Retrial begins for Bellingham man accused of killing wife in 1990

BELLINGHAM - Twenty-three years and six months have passed since the last time Alice Hummel's three children saw her.

Bruce Allen Hummel, now 72, told his kids that Mom abandoned the family one day in October 1990. She'd hopped on a flight to California without warning for a job interview, and she never returned. That's the story Bruce Hummel stuck to for more than a decade.

Prosecutor Dave McEachran believes Bruce Hummel, a former teacher, went to great lengths to cover up the murder of his wife. And though her body was never found, a jury found Hummel guilty of first-degree murder in 2009.

But last year the state Court of Appeals nixed the conviction because Hummel's right to a public trial was violated during jury selection, when some jurors spoke with a judge in private about sensitive issues that might prejudice them against the defendant. There are standards - under what's called the Bone-Club analysis - for closing a courtroom in Washington state during voir dire, but Hummel's case did not meet those standards, according to the Court of Appeals.

Opening statements in a retrial were held Tuesday, May 13, in the courtroom of Judge Charles Snyder, the same judge who presided over the first trial. McEachran outlined his case in a 40-minute prologue to jurors.

Days before the murder, McEachran said, Alice's youngest daughter had confided to her mother that Bruce Hummel had been molesting her since about the age of 3. She now believes her father killed Alice to keep her from going to the police about the molestation. That daughter, now an adult, took the witness stand Tuesday to once again recount the sexual abuse before a jury.

For many years Bruce Hummel insisted Alice moved away. To convince the kids she was still alive, McEachran said, Hummel forged letters from her. But in 2001, two of Hummel's daughters revealed to each other they'd been sexually abused by their father for many years, and it dawned on them that - given the timing of the youngest daughter's admission - he may have had a hand in their mother's disappearance. They called the cops.

At first Hummel gave police the same story about Alice taking a new job in California. But once he found himself cornered by the fact that over the years he'd cashed hundreds of thousands of dollars in Alice's old disability checks, he apologized to police for putting up a "smokescreen." Alice, he claimed, had killed herself in the family home on Vista Drive in Bellingham, and left a note saying not to tell the kids. So he loaded her body onto a raft and took her onto Bellingham Bay but, in his story, a storm overwhelmed him. The raft overturned and the body sank into the bay.

None of it added up to detectives. Weather records, for example, showed the wind speed that night never topped 6 mph.

By the time the investigation got underway, however, little physical evidence remained of what happened to Alice - a point Hummel's public defender, Angela Anderson, stressed in her opening statement.

"There will be no proof," Anderson said, "of the how, what, when, where or why."

There's no crime scene, she said, no weapon and no confirmed motive.

"For full disclosure, my client's a liar," Anderson said. "He's a convicted felon. He's a child molester. But he's not a killer."

The trial is expected to last about two weeks.