Read Empty Promises Online

Authors: Ann Rule

Tags: #General, #Law, #Offenses Against the Person

Empty Promises (2 page)

Empty Promises

 

 

The disappearance of Jami Hagel Sherer has many chilling similarities to the vanishing of a half-dozen wives and mothers who were listed as missing in western Washington in the nineties, so many women gone with no explanation that it seemed epidemic in the Northwest.
Jami was twenty-five when she disappeared. She would be thirty-five today— if she is still alive. Jami grew up only blocks from where I raised my four children in the sixties and seventies. Young families moved to the Seattle suburb of Bellevue as it burgeoned in the early fifties because it seemed the safest, best place to raise children. Then it was a world where crime and drugs and ugliness seemed far away.

1

 

 

It was a Sunday afternoon, the last day of September 1990, when Judy Hagel began to feel uneasy. Usually she grew annoyed and exasperated when her son-in-law, Steve Sherer, phoned constantly to check on her daughter, Jami. He kept such close tabs on Jami that she seemed to move on an invisible tether. If she left home to visit her parents, he called to be sure she arrived within fifteen minutes, and then he kept calling to ask what she was doing, and very soon, of course, to insist that she come back home to their house in Redmond. If he had his way, Jami would never visit her family at all.
But
this
afternoon, Steve didn't call— not for five hours. It was a record for him, and Judy found herself jumpy not at the ringing of her phone but because of the silence. She had expected Jami all day, and Jami never showed up. Judy was baby-sitting with Jami's little boy, Chris,
* and it wasn't like her daughter to stay away when she had promised Chris she would be back soon.

