SEATTLE – In the small-town dinner-theater mystery, Bruce Hummel had no trouble admitting he was the killer: "I got my revenge," he told the audience. "Tell that to the sheriff." Now he faces a murder charge in real life.
Whatcom County Prosecutor Dave McEachran charged the handyman and amateur actor with first-degree murder this week in the disappearance of Hummel's wife, Alice, from the couple's Bellingham home 18 years ago.
McEachran has no body, blood or other physical evidence in the case — only Hummel's bizarre behavior since his wife vanished. Detectives say Hummel told his children their mom had abandoned them, sent them gifts purporting to be from her and, only after being questioned by police years later, wrote them a rambling, implausible letter acknowledging she had been dead all along.
He also continued to cash her disability benefits from the Alaska Teachers Retirement System — for which he is serving a 27-month federal prison sentence — and led police on a yearslong cat-and-mouse game that ended last year in Westport, a small fishing village on Washington's coast.
There, the 66-year-old Hummel tutored children at a low-income housing complex, drove senior citizens to doctor appointments and starred as the killer in a dinner mystery put on by a local theater group, the Grayland Players.
"Oh my gosh, it's so long coming," Hummel's niece, Laura Keithley, said Friday of the murder charge. "It's a bittersweet moment. I so want some kind of resolution for my aunt."
Hummel's lawyer, public defender Jon Komorowski, said he had not spoken with Hummel in a year and could not comment on the charges. Hummel is being transferred to Bellingham from a Minnesota prison.
After teaching in remote parts of Alaska for more than a decade, Bruce and Alice Hummel moved to Bellingham. Alice Hummel disappeared one day in October 1990.
According to charging papers, Bruce Hummel told their three children their mother left to take a job in California, and for the next few years he sent them letters and gifts — with fictitious return addresses — so they would believe she was alive.
One typewritten letter to the younger daughter said her mom "had found another man and he did not want to have any kids around," McEachran wrote in charging papers.
The children, then ages 13, 17 and 21, had suspicions, he wrote. It seemed strange that their mother would have no contact with them, that she would skip her son's high school graduation and that they were unable to locate her.
There was another troubling fact, the charging papers say: Two weeks before Alice Hummel disappeared, the younger daughter told her she had been molested by her father. Alice Hummel promised it would never happen again.
"Alice Hummel disappeared, never to be heard from again, after agreeing to confront her husband, Bruce Hummel, about his molestation of their 13-year-old daughter," McEachran wrote. "The evidence clearly shows that Bruce Hummel had the motive and opportunity to murder Alice Hummel and in fact did so in October 1990."
The children did not report their mother missing until August 2001. Bellingham police detectives spent the next six years tracking down Bruce Hummel and contacting state, federal and foreign authorities, looking for any trace of Alice Hummel.
Bruce Hummel was living in Billings, Mont., with a new wife. The only sign Alice Hummel was alive was that someone was cashing her disability checks.
During an interview with investigators in 2004, Hummel insisted he had last seen Alice alive when he took her to the airport in October 1990. He denied cashing her checks until confronted with evidence, they wrote in interview reports.
Hummel fled after being questioned by police and made his way to Westport. Police found him there after he registered his van to a P.O. box; he pleaded guilty last year to stealing the disability payments.
While on the lam, Hummel wrote a letter to investigators claiming his wife slit her wrists in the bathroom of their home. He insisted he disposed of her body by towing it in a makeshift raft into Bellingham Bay, and that he invented the story that she had run off to keep the children from learning she had killed herself.
"I rowed and bailed for an hour and a half at least but the wind got worse and I had to let her body go," the letter said. "I was too tired to cry but I remember saying a silent prayer."
Bellingham Detective Glenn Hutchings said there's no way Hummel could have handled his wife's corpse as he described; there was no wind on Bellingham Bay that night, and there was no trace of blood in the bathroom when detectives processed it for evidence.
Neither cadaver-sniffing dogs nor ground-penetrating radar turned up any indication of a body buried on the Bellingham property, McEachran said.
Keithley, 50, said that for years after her aunt disappeared, Bruce Hummel — her father's brother — continued to attend the family's annual picnic and behaved as if nothing was wrong.
"It was sort of an unspoken thing; our family didn't talk about it at all," she said. "But the circumstances of what we heard — that she left without saying goodbye to her own children — we knew she would never have done that. A mother would never go off without saying goodbye to her own children."