EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part One of a two-part series about new developments in a convoluted local murder case. A federal defense team has dug up disturbing clues that cast doubt about who really killed an Oregon fisherman. Part Two will be published next week.
By NATALIE ST. JOHN
WASHINGTON — Only two people know what really happened on the July 2009 night when 52-year-old fisherman John Adkins was murdered at the Port of Ilwaco.
His deckhand Walter Bremmer moved to Hawaii within days, then negotiated full immunity in exchange for his testimony. His business partner Erin Rieman pleaded guilty to manslaughter and went to prison for 11 years.
It seemed like a closed case until 2012, when Bremmer murdered his neighbor Robert “Johnny” Leong using the same unusual method that was used to kill Adkins. With Bremmer in prison, Rieman appealed his case over and over, saying he only took the fall because Bremmer threatened to kill his girlfriend, daughter and grandkids.
“I have kept silent all this time to protect my family from a very real and dangerous threat. I did so knowing full well the consequences of my silence,” Rieman wrote in a 2012 request to reopen his case.
Recently, a federal magistrate concluded Rieman’s crazy story just might be true.
At a U.S. District Court hearing in Tacoma next month, Rieman, 55, formerly of Pacific City, Oregon, will get a long-awaited chance to present new evidence. He owes that to two federal defense attorneys and an investigator who built a compelling case against Bremmer after several lower courts rejected Rieman’s appeals.
It won’t be easy for Rieman to convince the judge that local police and former Pacific County Prosecutor David Burke sent the wrong man to prison, because Rieman deceived investigators and the Adkins family and lied under oath. He says Bremmer’s move to the “Big Island” in Hawaii — where his daughter and grandchildren lived — was proof that he intended to follow through on his threats. The new revelations about Bremmer’s violent, unhinged past are disturbing, but the evidence is mostly circumstantial and both men have already proven to be unreliable witnesses.
Police and defense attorneys said they could not comment on the ongoing legal battle.
Erin Rieman always wanted to run his own boat. He attended university in his home state, Hawaii, but ended up working as a carpenter, builder and seaman. By 2009, he was living in Oregon. With years of experience and a captain’s license, he had the skills, but not the money to get into commercial fishing. His friend John Adkins had the money, but not the skills.
In early 2009, Adkins, a long-time Hewlett-Packard employee from Albany, Oregon, fronted $30,000 for the F/V Tiger. The two men formed Tiger Fisheries, LLC., and signed an agreement that gave Rieman half-ownership of the boat. Adkins agreed to let Rieman pay back his $15,000 debt in “irregular installments.”
Six months later, Rieman’s dream was dead. So was Adkins.
A fruitless search
Adkins, Rieman and Bremmer brought the Tiger to Ilwaco from Garibaldi, Oregon on July 4 with plans to put the old tub in dry-dock and get it ready for the season.
On July 5, Rieman stayed on the boat while Bremmer and Adkins went to drink in taverns near the port. That was the last time Adkins was seen in public.
Adkins regularly spoke with his close-knit family, so his brother Randall Adkins knew something was wrong when two days passed without any contact. On July 7, he reported John Adkins missing to the Long Beach Police.
Rieman said Adkins had never come home from the bars. On the 7th, he and Bremmer made a show of looking for Adkins in and around the port, spending around $200 of the stolen money on food and drinks. Then they piloted the Tiger back to Garibaldi.
On July 11, investigators went to Pacific City to interview Rieman and Bremmer and search the boat. Things began to click. Rieman had cuts on his hands that were a few days old. Two hefty fishing weights were missing and there was blood spatter under a broken pilot house window. They found bloody clothing in the galley.
Rieman said he “lost his footing” on the trip to Ilwaco, cut his hand and flicked the blood off. The police didn’t think the blood spatter pattern was consistent with his story.
The next day, forensic techs at the Oregon State Police crime lab processed blood from the scene and found Adkins’ and Riemans’ blood.
It no longer seemed like a missing persons case.
Rieman did not have a sterling reputation. He admitted to having a drinking problem at the time of Adkins’ death. Hawaii court records show that he was cited for driving without a license three times between 1991 and 1994, and never showed up for his court appearances for the last two citations. They’re still active cases.
While living in Shasta County, California in 2000, he was charged with orally raping a child. He moved to the Tacoma area around that time. Pierce County authorities charged him with being a fugitive from justice in August 2001. Rieman voluntarily surrendered to California authorities, and all of the charges against him were eventually dropped.
He moved to the Northwest after that but according to one person, it was not to start a new life in the woods, as he claimed.
“… his word against a five year old little girl had more weight is what the DA told me,” a commenter called YNott wrote in response to a 2011 article about the murder charge against Rieman. “I told the DA that this man would harm and kill again…”
Scrappy little Walter Bremmer always made an impression. It was rarely a good one.
“I knew Walter. He was my neighbor … He is a BAD dude — into drugs and guns,” a user named “SuperGu” told the other members of the online PunaTalk forum in October 2012.
“I also know of Walt, he is crazy,” a user named “BananaHead” replied. “… He is a small guy, very short and small. When you see him, that is the first thing you notice. Then he often has his shirt off or unbuttoned and he has a large shark tattoo in middle of his chest.”
