EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part Two of a two-part story 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 One was published Aug. 22.
ILWACO — Erin Rieman, 55, is near the end of his 11-year sentence for fatally beating and strangling his business partner John Adkins in the Port of Ilwaco in 2009. His former deckhand Walter Bremmer, 54, is serving a 20-year sentence for strangling and shooting his neighbor in Hawaii in late January 2012.
For years, Rieman claimed Bremmer — allegedly a violent alcoholic with a penchant for choking people — is the one who really killed Adkins. In early September, Rieman will get a long-awaited chance to make his case at a federal court hearing in Tacoma, because his attorneys found enough problems with the case to convince a magistrate judge that Bremmer might have gotten away with murder.
Tiger on the lam
Walter Bremmer didn’t act like an innocent man after Adkins disappeared from the F/V Tiger on July 5, 2009. Two days later, Bremmer and Rieman piloted the Tiger back to Garibaldi, Oregon. Both lived in nearby Pacific City. When detectives tried to interview Bremmer in Oregon, he was staggering drunk, according to a police report. He told the police he didn’t know what happened to Adkins and “did not care, as he had only known him for a month.”
Nine days after Adkins vanished, Bremmer suddenly pulled up stakes and moved to Mountain View, a small unincorporated community in the Puna District of Hawaii. In April 2011, he began dating a woman named Cynthia Villella. For a while, he kept a low profile, but it didn’t last. He soon began nursing a fateful grudge against Robert “Johnny” Leong, a reclusive fisherman and surfer who lived near Villella in the lush, somewhat shabby Eden Roc subdivision.
Leong reportedly sold pills and cocaine to Bremmer on a few occasions, but the two quickly became rivals. Leong had a reputation for being a “ladies’ man,” according to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald, and that may have fueled their mutual dislike. Leong had allegedly urged Villella to leave her abusive relationship. By late 2011, Bremmer was convinced Leong was having an affair with Villella, so he burned Leong’s trailer to the ground. Police records say Bremmer and Villella got a restraining order against Leong around the same time, but documents don’t state why.
After losing his trailer, Leong appended a lean-to shack to a metal cargo container. He lived there until the night Bremmer came calling.
Leong’s landlord found him on Jan. 28, 2012, when he stopped by to pick up some tools. He had three bullet wounds in his head and a length of cord wrapped around his neck.
Driving with the enemy
Villella knew who killed Leong. She had watched as Bremmer got drunk and worked himself into a state on Jan. 26, 2012. She saw him leave the house with a red shopping bag. She was there when he came back a while later, covered in blood. She watched him pour bleach all over his skin.
After that, Villella was terrified her boyfriend might try to kill her to keep her from talking. She was right. On July 15, the couple went on a day trip to Kona. On the drive home, Bremmer was drunk again, and in a paranoid, agitated mood, “going back and forth from nice to mean,” according to Villella. He began telling a story about his time on the mainland. A long time ago, he said, he’d joined a gang. One day, they took his best friend’s younger brother to an isolated place. And then he shot the younger man in the back of the head “and just walked away.”
Villella kept her eyes on the road, trying not to say or do anything that might fuel her boyfriend’s dangerous mood. But when she was too slow to hand him a cigarette lighter, Bremmer snapped. Later, she told police he mumbled something like “no witnesses this time” just before suddenly punching her in the face. She pulled over and tried to fight him off, but Bremmer grabbed her seatbelt and wrapped it around her neck, saying he was going to kill her as he pulled it tighter and tighter. Villella sank her teeth into his hand, and at last, he let go. She drove to Kau Hospital, where she ran inside and asked for help. Bremmer was arrested and charged with domestic violence.
‘Johnny won’t be bothering us anymore’
With her abuser behind bars and a restraining order in place, Villella decided to unload the terrible secret she’d been keeping for six months. At the end of July, she called police detective Ernest Matsumoto and asked to meet with him. He said she could come in any time that day. She showed up at the Hilo Police Department 15 minutes later.
Saying she was consumed with guilt about hiding the truth from police, Villella gave Matsumoto a detailed account of what she’d witnessed. On the night of Leong’s death, she’d refused to loan her truck to a drunken Bremmer, so he left the house on foot, refusing to let her see what was inside his red shopping bag. He came home half an hour later and told her, “Johnny won’t be bothering us anymore.” He opened the cylinder of a .38 special, pulled out three spent shell casings and chucked them off the porch. He burned his clothes in a barrel and scrubbed down with Clorox.
An hour later, Bremmer asked for a ride to the entrance of the Eden Roc subdivision. Villella dropped him off and went home. Forty minutes later, he was back. His flip-flops and black sweatshirt were gone. His torso and cutoffs were covered in blood.
Bremmer had gone back to make sure Leong was dead. He wasn’t. Bremmer found the dying man in a grassy area below his porch. He used a rope he found in Leong’s yard to “finish him off.” Bremmer threw some of his clothing into the bushes on the walk home. His shorts went into the 55-gallon drum he’d used to burn his other things.
A couple days later, Bremmer ordered Villella to drive him up the Hamakua Coast. He dismantled the gun and threw the two pieces into gulches along the road.