* * *

Bellevue was once as far removed from Seattle in lifestyle and population as any of a number of small towns that dot the state of Washington. Fifty years ago it was a rustic hamlet on the other side of Lake Washington, where farms and blueberry bogs could be found just outside town. Before the first floating bridge con
necting Mercer Island and Bellevue to the mainland in Seattle was completed in 1940, the little town was far off the beaten path. No one ever imagined Bellevue would become the third largest city in the state with its own mirror-windowed skyscrapers and upscale malls. After World War II, it became a bastion of affordable three-bedroom, bath-and-a-half houses that young marrieds could afford, and they flocked to the neighborhoods of Lake Hills and Eastgate. Returning veterans and recent college graduates found jobs at the Boeing Airplane Company. Young husbands went off to work and young wives stayed home and raised four children per family, long before anyone had heard about the population explosion. Appliances were avocado green, carpets were an orange shag that had to be raked as well as vacuumed, and tile floors were waxed faithfully once a week.
It was a world of kaffeeklatsches, where wives shared recipes for frozen strawberry jam, onion soup dip, and complicated casseroles whose main ingredient seemed always to be Cheez Whiz. Yards sprouted gardens, and wives traded seedlings as frequently as they took turns baby-sitting. It was a time long before day care and two-income families. Bellevue seemed to promise that after the long dark war, everything was going to be all right. It was an ideal community in a halcyon era.
But the decades that followed brought a tragic tumbling-down for many of the children whose future had seemed so bright. Bellevue, Washington, wasn't unique; drugs and more wars and assassinations and rock and roll and XXX-rated movies and videos and the erratic vicissitudes of fortune eroded family-based towns all over America. As Bellevue became a little grittier and far less inviolate, Jami Hagel's desolate
destiny began to take shape, despite her family's struggle to save her.
Judy and Jerry Hagel left tiny Carrington, North Dakota, in 1967 and headed for Washington State; Judy's two brothers lived there, and they said the job prospects were good. Judy and Jerry's oldest child, Randy, was five then and Jami Sue was almost three. A year later, Judy gave birth to twin boys, Rob and Rich.
Rather than resenting all the attention the twins got, Jami was enthralled with them, and their birth gave her a tighter bond with her mother. Even though she was only three, she took care of the twins for her mother. "I wasn't expecting twins," Judy recalls. "I had no help, and Jami was there to help me. We had a little rocker, and I couldn't feed two babies at one time, so I'd hand one baby to her and she'd rock it to sleep. And I'd get the other baby and hand it to her. She was very helpful for me. She was always holding them— they were so little."
And so was Jami. She was so petite as a child that she wore only size zero or size one. Her mother would seek out little specialty stores where there were clothes small enough to fit tiny Jami.
Growing up in Bellevue as the only daughter in a family with three sons, Jami was in the thick of whatever her brothers were doing, despite her size. Randy was three years older than Jami, and her twin brothers, Rich and Rob, were three years younger. Jami looked like a little doll with bright brown eyes, luxuriant dark hair, and a "lovely smile," but she could give as good as she got from her brothers, who teased her, as all brothers do. Even when she was grown, Jami weighed only 95 pounds and stood just a smidgen over five feet tall. Jami was sweet-natured, but she wasn't afraid of any
thing. Judy and Jerry had raised her to be self-confident.
Jerry Hagel and all of his children were involved in softball competitions early on. The whole family played in local leagues, and Jami was a tomboy. "She was small but feisty," her brother Rob recalled.
Judy Hagel stayed at home to raise her children. She was the mother who was always available to drive her children and their friends to Lake Sammamish to swim or to the movies or to go horseback riding. Jami loved horses even more than baseball, and she and her friend Lori Stratton also loved to climb trees.
Besides playing softball together, the Hagels spent their vacations together. They usually traveled back to North Dakota to visit their extended family during summer vacations. Christmas and all holidays and birthdays were special for them, and the Hagels' family album grew thick with photos of various celebrations. Judy loved her boys, but she delighted in her only daughter and the feeling was mutual. Judy and Jami shared secrets and discussed problems together.
Judy couldn't imagine that life would ever be any other way. Jami was close to her father, Jerry, too. In photographs she is usually sitting near him. He treated her as if she were made of porcelain, and Jami always expected to marry a man like her dad.
Jami Hagel was a nice girl who grew up to be a kind woman. A friend several years younger remembers how she idolized Jami. "She had a wonderful bedroom," the woman says, "with a rainbow theme. I thought it was so beautiful. Jami used to let me come in and look at her things, even though I was probably a little pest."
As a teenager, Jami Hagel went to Sammamish High
School, near Lake Hills in Bellevue. When she was a sophomore, she began going steady with Greg Coomes, who was very handsome and a year older than she was. They went together for five or six years, all through high school and beyond. Jami's family approved of Greg. The young couple had a monogamous, "very serious" relationship and eventually became lovers. "She was my first love," Greg would recall one day. "She was the first woman I was ever intimate with."
Jami's high school world would have been the envy of any teenager. She had her own car, but she wasn't spoiled. She worked hard at her studies, and she was confident. Greg described her as having a strong sense of self. Most of her friends used the word "bubbly" or "outgoing and friendly" when they described her then— and later.
Jami Hagel was unfailingly happy and never moody. While some teenagers go through angst and self-doubt, no one recalled that Jami was ever depressed. She was certainly not suicidal. She remained close to her family, particularly to her mother, a special relationship that Judy Hagel cherished.
Jami and Greg's relationship did not, however, survive the changes that inevitably come with maturity. He graduated a year ahead of Jami and went to work for a hotel chain in Portland, Oregon, for six months. After that, he came back to the Seattle area to work at the Boeing Company. There was no big emotional breakup, but they simply saw each other less and less. "By 1986," Greg said, "we were down to just phone calls."
Nevertheless, they remained friends, just as Jami kept her friendships going with most of the people who were part of her school years. June Young, a beautiful
brunette, met Jami when they were in the ninth grade. "We were best friends. We were from the same background— we both had brothers," June remembers. "She had a great self-image," June says. "She was outgoing, happy, bubbly. Jami was a T-shirt-and-jeans girl."
Jami and June continued to be best friends for a dozen years, even though they both encountered tragedies and problems. June went off to Western Baptist Bible College for a year after high school. When she lost her sister in a traffic accident, she came home to help her family bear the loss and took a job at an insurance company. June got married in 1988.
Right after Jami graduated from high school, she found a job in the computer industry and moved into an apartment with another girl. She came home to live briefly when that living arrangement ended. After that, Jami got an apartment by herself in Redmond, about six miles from her parents' home.
Jami Hagel's bond with her family remained strong; she called her mother three or four times a week and spent most weekends with them. Unlike many girls her age who can't wait to grow up and go through a period of proving how independent they are, Jami often dropped by to talk with her mother. If Judy was out in her garden or in the kitchen, Jami sat with her and talked about what was going on in her life. There were no secrets, and Judy could always find Jami when she needed to talk with her.
But sometime in the mid-eighties, while Jami was living in her own apartment in Redmond, she met a man who was nothing like Greg Coomes. He was nothing like anyone Jami had ever dated, and her family and friends were a little surprised that Jami was attracted to him.
Judy Hagel remembers the first time she ever saw
Steve Sherer. He and Jami "drove up on a motorcycle," Judy says, "and he was very proud of the motorcycle because he had bought it from his winnings at the racetrack."
Every other boyfriend that Jami had brought home to meet her parents had made an effort to be polite and friendly, but Steve seemed completely uninterested in them. The first time he met the Hagels, he strutted around as if he thought they should be impressed with him and his shiny new motorcycle. Almost as soon as Jami and Steve arrived, he was anxious to leave. Jami climbed on the bike behind him and they roared off, leaving the Hagels puzzled and worried. They told themselves that Jami couldn't really be interested in such a man.

