Did serial strangler strike here?

Walter Bremmer

TACOMA — Could former deckhand Walter Bremmer be a serial killer?

In August, federal defense attorneys asked a judge to reverse Oregon fisherman Erin Rieman’s conviction for beating and strangling his friend and business partner John Adkins in the Port of Ilwaco in 2009. They claim deckhand Walter Bremmer — who fatally beat, shot and strangled his neighbor in Hawaii in 2012 — murdered Adkins, then forced Rieman to take the fall.

Now, the judge has agreed to delay his decision until next year because attorneys believe there are at least five unsolved strangulation murders in towns where Bremmer has lived.

Rieman’s appeals case was strange and complex even before federal defense investigator Mike Stortini and a Chinook Observer reporter independently found evidence of a disproportionate number of murders in Bremmer’s former towns. After Adkins’ death, Pacific County authorities granted Bremmer, 54, full immunity for his testimony. He blamed Rieman, who eventually pleaded guilty. After Bremmer was convicted of the strikingly similar 2012 murder, Rieman appealed his conviction. With almost no physical evidence and no other witnesses available, authorities have struggled to find the truth. However, public records show Bremmer had a far more violent past than Rieman.

Bremmer has been in prison since the 2013 murder conviction. But between 1980 and 2009, he moved almost constantly between California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Texas and North Carolina, working odd jobs and collecting Social Security. In each place, he earned a reputation for being an abusive, unpredictable drunk with a penchant for choking people who got in his way.

While working Rieman’s case, Stortini spoke to Bremmer’s ex-wife, two ex-girlfriends, an alleged rape victim and others who said Bremmer tried to strangle them or bragged about strangling other people. Several witnesses independently said that Bremmer also boasted of killing as many as 22 other people. Although he has no evidence to support his claim, Bremmer’s own brother believes he has killed people in every state where he has lived.

“Each person [Stortini] talked to would describe a strangulation type incident,” said Rieman’s attorney, Miriam Schwartz on Nov. 5.

Both men testified at the August hearing in Tacoma, but their mirror-image stories left Judge Ronald Leighton feeling that the truth was “clear as mud.” After the hearing, a Chinook Observer reporter built a timeline of his life and began using the Murder Accountability Project, a national database of unsolved murders, to look for strangulation crimes that coincided with his presence. In Tacoma, Stortini and Schwartz were concerned about Leighton’s lukewarm response to their case for Rieman’s acquittal. Stortini, too, began using the database. He took it one step further, calling detectives in Alaska, Washington and North Carolina to ask if they knew of unsolved cases that might be relevant.

“I found that site to be helpful, but you have to further explore and see what’s been solved and what’s not,” Stortini explained.

The efforts paid off.

Alaska has, at most, 10 unsolved strangulation homicides from the 40-year period between 1976 and 2017. Two of them died during the four-year period when Bremmer was living there. Their bodies were both found less than two miles from his home. A third murder in his town around the same time showed certain similarities to the strangulation cases.

One North Carolina town has six unsolved strangulation cases from 1976 to 2017. Two of them occurred the year Walter Bremmer moved to town.

A Washington city has an open strangulation case from the year Bremmer lived there.

In an Oregon town, a young girl vanished shortly before Bremmer, a new, largely unknown resident, suddenly moved to Alaska even though his new wife was pregnant.

The search for other potentially relevant cases is ongoing.

It’s very possible the crimes along Bremmer’s trajectory are nothing but uncanny coincidences. And it may not be possible to find the truth because older cases can be very hard to solve. Fingerprint databases have only existed for about 40 years, DNA databases for even less time, and surveillance cameras only became common within the last couple of decades. Bremmer was likely just one of thousands of itinerant men who moved around the country. Before the internet and databases made it easier to share information, investigators often worked in isolation, unaware of similar cases outside their region. Additionally, physical evidence deteriorates, suspects and witnesses die off and memories fade over time, making it even harder for contemporary investigators to solve old cases.

Sometimes cold case investigators do get lucky and find viable DNA samples on old evidence. In theory, samples from crime scenes, sexual assaults and people convicted of violent crimes are submitted to CODIS, a national DNA database. If there’s a match between a suspect and a crime, CODIS workers alert local authorities. But the system isn’t perfect — there are tens of thousands of untested “rape kits” sitting in storage at police agencies and crime labs around the country, and criminals’ DNA doesn’t always make it into CODIS.

Investigators are certain that samples of Bremmer’s DNA were collected after the 2012 murder, and he was probably ordered to submit a DNA sample when he was sentenced. However, it’s still not clear whether Bremmer’s DNA was ever added to CODIS. Investigators in several jurisdictions are trying to find out.

Cold case detectives have been cooperative, intrigued at the possibility — however small — of a new lead, Stortini said. However, one Alaska police agency declined to share their case files, so in October, Schwartz asked for permission to subpoena the records. Judge Leighton has not made a decision yet. Schwartz knows Leighton may not give her and Stortini leeway to explore circumstantial leads this late in the proceedings.

“There is not a lot of law in this area,” Schwartz explained. “It’s kind of a long shot to order a police department to turn over its records on an unsolved case.”

If there is testable physical evidence in any of the cases they’re studying, Schwartz is likely to ask for an order to test them for Bremmer’s DNA. Even one match would likely strengthen her case for acquitting Rieman.

Much of what happens next will be up to Leighton’s discretion because the case is so unique that there are few guidelines for how to handle it.

“We’re on virgin territory here,” Schwartz said.

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