame.
Tacoma power brokers lobbied council members to leave Corpuz in charge of the city.
"The political culture is imploding in on itself, and Ray Corpuz has always been at the top of that culture," said John Hathaway, publisher of the New Takhoman, a Web site that first reported on Brame's divorce filings that included allegations of domestic violence.
If not imploding, the town's political apparatus appeared paralyzed.
Yesterday, Baarsma responded to a report in The News Tribune in which unnamed city government sources said the city attorney rejected advice the day before the shooting that the chief have his gun taken away.
"I opened up my newspaper this morning and that was the first I heard about it," Baarsma said. "And at this point I'm numb. I guess I'm no longer stunned, I'm just numb."
Before yesterday's City Council meeting, Baarsma conceded that the council should have acted sooner.
"Absolutely, there should have been a meeting early on discussing who knew what when?" he said.
The council yesterday did not question City Attorney Robin Jenkinson about whether top human-resources officials recommended pulling Brame's gun and badge on April 25, the day before the shooting.
Divorce records, in which Crystal Brame alleges her husband threatened her with a gun, were published in a newspaper report that day.
Human Resources Director Phil Knudsen and Assistant Director Mary Brown became concerned after learning that Crystal Brame had accused her husband in divorce proceedings of choking her and threatening her with a gun, the Tacoma News Tribune reported yesterday.
The city's legal advisers disagreed with that recommendation, saying the Brames' divorce was a civil matter in which the city had no business, the newspaper's sources said.
What Corpuz knew about Brame's history when he hired him as chief is among the issues being probed in an external investigation by The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
The city also has contracted the State Patrol for a separate investigation into acting Police Chief Catherine Woodard, who was placed on paid administrative leave Thursday over questions of her involvement with Brame. Crystal Brame had accused Woodard of threatening and intimidating her recently.
Corpuz was hired as city manager in 1990 after 12 years in city and county government.
"The city manager is the most powerful government figure in Pierce County. The city manager could always trump a city councilman," said state Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, a former veteran city councilman.
And he has powerful friends. Yesterday, former Mayor Mike Crowley, who was mayor when Brame was hired, and former Councilman Paul Miller, who said he pushed for Brame to get the chief's job, lobbied council members to keep Corpuz on the job.
"I think this witch hunt is bad for the community," Miller said. "There's only one man who pulled the trigger and only one man who's responsible for pulling the city apart."
State Rep. Dennis Flannigan, D-Tacoma, who counts Corpuz as a friend, said the city manager wields his power quietly.
"You hardly know he was in the room, but after he leaves things start to happen," Flannigan said. "He says, 'Here's three words and it explains where I stand.' "
Flannigan says the rebuilding of downtown Tacoma had a lot to do with the confidence local business leaders have in Corpuz.
Former City Councilwoman Nancy Davis said council members were briefed by Corpuz about the police chief search, but she never saw the personnel file or the city report that raised concerns.
"I wouldn't fault the city manager because I think he had a lot of pressure to promote from within by the union," said Davis, whose five-month tenure coincided with the chief search and Brame hire.
Pressures to bring someone up from inside came from police officers and local politicians.
In particular, there were objections to Corpuz's decision to hire outsider Philip Arreola as chief in 1996.
Arreola was replaced by James Hairston, a veteran Tacoma police officer. When Hairston retired, Kirby, the police union and others pushed Corpuz to hire someone from within the department.
But because of pressure to hire from within the department and the fact that Tacoma officials were close to Brame and thought they knew him, there was not a strong push for the sort of background check given to outside candidates.
"The chief was someone that many people in the city had known for quite a few years and the his performance on the job was already known and respected," said Councilman Doug Miller, who sided with Corpuz.
"I think it's worth some slack in that it's not like you're evaluating someone you've never met before or someone from another city. We had recommendations from past chiefs who had worked with him."
Kirby has been a longtime critic of Corpuz's and says, "I've been thinking Ray has probably outlived his usefulness for the past year or so."
But he doesn't think Corpuz should be fired because of the Brame hiring.
"I got to tell you, it's just when I look back I say to myself, 'Gosh, was that ever a screwed up plan.' "David Postman: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com and Ray Rivera at firstname.lastname@example.org