Bremmer grew up in East Los Angeles, with his siblings and mom, never knowing his dad. In an interview with the defense investigator, Bremmer’s brother said he was always a “bad apple” — a lifelong pathological liar who began torturing and killing cats and dogs around the age of 10. John Bremmer believed his brother had murdered people in every state he had lived in. He said Bremmer was a mean drunk who could “snap in a second.”
By 20, Bremmer was a drifter who got in trouble almost everywhere he went, court records show. He met his future wife near Seaside, Oregon in 1982. She was camping with friends; he was living in a tent. The pair married that year and had three sons by 1985 — the same year he was busted for drunk-driving in Central Texas.
In 2017 his former wife would tell defense investigator Mike Stortini that Bremmer had serious mental health problems, couldn’t hold down a job and abused her severely, beating her “once or twice a week.” She recalled a violent alcoholic who slapped and punched her, burned her with cigarettes and threatened to kill her with a handgun. Bremmer, she said, used people and stole from family.
The pair broke up and reunited a few times, moving often. His wife was too terrified to ask for help. She reported just one incident to police in Seaside, when he beat her so badly she landed in the hospital. At the time, Bremmer was allegedly making his living by doing undercover drug buys for cops.
In December 1987, they re-married in Dillon, South Carolina. The same month, Bremmer was charged with felony attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon in North Carolina. A few weeks later, he was charged with resisting arrest.
In 1988, North Carolina police busted him twice for driving with a suspended license and twice for drunk driving.
In early 1989, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of attempted robbery to settle his open felony case, served about 20 days in jail, then got arrested a few months later for reckless endangerment and resisting arrest.
In 1989, Bremmer and his wife filed for divorce in Tacoma. A judge gave his wife sole custody of the children because Bremmer allegedly had a drug problem. The next year he was convicted of second-degree robbery near Portland.
Bremmer went to live with a sister in Alaska, where he allegedly collected one state dividend check for himself and another under an assumed name.
Bremmer’s ex learned he enlisted in the Army when an Army criminal investigator showed up at her house in 1993. Bremmer couldn’t enlist under his own name, so he borrowed the identity of a dead man. While stationed in Germany, he went AWOL.
Back in the U.S., he drifted between Alaska and Oregon, racking up dozens of tickets and criminal charges. Between 1982 and 2007, he was ultimately convicted of at least six serious traffic violations, eight misdemeanors and four felonies.
On Oct. 19, 2009, Long Beach Officer Casey Meling — now deputy chief — and an Oregon State Police detective who now heads the statewide criminal investigation division went to Hilo, Hawaii to interview Bremmer.
Bremmer said he would only talk if he were granted immunity. Eager to solve the three-month-old case, then-Prosecutor David Burke agreed.
According to Bremmer, after hours of hard drinking with Adkins, he went alone to a bar where he was accidentally locked in at closing time. He was eventually let out, and went back to the Tiger, where he found Rieman punching Adkins and slamming his head into the wall of the pilot house. Rieman allegedly threw Adkins down the galley stairs and continued to beat him. Bremmer said he watched as Rieman grabbed a yellow extension cord, wrapped it around Adkins’ neck and strangled him.
At that point, Rieman allegedly stole $5,000 Adkins had brought for the trip and told Bremmer that if he didn’t help cover up the crime, he’d kill him and his girlfriend. Bremmer said they put Adkins in a sleeping bag, tied it up with the cord that had been used to strangle him and stashed his body in the engine compartment before using bleach to wash away most of the blood evidence. The next day, they made a show of looking for Adkins in the port. Then they tied the fishing weights to Adkins’ body and dumped him in the ocean on their way back to Garibaldi.
The police arrested Rieman within the week.
It is “extremely rare” for a man to fatally strangle another man, according to Magistrate Judge Richard Creatura’s report. A U.S. Department of Justice study found that just 1 percent of strangulation victims were male. Strangulations that use a ligature, such as a rope, wire or cord are even more rare, so the odds of two men in Bremmer’s social circle being killed by a man who used a rope are extraordinarily small. The defense attorneys point out that while Rieman has never been convicted of a violent offense, Bremmer has allegedly attempted to strangle several people.
In her interview with the defense investigator, Bremmer’s ex-wife said he once wrapped a scarf around her neck and pulled it so tight she lost consciousness. An Oregon woman whom Bremmer dated in 1995 said he turned “mean and angry” when he was drunk. The relationship ended when he allegedly shoved her against the wall of her trailer, wrapped his hands around her neck and squeezed hard enough to “let [her] know to shut up.” Later that day, he threw a hot water heater through her window. She called the police and broke up with him. More serious charges got dropped, but he was convicted of menacing.
Bremmer’s former cell-mate at Saguaro Correctional Center, the private Arizona prison where many of Hawaii’s convicts do their time, said Bremmer told him once that his “go-to move” in a fight was choking his opponent. Bremmer reportedly showed the cellie “how he would tightly grip his victim by the throat.”
In 2000, Bremmer lived next to a single woman in a Roseburg, Oregon apartment complex. Bremmer invited her up to dinner one night. When she got there, he stank of booze.
According to the woman, he grabbed her around the neck with both hands and pressed her up against a wall, then he raped her, saying that if she told anyone, he would kill her. He attacked her again a few days later, grabbing her by the neck as she rode past him on a bicycle.
According to the investigator’s report, “She said he had both of his hands fully around her entire neck, choking her as she fought him. She escaped, with red marks around her neck.”
Bremmer was never charged. The woman said it was because “He told a better story than me.”