* * *

At twenty-four, Steven Frank Sherer was two years older than Jami. Despite his small stature, he had a powerful personality, more abrasive than pleasant much of the time, but he could also be completely charming. Steve told Jami early on that he was the son of a very wealthy family, and she noticed that he always seemed to have money. The money didn't matter that much to her; Steve's personality did. In the beginning, she liked his take-charge attitude.
No one can predict the chemistry between two people, and for whatever reason, Jami Hagel and Steve Sherer soon began to date steadily.
Steve claimed to be five feet nine, but he was closer to five seven. He carried himself like a much taller man. He often bleached his thick light brown hair so it turned blond in the sun and then combed it in a pompadour. His knife-like profile, while not handsome, was striking. He had a solid, muscular body, and he drove new cars, although he seldom seemed to work.
Judy and Jerry Hagel saw nothing about Steve that erased their first impression of him, but they were smart enough not to voice their feelings to Jami; finding fault with Steve would just have made him seem more appealing.
To a parent, Steve was anything but appealing. He was a spoiled rich kid whose rap sheet was longer than his job résumé, although Judy and Jerry Hagel didn't know about that when Jami first brought him home. He was also possessed of a truly ugly temper and just about every bad habit and addiction available. He drank, used marijuana and cocaine, gambled at racetracks and card rooms, and believed that women were basically chattels. When Jami answered his questions about men she had been with before she knew him, Steve was furious.
Greg Coomes, her high school boyfriend, received a call in 1986 that at first seemed to be a wrong number. A man on the phone started swearing at him, using the worst gutter language. "He said he was going to kill me," Coomes recalled. "I had no idea who he was."
Finally, Coomes heard a woman's voice and recognized Jami. She apologized for the caller and said he was her "lover" and the "person she lived with."
In the beginning, shocked as she was by Steve's need to possess her, she also saw it as a sign that he was very much in love with her. Steve's jealousy made her feel happy and secure.

