Bellingham man freed from prison after courts overturn his conviction a 2nd time for 1990 murder

Deputy Public Defender Angela Anderson talks to Bruce Hummel during opening arguments in his murder retrial in 2014 in Whatcom Superior Court in Bellingham.
Deputy Public Defender Angela Anderson talks to Bruce Hummel during opening arguments in his murder retrial in 2014 in Whatcom Superior Court in Bellingham. Bellingham Herald file

A Bellingham man found guilty twice of murdering his wife – though both convictions were later overturned – was released from prison Friday afternoon.

This week the state Supreme Court declined to review the case of Bruce Allen Hummel, whose wife, Alice, went missing 26 1/2 years ago. Twice juries convicted him of killing her, covering it up and keeping it a secret over two decades. Twice the state Court of Appeals vacated the guilty verdict.

Hummel maintains his innocence. He served 7 years, 5 months and 23 days in state custody for a crime he says he didn’t commit. Before that, he spent time in federal prison for collecting Alice Hummel’s disability checks, though she hasn’t been seen since October 1990.

Around that time in fall 1990, one of the Hummels’ daughters told her mother that Bruce Hummel had been sexually abusing her. Alice said she’d “take care of it,” according to court records. The girl last saw Alice on the morning of Oct. 18. Hummel explained to her and the other children that Alice had moved out of state for a job. That seemed odd to the girl because she and Alice had plans to go to a ballet Oct. 21 to celebrate her 14th birthday.

None of the Hummel children saw their mother again. Through the 1990s, the girls continued to get Christmas cards, anniversary cards and birthday presents from “Alice.” One Christmas check was signed by Bruce, and a return address in Fort Worth, Texas, was stamped as “not a valid address,” according to court records.

Years later, in 2001, the daughters confided in each other that Bruce Hummel had sexually abused both of them. That’s when they reported their mother missing. Police in Bellingham searched but found few signs that Alice might still be alive, aside from a bank account in Alaska, where someone had been collecting more than $270,000 in disability checks sent to Alice’s teacher retirement fund. The Hummels once worked as teachers in the Alaskan bush.

Police learned Bruce Hummel had filed for divorce in March 1995, for abandonment. Alice’s address listed in the divorce case, in Dallas, doesn’t exist.

Detectives found Bruce Hummel in 2004 in Billings, Mont. He had a new wife. He told detectives he’d given Alice a ride to the airport in October 1990. Later, confronted with the stolen checks, he confessed that Alice had been dead for years. He gave a dramatic story about how she had killed herself by slashing her wrists, leaving behind a note to hide the suicide from the children. He took her body onto a raft on Bellingham Bay, where a storm overwhelmed him, he said, and the body sank.

Nautical records show the wind never topped 6 mph that night, and police found no trace of bloodstains – granted, many years later – in crevices of the bathroom floor, where Bruce had claimed his wife bled to death. Alice’s body was never found.

After the police interview, Hummel fled to Westport, where he started another new life as a tutor and amateur actor. Once he played the part of a killer in a small-town theater group, the Grayland Players.

Federal agents arrested him in 2007. He was convicted of 12 counts of wire fraud, then transferred to Whatcom County to face a charge of first-degree murder.

At trial he maintained his innocence. A Whatcom County jury convicted Hummel of first-degree murder in August 2009. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

“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,” wrote Prosecutor Dave McEachran in a sentencing memorandum. “He should never be able to experience freedom for the rest of his life.”

However, in 2012, the state Court of Appeals found that, while there was sufficient evidence to prove the case, Hummel’s rights were violated during jury selection, when part of the process wasn’t held in a public courtroom.

At his second trial in 2014, Hummel was again convicted of first-degree murder. He was handed a 26-year sentence, less time because the Court of Appeals found his federal criminal record didn’t count when calculating his prison time. (Washington had no comparable law for federal wire fraud in 1990).

He appealed again with help from the Washington Appellate Project. The state Court of Appeals vacated the verdict again in October 2016 and ruled that the case couldn’t be tried again.

“Even when viewed in the light most favorable to the State, the evidence does not support finding the essential element of premeditation without a reasonable doubt,” concurred a panel of three appellate judges.

“Premeditated” is the key word in Washington’s first-degree murder law. Without it, a killing can still be considered second-degree murder. But in a strategic move by the deputy public defender, Angela Anderson, the jury in the second trial wasn’t asked to consider if Hummel committed murder in the second degree. And because of that, the appellate court ruled that the conviction couldn’t simply be reduced to the lesser degree. The case had to be dismissed outright.

The county prosecutor’s office appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, and this week justices wrote a letter declining to hear the case. On Thursday it was formally dismissed with prejudice in Whatcom County Superior Court.

In the eyes of the law, Hummel is not guilty of first-degree murder. However, he remains on probation for three years for crimes committed in Alaska, according to McEachran.

Hummel, 75, walked out of the Monroe Correctional Facility a free man at 1 p.m. Friday.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb