CHINOOK OBSERVER FILE PHOTO
TACOMA — The defendant made his case with a shaking voice. The witness re-enacted a vicious murder with scarcely contained glee. The defense attorney teared up. And after two days of sordid testimony concluded on Sept. 12, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton said he was no closer to understanding what really happened when Oregon fisherman John Adkins was beaten, then strangled in the Port of Ilwaco in July 2009.
‘Clear as mud’
Adkins’ former business partner, Erin Rieman, 55, pleaded to manslaughter in 2010, after former Pacific County Prosecutor David Burke gave deckhand Walter Bremmer, 54, full immunity in exchange for his testimony. However, when Bremmer fatally strangled a Hawaii man, Robert “Johnny” Leong, in 2012, Rieman asked to withdraw his plea, saying he only took it to prevent Bremmer from killing his family members.
The Tacoma court hearing gave the two troubled men a chance to describe the tragic events in their own words. But Rieman’s defenders, Miriam Schwartz and Alan Zarky, needed to provide “clear and convincing” evidence that Rieman had no choice but to take the plea. And with “mirror image” stories, faltering memories, little physical evidence and serious credibility problems, both men had trouble convincing Leighton to believe them.
“I am just trying to find what happened — find the truth,” Leighton said at the end of the hearing. “Given all of the inconsistencies and lies, it makes it very difficult. It is as clear as mud.” Leighton said he needed at least two weeks to come to a decision.
The price of silence
After almost nine years in state prison, Rieman scarcely resembles the whiskery rambler who launched a commercial fishing venture with Adkins in early 2009. On Sept. 5, he was clean-shaven, with a one-size-fits-all prison haircut and an orange jumpsuit that was a poor fit for his rangy frame. He looked somber and drawn as he sat beside his attorneys.
Rieman spoke in grave, measured tones as he described the events of July 5, 2009 to Schwartz and Assistant Attorney General John Samson, who represented the state. His voice faltered as he gave his reasons for pursuing his appeal with just slightly over a year left in his sentence.
“I didn’t kill John and I’ve wanted to tell the truth about this since he was murdered,” Rieman said. “I was afraid to for a bit, and when I thought I could, I brought it out. I want John’s family to know, and I want this off my record.”
Rieman claims Bremmer threatened him at gunpoint after the murder and stalked and menaced him in the following days to make sure he didn’t talk. That, Rieman said, led him to lie to investigators and refuse to talk with his lawyer.
“I was completely afraid of what Bremmer would do, so my actions were based on that fear,” Rieman said. Samson systematically asked Rieman to own up to every detail he lied about, stopping to point out small windows of time where Rieman might have asked the police for help. Rieman said he was afraid that if he told the police, they would have taken days or even weeks to investigate his claims, giving Bremmer ample time to follow through on his promise to kill his loved ones.
Judge Leighton was skeptical that Rieman, who had just begun to build a relationship with his adult daughter when the murder occurred, had risked his future and allowed his family to believe he’d committed a heinous crime. Rieman said he was so haunted by Bremmer’s daily threats that he would have taken a life sentence to protect his family.
“Why are you saying you did something you didn’t do … breaking their hearts and taking all the responsibility on your shoulders?” Leighton asked. “You’re not a person who has made a lot of good decisions.”
“You’re right, your honor,” Rieman replied.
‘What if he’s not dead?’
In a videotaped 2009 police interview in Hawaii, Bremmer wore dirty khakis and not much else. The shark tattoo on his leathery tan torso was little more than a smudge as he fidgeted in his chair. In Tacoma on Sept. 12, the tan had been replaced by a pasty complexion and pudge borne of years of eating starchy prison food. He wore a pair of tan scrubs over a pink t-shirt, cheap plastic glasses and a ratty ponytail. Two burly security guards flanked him wherever he went.
Although the defense team worried Bremmer would refuse to talk, he gave several hours of testimony, claiming not to remember many events, and telling profanity-riddled, detailed stories about others.
“This is what you did to Mr. Leong, correct?” Schwartz asked him, holding up a murder-scene photograph of his Hawaii victim’s devastated face.
“Yep,” Bremmer said.
In an attempt to show Bremmer’s propensity for violence and brazen lies, Schwartz pressed him to talk about how he murdered Leong. Bremmer went to great lengths to cover up the murder, dumping evidence and trying to kill the only witness, his former girlfriend. But in Tacoma, he cast himself as a compassionate man, pushed to extremes after months of harassment by his victim and rebuffs from Hawaiian police officers who were “racist” to white residents. Bremmer said he shot Leong a third time because he worried his first two shots weren’t adequate.
“I could see he was injured very badly. I could tell he was in pain,” Bremmer said. After returning home, he claimed, he couldn’t stop worrying that Leong was still suffering.
