TACOMA — Nearly 11 years after a brutal strangling murder in Ilwaco, a federal judge ruled May 14 that there isn’t enough evidence to overturn the conviction of a man who admitted to it and then recanted.
Oregon fisherman John Adkins was beaten, then strangled in the Port of Ilwaco in July 2009.
Adkins’ former business partner, Erin Rieman, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2010, after former Pacific County Prosecutor David Burke gave F/V Tiger deckhand Walter Bremmer 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.
Reiman — who is now out of prison and said by his lawyer to be “excelling in an architectural drafting program and complying with his post-release supervision since September 2019” — filed a federal habeas corpus action, which challenged the judgment and sentence imposed in Pacific County Superior Court.
After two evidentiary hearings, Judge Ronald Leighton issued an order denying the habeas petition. Leighton found that Reiman did not prove his actual innocence or that his plea was invalid.
“While Mr. Reiman has been released from prison and is now serving his term of community custody, that does not diminish the importance of sustaining the conviction and validating the hard work done by all involved in ensuring the victim of this offense had a voice,” Pacific County Prosecutor Mark McClain said in a written statement last week.
Reiman has 30 days to appeal Leighton’s decision to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which typically only accepts a small percentage of such cases.
In a September 2018 hearing in Leighton’s courtroom, Rieman testified, “I didn’t kill John and I’ve wanted to tell the truth about this since he was murdered. 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 claimed 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. Eventually, he agreed to a plea deal.
After hearing testimony and reviewing the evidence, Leighton said he wasn’t convinced by Rieman’s changed story.
In an 18-page written decision, the federal judge said this month that “Rieman’s story is not implausible, but it is also not inherently credible. Although fear can be a powerful force, Rieman’s unwavering commitment to covering up the murder of his friend and taking the fall is somewhat unbelievable. Rieman had multiple opportunities to deviate from this course and turn Bremmer in, such as when Bremmer had a gun in his jacket and a body stashed on the boat the day after the murder. … At that time, police could have easily identified Bremmer as the murderer. Rieman also engaged in a cover-up on his own when he asked his girlfriend to remove his rain jacket and other possessions from the boat while he was in jail. … These acts and omissions suggest involvement in the murder just as easily as they do coercion. It is also noteworthy that Rieman’s account sheds no light on the motive for the murder, which is surprising given the amount of time Rieman spent with Bremmer and Adkins.”
Leighton specifically rejected Rieman’s argument that his guilty plea was involuntary on account of it having allegedly been coerced from him by Bremmer’s threats.
“It is true that fear can cause people to act unreasonably, but Rieman’s story strains this principle past its breaking point,” the judge wrote. “Given the many opportunities Rieman had to take another path, the severity of the crime at issue, the length of time Rieman stayed silent, and the questionable nature of Bremmer’s threats, it is not credible that Rieman was coerced into pleading guilty.”
Commenting from the bench in 2018, Leighton observed both Rieman and Bremmer are “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.”
In his final ruling last week, Leighton said it’s still impossible to know for certain what happened in Ilwaco on the night of the murder.
“Aside from Erin Rieman and Walter Bremmer, no one will likely ever know what really happened that night aboard the Tiger. What is clear to this Court, however, is that Rieman’s belated testimony is insufficient to establish actual innocence or the involuntariness of his plea,” Leighton concluded.