Police hear Union Hill concerns

Bremerton City Councilmember Greg Wheeler listens to personal safety concerns at a large gathering of Union Hill Neighborhood residents Thursday. - Greg Skinner
Bremerton City Councilmember Greg Wheeler listens to personal safety concerns at a large gathering of Union Hill Neighborhood residents Thursday.
— image credit: Greg Skinner

The difference between a person of interest and suspect lies within the depth of probable cause. As of now, the Bremerton police don't have it.

Police have interviewed a "person of interest" in the city's dual murder investigation, but they have no probable cause to make an arrest or gain a search warrant.

As citizens began to take down posters urging a call to police if the face printed there were to jog the viewers' memory related to the murders, authorities say the sketch remains relevant.

About 150 neighbors crowded into the basement of Memorial Lutheran Church on Veneta Avenue last Thursday to hear from police and share personal concerns over apple juice and homemade sweets. Sponsored by 5th District Bremerton Councilmember Greg Wheeler and 6th District Councilmember Faye Flemester, the police took questions following a short safety presentation. The evening turned into neighborhood therapy session as residents asked questions revealing a desire to be told if they should be afraid or not.

"Is the person of interest under surveillance?" Collectively, residents wanted to know where the person of interest lives and what specifically connected the Burke and Brannon murders with the third assault. Should residents call 9-1-1 and should the police sketch continue to be circulated? Other questions were as basic as one woman wanting to know if she could walk her dogs or another's desire to know why the Union Hill neighborhood was "targeted."

"Did they know they were being followed?" asked one woman.

"If something doesn't feel right it probably isn't," Bremerton Police Lt. Pete Fisher said before noting that the man who survived the attack was distracted at the time.

"We do believe they were being followed," he said.

Citing a need to protect the investigation, police did not answer most of the questions asked.

Sarah Burke, a 19-year-old student, was murdered on the street last May and Melody Brannon was murdered on Feb. 3 somewhere on the block of 1300 High Avenue. With nine months between, the murders are now suspected to be connected by an assault on Burwell Street in which a man survived with the help of an unknown passer by.

Whether police believe the young man in the image that they've been circulating murdered Burke and Brannon, they won't say. What Fisher did say is that the young man questioned by authorities remains at the "person of interest" level of the investigation.

That person could be a witness rather than a suspect, Fisher said. Bremerton Police believe that they have interviewed the person that they believe to be the person of interest in the police artists sketch, he said.

The Seattle times reported that on Feb. 21 police interviewed a person of interest, in the Bremerton murders, on South Juneau Street in Seattle.

No arrest has been made in the two murders and assault.

Police continue to withhold the manner of and location of Brannon's death, but Fisher told the Seattle Times that the department cannot "conclusively" link the murders to one person.

Fisher told residents that he accepts that they are "frustrated", but said that investigation goals preclude him from giving specific details. "We need to protect the integrity [of the investigation]," Fisher said.

Instead, basic urban home safety tips were given. Trim bushes back, turn lights on and form neighborhood watches, advised Bremerton police officer Andy Oakley. The block on which Brannon was murdered formed a watch. It's an easy and effective thing to do, he said.

Wheeler said the whole point of the gathering was to connect people. Through stronger neighbor-to-neighbor relationships and residents simply checking on each other and keeping an eye out, the city will become safer, he said.

Answering the large and worried crowd the best he could, Fisher said that the city has rearranged its police department to support the murder investigation. The detective division has absorbed special operations, two detectives from the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office, one detective from Port Orchard and pulled in two officers who are trained investigators. Those men and women are supported by the FBI and their profiling team, he said.

At that point, a citizen threw a question at Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent standing in the wings. "How is the overtime effecting the budget," he asked?

"We're prepared to do whatever it takes," Lent said. Her response drew applause.

Rev. Richmond Johnson told the police he was concerned about the possible use of racial profiling as the investigation grows. Police describe a light skinned black or mixed race male, in his late teens or early twenties, 72-inches tall with slender build and a blemish near the near his nose or lip.

Johnson, from Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, said that he knew of a 10th-grader at Bremerton High School who had been stopped and questioned four times because he resembles the police sketch of the "person of interest." But, the student does not fit the rest of the physical description, said Johnson.

"If [police] see someone who remotely fits that description we're going to have a conversation," Fisher said, before adding the caveat that the first interaction between police and the student "wasn't good."

"As long as we don't violate constitutional rights, we will continue," Fisher said.

Wheeler said he understood the mireade of concern spilled out by residents last week. He now escorts his daughter to the high school a few blocks from home.

"People are very very afraid. People are concerned," Wheeler said.


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