“I kept thinking, my God man, what if he’s not dead?” Bremmer said. “What if he’s not dead? He’d be over there suffering.” Indeed, Leong was still alive when he returned a while later. Inspired by what he’d allegedly witnessed on the night of John Adkins’ murder, Bremmer used a rope to end Leong’s life.
“I seen how fast John [Adkins] passed and I thought I could hasten his departure also,” Bremmer said.
Later, the attorneys jumped between asking Bremmer to explain how Adkins died on the F/V Tiger, and showing clips of port surveillance videos and the 2009 interview. Bremmer’s testimony was riddled with contradictions. For example, in the police interview, Bremmer acknowledged that he resented Adkins, who kept $5,000 in cash hidden in a book and tended to flash his money around.
“He had all that goddamned money,” Bremmer told investigators. In court, Bremmer said Adkins’ spending habits weren’t an issue.
“It didn’t bother me one bit. I had my own money,” Bremmer said. However, he also said he took the job because he needed money for his upcoming move to Hawaii. And he explained that when the crew of the Tiger went drinking in Ilwaco, Adkins paid because he “pretty much was broke.”
While recalling his return to the boat just before the murder occurred, Bremmer described going down a set of stairs to the dock. There are no stairs leading to the dock in Ilwaco. Bremmer also claimed he was locked in a bar during a critical period of time, even though the bar staff said the doors were equipped with locks that would have prevented anyone from getting locked in.
“I’m sticking to that story. That’s what happened,” Bremmer said. And while he insisted that it was “very dark” when he came back to the boat around 8 p.m., the sun didn’t set until 9:10 p.m. that night.
Bremmer claimed to have forgotten many details of the doomed trip to Ilwaco, but he launched into an animated, profanity-laden pantomime when attorneys asked him to show them how the murder occurred.
“Wham!” he shouted, as he showed how Rieman allegedly hit Adkins.
“John had looked at me and he was like, ‘He’s gonna effing kill me, he’s gonna effing kill me,’” Bremmer said, growing flushed as he demonstrated how he said Rieman wrapped a cord around Adkins’ neck and pulled it tight.
“I seen the life went out of him,” Bremmer said.
In the police interview, Bremmer said he witnessed this encounter from the dock, but in court, he claimed he was on the boat at the time. When Zarky pointed out this discrepancy, Bremmer’s memory went dark again.
“It’s been nine years,” he said.
At the start of closing arguments, Leighton said he still had numerous questions.
“After all of this, it’s not clear,” he said.
“I do believe the evidence is clear, and it’s probably clearer today,” Zarky replied. He gave an impassioned description of the problems with Bremmer’s testimony, stressing that he continued to lie even after getting full immunity.
“He was lying through his teeth when there was no other explanation except that he is guilty as sin of that murder,” Zarky said.
Zarky hypothesized that the strain of having two high-profile murders to resolve — local woman Lisa Bonney was publicly murdered two months after Adkins died — might have led Pacific County authorities to err in the Adkins case. He noted that police photographed incriminating cuts and scrapes on Rieman’s hands, but did not photograph Bremmer’s hands.
“The officers had two liars, and the blood of one of them. I’m suggesting no fault in assuming [Bremmer] is the innocent one,” Zarky said. “He sees the light, He knows what to do. He grabs the story that exonerates him.”
In a regular criminal trial, state attorney Samson said, the defense team’s work might have gotten Rieman acquitted. However, he argued, they had not proved Rieman was forced to take the plea.
“No DNA, no letter, no email, no video, no audio, no independent eyewitnesses,” Samson said. “The only evidence is his self-serving testimony. That is not clear and convincing.”
Samson suggested that the murder was a straightforward case of jealousy and impulse spurred by Rieman’s growing frustration with Adkins’ heavy drinking and liberal spending.
“Mr. Rieman, after working all day on the boat and being tired and frustrated, was angry when Adkins came back drunk,” Samson said. “They start fighting, one thing leads to another and that’s that. That’s the motive.”
A ‘race to the bottom’
Judge Leighton was frank about his disgust with Rieman and Bremmer, calling both men “consummate and prodigious liars,” and describing Bremmer as “a bottom-feeder who drinks beer in a park.” Despite excellent work by all of the attorneys and investigators in the case, Leighton said, he was still finding it difficult to determine which of the men’s “bookend stories” was closer to the truth.
“I am not St. Peter, and this is not Heaven’s gate. I don’t know if either one of them are gonna get in, and that’s not for me to say,” Leighton said. “It’s not going to help if I put one of them in first place and one in second place in the race to the bottom.”
Zarky’s voice cracked as he offered his final words in defense of Rieman. “This case has gotten to me. I don’t know why, he said, after a long pause. “… There’s a saying among public defenders that where it really is gets tough is when you’ve got an innocent client. I believe there is clear and convincing evidence that I — I’m sorry — that I have an innocent client.”