Real-life whodunit awaits final act

A cast photo from a local dinner-theater mystery production, pulled from the files of producer Peggy Coverdale, is displayed on her kitchen table Oct. 25, 2007, in Westport, Wash. Bruce Allen Hummel, fourth from right in plaid shirt, portrayed the murderer in the play. <i>Associated Press</i>

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 investigation by police. His wife vanished in 1990, and for more than a decade he lied about what happened to her.

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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 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 Texas.

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 daughters filed a missing person report with Bellingham police. They told investigators what they could remember:

"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 when he took her to the airport in October 1990. 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.

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 detectives didn't believe a word.

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.

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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."

Hummel stayed under the radar until he himself tipped the detectives off by registering his van to a post-office box in Westport last year.

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 to 27 months in prison. He's serving his sentence at SeaTac, Wash.

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