‘Heinous, atrocious or cruel’
In early October, detectives felt ready to make an arrest, so they called Bremmer in for an interview. He denied everything, but the forensic evidence told another story. He’d left his pocket knife at the murder scene, near Leong’s body. His DNA was in Leong’s home. Witnesses saw Bremmer near his victim’s home that night, and his former roommate said that after Villella served him with a protection order, Bremmer wanted to get a gun so he could kill her.
He was arrested and charged with burglary, using a gun in the commission of a felony and committing a second-degree murder that “was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity.”
In May 2013, he pleaded down to manslaughter and was sentenced to 20 years at a private Arizona prison.
Meanwhile, at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Rieman had been assigned to a contractor’s work crew. Well before he knew Bremmer had been arrested for murder, he told the contractor he’d taken the fall for a murder on a fishing boat that he felt he should have prevented.
Leong’s death created a new opportunity for Rieman. The man who had previously “stonewalled” his attorneys, saying only “I didn’t kill John,” suddenly had a lot to say. With Bremmer’s credibility in shambles, he began writing letters and filing appeals. One by one, they fell flat in Pacific County Superior Court, the Washington State Court of Appeals and the Washington State Supreme Court, mostly for procedural reasons.
Rieman was able to ask the federal court to review his case. His two attorneys and a defense investigator got to work reviewing old evidence, re-interviewing witnesses and digging into Bremmer’s past.
Their findings went to Magistrate Judge Richard Creatura, whose job was to make a recommendation about how to handle the case. In his lengthy April 2018 report, Creatura said Rieman’s version of events was “completely consistent with Bremmer’s documented acts of violence.”
Rieman claims strange sounds woke him up that night. When he got up to investigate, he found Bremmer standing over Adkins in the wheelhouse of the Tiger. Adkins looked hurt. Bremmer was holding a knife. Rieman claimed he got into a fight with Bremmer and eventually succeeded in getting him out of the wheelhouse. Adkins allegedly told Rieman “he needed Walter Bremmer to leave the boat.” Adkins headed toward the stairwell that led to the lower level of the boat. A moment later, Rieman said, he heard the sound of a punch or kick and got up to look.
Bremmer was again standing over Adkins, this time with a gun in his hand. Rieman started forward. Bremmer turned the gun on him. He stopped at the top of the stairwell.
“Bremmer took a power cord from my pile of tools and he wrapped it around John’s neck,” Rieman said. “And he stepped on one end and bent down and pulled on it and choked John.”
Rieman claimed to remember two startling details from that harrowing encounter. First, he said, Bremmer had told him he “wasn’t going to go to jail again.” Second, he said Bremmer allegedly was sexually aroused by strangling Adkins.
“He enjoyed killing John,” Rieman said.
Adkins’ body was never found, so there is no DNA evidence. In fact, there is no new physical evidence at all. However, the defenders still identified numerous inconsistencies in Bremmer’s story, which Creatura summarized in his report.
Bremmer first claimed he woke up the next morning and Adkins was gone. After he moved to Hawaii, he claimed he had been kicked out of one bar, then locked inside another at closing time on the night of Adkins’ death. Port video footage and statements from bar staff proved that wasn’t true.
Bremmer also claimed he’d first seen Rieman and Adkins fighting as he approached the Tiger on the dock. A crime reconstructionist said there was no place where it would have been possible for Bremmer to have seen them fighting.
Bremmer initially claimed the evidence of the murder “went overboard.” Surveillance video footage showed Bremmer dumping a yellow rain jacket in one of the port’s trash cans after the murder.
Rieman was sober when Adkins was killed. Bremmer, a notoriously violent drunk, was deep in his cups, just as he had been when he strangled Leong.
“Bremmer’s own statements have often been self-incriminating — both in his telling admissions and with his blatant lies,” Creatura concluded.
‘One of them is lying’
There is a lot riding on the early September evidentiary hearing in Tacoma. The judge who hears the case will have to make several important decisions: whether to release Rieman from prison, whether to vacate his conviction, whether to allow Rieman to withdraw his guilty plea and get his record expunged, and whether he will allow Pacific County to re-try the case.
The question of who killed Adkins is compelling, but in the courtroom, the most important question will be, “Did Rieman truly only plead guilty because he feared for his life?”
Rieman says he had no other choice, because on that terrible night in the Port of Ilwaco, Bremmer threatened to kill everyone he loved and held a gun to his head while he was on the phone to ensure he didn’t say anything incriminating. When they were back home in Pacific City, Bremmer allegedly let himself into Rieman’s house so he could look at pictures of Rieman’s daughter and her children, who lived in Hawaii.
If all of that is true, Creatura said, Rieman might have had good reason to lie under oath about making a voluntary guilty plea. But even after 10 years and hundreds of hours of investigation by numerous experts, the truth is still elusive.
Long Beach Police have previously said they still believe they got the right man.
Bremmer’s brother told the defense investigator he thought it possible that Rieman and Bremmer were in on it together.
Creatura said the evidence against Bremmer was “clear and convincing,” but he also provided the justification for still more investigation.
“One thing is obvious,” Creatura wrote. “One of them is lying. Figuring out who is lying (and when) and who is telling the truth (and when) requires a careful examination of the evidence.”