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.
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"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 investigation by police. His wife vanished in 1990, and for more than a decade he lied about what happened to her.
Now, the real-life whodunit awaits a final act.
Taffy, kite and toy shops along the waterfront in this remote fishing town on the Pacific Coast were shuttered and sandbags were stacked in case of winter flooding when Bruce Allen Hummel arrived in fall 2004. But even in the off-season lull he made acquaintances easily and quickly 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 to a leaky faucet or broken toilet, and 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 remotest 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. Hummel frequently showed up at the high school for 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 any more."
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.
That appears to have been Alice Kristina Wehr Hummel. They married 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 Alaska 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, Wash., 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 brought a twist in the story line. Hummel's wife disappeared.
He told the kids their mom had left them. Ran off to California, or maybe Texas. But 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 person 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 Dad had been "touching me." Their mother said she would make sure it never happened again.
Bellingham detectives immediately doubted the story that Alice ran off, 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 Detective Glen 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.
Hummel told them, according to an FBI report, that he had last seen Alice, whom he called Kristy, when he took her to the airport in October 1990, and had last spoken to her in 1991. Though he at first denied it, he eventually admitted signing her name on checks as well as on letters to Alaska state officials.
He also admitted molesting his daughter, the detectives said.
The next day, the investigators returned to question him further. Hummel was gone.
"I apologize for the smoke screen I threw at the three of you but what else could you expect when it is the same story I've been telling for 13 years," began an 11-page, handwritten letter that arrived at the Bellingham police department shortly thereafter. "What I am about to write in the best detail is the absolute truth ...."
Hummel went on to describe coming home from work at lunchtime Oct. 18, 1990, to "a nightmarish scene..."
"I started up the hall toward our bedroom but stopped dead in my tracks as I passed the open bathroom door. I found Kristy laying on her left side with her back toward the bathtub. There was a lot of blood .... I first turned her head to check for a pulse but her rolled-up eyes told me she was dead."
Her left wrist had a terrible gash, he wrote, and in the sink he found a note: "Don't tell the kids."
He honored that request, he said, by rolling up the 200-pound body in plastic sheeting and carrying it to his van. He mopped up the blood with towels, laundered the towels, and dashed to the mall to buy a new bathroom rug - all in the three hours before their son came home from school.
The next night, Hummel constructed a raft of inner tubes and 2-by-4s; his letter included a diagram. He began rowing out into Bellingham Bay in an inflatable boat, towing his dead wife.
The tube raft capsized and her body, weighted with a stone from the family's rock wall, dangled by a rope in the water like a fishing hook from a bobber.
"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," Hummel wrote. "I was too tired to cry but I remember saying a silent prayer."
The detectives didn't believe a word.
There was no wind on Bellingham Bay that night, Hutchings said, and there's no way he could have handled a 200-pound corpse without help the way he described.
"You can go through the details and shake your head at how implausible they are," Hutchings said. "But it was somewhat maddening that a father would go for 14 years telling his children they had been abandoned by their mother, and then say, your mom didn't really abandon you."
Police processed the house for traces of blood and searched the property with cadaver-sniffing dogs and ground-penetrating radar, to see if Alice had been buried there or entombed in the foundation. No evidence was found.
A month later, when a forest ranger found Hummel camping in St. Maries, Idaho, the detectives again drove to him, hoping to give him a lie-detector test.
He first asked if he could take the polygraph in Bellingham, then when they all reached the city late in the evening he asked to do the test in the morning. As security, he offered the keys to his van.
Hutchings kicks himself as he recalls his response: "Bruce, I don't need your keys. If you say I'll see you in the morning, I'll see you in the morning."
The next morning, he was gone again - along with the van bearing Montana plates that said "LILTRVLR."
The detectives learned from Hummel's wife that he had been bouncing around campsites, rarely staying anywhere more than a day. He told her he was afraid to go to jail and that he had planned to commit suicide.
Instead, he found his way to Westport.
Peggy Coverdale met Hummel when he responded to a newspaper ad for the Christmas pageant. He attended meetings of the theater group, the Grayland Players.
For Coverdale's dinner-theater mystery - titled "Finnished at the Finnish Inn," after the Finnish cranberry growers who built the community hall - she needed someone who wasn't known as a Grayland Player to be the murderer.
"He seemed like a mild-mannered, pleasant, helpful type of person," she said. "I thought, oh, he'll fit that job very nicely."
Hummel accepted. He confessed to the dinner-goers that he killed a man who was planning to run off with his character's wife: "I got my revenge. Tell that to the sheriff."
A cast photo shows Hummel standing in the center, smiling in a plaid shirt and blue jeans.
Hummel stayed under the radar until late last year, when he himself tipped the detectives off by registering his van to a post-office box in Westport.
After confirming he was there, the detectives made another try at getting him to talk - enlisted his younger daughter to wear a wire when they met. But Hummel was suspicious and wouldn't talk, Hutchings said.
Two months later, federal indictment in hand, FBI agents arrested him. He pleaded guilty this summer in Anchorage to 12 counts of wire fraud, acknowledging that his wife has been dead since Oct. 18, 1990, and that he cashed $276,000 of her disability benefits. Hummel, now 65, was sentenced Nov. 8 to 27 months in prison. He's serving his sentence at SeaTac, Wash.
During a U.S. District Court hearing in Tacoma, Wash., before his transfer to Alaska, Hummel was represented by a public defender named Miriam Schwartz, who emphasized there is no physical evidence linking him to his wife's death, and that he was under no obligation to cooperate.
"They have no legal grounds to arrest him or charge him with the crimes that have been talked about, or alleged crimes that have been talked about here in court today," she told the judge. "It's really just a lot of talk."
For Hutchings, it's more than that. He hopes someday to find out what happened to Alice Hummel, whose last house he passes daily on his way to work.
"Sometimes," he said, "you get to give the family the answers, and there's probably not a better feeling. But other times, it doesn't happen."
Associated Press writer Rachel D'Oro contributed to this report.
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