Bellingham man gets 26 years after second trial for 1990 murder of wife

BELLINGHAM - A Bellingham man convicted a second time for murdering his wife in 1990 - so he could collect her disability checks and keep molesting their daughter - showed no sign of remorse in a short speech before being sentenced to 26 years in prison Monday morning, June 16.

Two juries have found Bruce Allen Hummel, now 72, guilty of killing his wife, Alice.

The case returned to Whatcom County Superior Court for a retrial last month because Hummel's right to a public trial had been violated during jury selection in 2009. It's one of many serious convictions across the state that were reversed by a Court of Appeals ruling that it's improper for jurors to be interviewed in private during voir dire.

In October 1990 former teacher Alice Hummel, 46, disappeared - or "departed," as her husband, Bruce, put it at his latest court hearing. He told their three children she'd flown to California that day to take a new job, without warning and evidently without packing her medication, purse or bank cards.

Over the years, to keep up the charade that she was still alive, Mr. Hummel forged letters from "Mom" to the children. She'd met a man in Texas, the letters said, where she'd gotten a promotion and "didn't care enough" about the kids to return home, according to prosecutors. Meanwhile Hummel kept molesting his youngest daughter until she ran away.

Police opened an investigation more than a decade later, after Hummel's two daughters came forward. They had finally told each other they'd both been sexually abused by their father. Alice's disappearance had always seemed unlike her, but the timing no longer seemed coincidental.

"He in effect poisoned the memory of Alice Hummel in the minds of his children and continued the sexual abuse of his daughter," County Prosecutor Dave McEachran wrote in a sentencing memo. "He has continued to this day to further increase the pain to the children by not disclosing the remains of Alice Hummel so that she can be properly buried."

Hummel has given conflicting versions of what really happened to Alice.

Once detectives confronted him with $340,000 in disability checks he'd collected under Alice's name, he broke down and admitted she had been dead for years. But she committed suicide, he said, by slashing her wrists. She left a note, he said, begging him to hide the suicide from the kids. On a raft he took the body out to Bellingham Bay, he said, but stormy weather overcame him and the body sank into the bay. Nautical records proved the wind speed never topped 6 mph on that particular night, and police could find no trace of bloodstains - granted, many years later - in the crevices of the bathroom floor where Bruce claimed his wife bled to death.

Later, he told his cellmate in jail he'd ground up pills into apple cider and given it to her to drink.

Like in the first trial, McEachran said he offered to recommend a more lenient sentence, rather than the maximum, if Hummel would come clean and admit where he disposed of the body.

But Hummel would not.

Instead, given a chance to address the court Monday before his sentencing, he disputed the alleged motive for the murder. He said he didn't know that Alice knew about the molestation when she disappeared. Hummel also questioned Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder's impartiality and accused him of being too cozy with the prosecutor. During a brief break in the courtroom, Hummel said, they had been joking about the need for a second or even a third trial.

"Now I have been convicted 100 percent based on false assumptions, and I am headed to prison for the remainder of my days," Hummel said, "unless Trial No. 3, light-heartedly mentioned by Your Honor four weeks ago, takes place."

Hummel had pleaded guilty to 12 counts of wire fraud in a U.S. District Court in Alaska in 2007, for the disability check fraud. That criminal history factored into his 45-year sentence from the first trial.

But when the Court of Appeals reversed the murder conviction, the judges said those federal crimes shouldn't count because there was no comparable Washington state law in 1990 - a blatant oversight, McEachran argued, because that had been a major part of the first trial. And Snyder agreed that the convictions should count. But he said he can't supersede the Court of Appeals' ruling.

So the judge handed down a 26-year, eight-month sentence, the maximum he could under the reduced sentencing range.

If Hummel appeals again, McEachran said he would challenge the ruling that effectively shortens Hummel's prison term by 19 years.

Laura Hummel-Keithley, Bruce Hummel's niece who spoke on behalf of her cousins Monday, said she was disappointed by the drop in how much time Hummel must serve.

"He deserves it for all the different things he did, and for his poor daughter," she said. "But I still don't think he'll ever see the light of day again."