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Amateur stars in a real-life whodunit

The actor cast as the killer in a dinner theater production was under investigation because his wife had vanished in 1990, and he lied.

December 09, 2007|Gene Johnson | Associated Press

WESTPORT, WASH. — The amateur theater group here had been dormant for a few years when Peggy Coverdale decided to revive it with a dinner-theater mystery she wrote.

"Who knows," she'd tell prospective audience members. "You might sit right next to a murderer."

"I used that line over and over again," she recalls. "Isn't it awful, now that I look back on it?"

It turns out that the man she cast as the killer has long been under police investigation. His wife vanished in 1990, and for more than a decade he lied about what had happened to her.

Now, the real-life whodunit awaits a final act.

Easily fit in

Taffy, kite and toy shops along the waterfront in this remote fishing town on the Pacific were shuttered and sandbags were stacked in case of winter flooding when Bruce Allen Hummel arrived in fall 2004. But even during the off-season lull, he made acquaintances easily and found ways to fit in.

Balding and 62, he frequented card night at Senior House, where he endeared himself by helping out however he could. He installed light fixtures and drove elderly people to their doctor's appointments.

He found work as the maintenance man at Westport's low-income housing units, the South Bayview Apartments, where he was quick to fix a leaky faucet or broken toilet. The children there adored him; he helped them with their homework and used snacks to create math problems. He chatted with their parents about his days teaching in some of the most remote parts of Alaska.

In a holiday pageant for which he volunteered, he sang a "cute little song . . . with a rag doll on his knee," Coverdale said. It was his entree into Westport's acting group.

Not everyone was so taken with him. Hummel frequently showed up at high school girls basketball games, where he would berate the referees from the stands. The athletic director, Barb Rasmus, finally made him a scorekeeper in hopes he would stay quiet -- to no avail.

"He had a very, very hot temper," she said. "We had to tell him he couldn't come anymore."

At cards, he met a disabled older woman and they soon became close. He parked his trailer in her yard and helped care for her, changing her bandages three times a day after she had surgery.

He also became a surrogate grandfather to her 18- and 16-year-old grandsons. He took them surfing and to Disneyland, and he helped with school projects.

"He was just a great guy," said the older teen, David Rolen, who recalled that Hummel sometimes spoke -- lovingly but vaguely -- of a wife he had somewhere.

He married Alice Kristina Wehr Hummel in Sultan, on the western slopes of the Cascades, in 1963, when he was 21 and she was 19. They spent much of the 1970s and '80s living or teaching in the Alaskan bush -- Bethel, a hub for dozens of native villages; St. Paul Island, 200 miles into the Bering Sea; Naknek, a salmon-fishing outpost.

In 1979, Alice Hummel, then 35, began receiving disability payments through the Alaska Teachers Retirement System, and by 1990, the couple had moved back to Washington. They lived in Bellingham with two of their three children, a daughter of about 13 and a son of about 17. An older daughter had gone to college.

That October, Hummel's wife disappeared.

He told the kids their mom had left -- ran off to California, or maybe Texas. It was a lie, one he kept up for many years.

It was not until Alice Hummel's father died a decade later, and the daughters tried to find their mother to let her know, that the children began to unravel the story.

In 2001, the two women -- sharing suspicions about the circumstances of their mother's disappearance -- filed a missing-persons report with Bellingham police. They told investigators what they could remember:

Dad did some work on the foundation around the time she vanished.

They remembered receiving correspondence purportedly from their mother years after she left; the older daughter thought she'd received a wedding gift from her.

And this: A few days before Mom left, the younger daughter had told her mother that Dad had been "touching me." Their mother said she would make sure it never happened again.

Bellingham detectives immediately doubted that Alice Hummel had run away. But proving foul play, years later and without physical evidence, was another matter.

They contacted every other state and British Columbia, trying to determine if she had lived or died there. The only trace of her existence since 1990 was that her $1,500 monthly disability payments continued to wind up in Bruce Hummel's bank accounts.

"To have a missing person case come to us in 2001 about a person who's been missing since 1990, and to have the associated deceit -- we had a lot of concerns at the very beginning," said Det. Glenn Hutchings.

Bruce Hummel was easy enough to find, living with another wife in Billings, Mont., where, in May 2004, two detectives and an FBI agent traveled to talk with him.

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