* * *

Steven Frank Sherer was born at 6:57 A.M. on November 4, 1961, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Hospital in Santa Maria, California. His father, David Kent Sherer, was twenty-two years old and worked as a bricklayer. Like Jami's parents, David Sherer came from North Dakota. His mother, Sharon Ann Bleiler
Sherer, known as Sherri, who was born and raised in California, was only seventeen when she gave birth to Steven. She and David would have two more children— Saundra and Laura.
Sherri was a very pretty petite brunette. David Sherer was five feet six and had blue eyes. His son would grow to resemble him physically and be genetically predisposed to some of his father's weaknesses, but he didn't inherit David Sherer's strengths. From his early days as a bricklayer, the elder Sherer worked his way up with business savvy and hard work.
The Sherers left California and moved to Lynnwood, Washington, where the building boom had just begun. Their younger daughter, Laura, was born there. David Sherer started a construction company— Sherer Quality Homes— in Everett. He caught the wave of the Northwest's construction boom in the seventies. He bought acreage cheap where no one but his partner saw any promise. Some of that land became Mill Creek, which would soon be one of the most desirable suburbs of Seattle.
The Sherers were soon richer than they could ever have envisioned. They had a house in Lynnwood as well as vacation homes in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Palm Desert, California, near Rancho Mirage.
Steve drove a new blue Ford pickup truck when he was still in high school. One of his school friends, David Harrington, recalled that the Sherers were a very nice family. "Things were pretty darn good in his house," David said. Sherri Sherer had invited him to live with them for the last half of his senior year in Alderwood High School, and he was amazed at the good life that Steve took for granted.
After they graduated, David and Steve rented a
"dumpy little house" together in Montlake Terrace. They were eighteen then and far more interested in partying than in education. For a year, the two of them held a full-time open house and enjoyed having liquor and marijuana available with no one to stop them. They also did some cocaine, although that was mostly light experimentation. There were girls and discos, but eventually David and Steve vacated their rental house. "We might have gotten tossed out because of the parties," David said later, looking back to that time.
In 1982, David Harrington joined the Marine Corps and his close association with Steve Sherer ended. He saw Steve occasionally on leaves, but Steve hadn't changed. He was still involved in the same kind of life they had shared when they were eighteen— girls and booze and drugs. It was as if time had stood still for Steve Sherer. When David saw Steve in 1987 after his own discharge from the marines, they had virtually nothing left in common.
It wasn't that Steve hadn't faced tragedy in his life; he had— but tragedy seemed not to affect him. The month that Steve turned twenty-two, his father died under unusual circumstances. David Sherer had become a multimillionaire by the time he was forty-four. He never got to enjoy his wealth, however.
During 1983, Sherri and David Sherer had many arguments over his drinking. All his wealth and business acumen had not made David Sherer happy. Maybe he had too much time on his hands and liquor was always around; maybe he was genetically predisposed to alcoholism. In November of that year, David Sherer packed up and left Lynnwood, reportedly headed for their Palm Desert home so he could "get himself together" and stop drinking. The Sherer vacation home in Palm
Desert was in the exclusive Lakes Country Club, a gated community with private security guards. Friends who lived there played golf with David Sherer almost every day and saw how distraught he was about the disintegration of his marriage.
November 24 was Thanksgiving Day, a sad day for anyone to be all alone and thousands of miles from family. One of Sherer's neighbors saw him in the clubhouse drinking around five or six o'clock on Thanksgiving afternoon. Sherri called him later that day and could tell that he was inebriated. They had the same old argument and when she called her husband again at 1:00 A.M., they reportedly exchanged angry words.
Reportedly, David Sherer told his wife that she would be "better off without him" and informed her he had a gun and "was going to do something about [their situation]." Sherri told authorities later that she wasn't particularly worried because she didn't believe him. The only gun her husband had was an old .32 caliber automatic given to him by her grandfather, and she was sure that was someplace in their Washington home.
But his threat must have niggled at Sherri Sherer because she immediately booked a flight to California. It was almost 11:00 P.M. when she arrived at their Palm Desert house, but the place was oddly silent. When she walked north from the front door into the den, she found her husband. David Sherer was sitting on the couch. He was dead, his head tilted back unnaturally. A .32 caliber automatic, with an empty shell casing beside it, lay on the carpet next to the couch and just below Sherer's right arm. The phone was on the floor next to his leg.
Sherri called the country club security office for help, asking them to call the police and fire department.
Paramedic Jay Manning from the Indio Fire Department arrived first, and pronounced forty-four-year-old David Sherer dead. He had obviously been dead for some time; his body was frozen with rigor mortis, and lividity— the staining of the skin caused when the heart no longer pumps blood and it settles in lower body parts— was also advanced.
An Indio police officer named Coillet notified the Riverside County Coroner's Office at three minutes to midnight that David Sherer appeared to have committed suicide. Investigator Sabas Rosas from the coroner's office tended to agree. There was a bullet hole in the north wall of the den with blood spatter and what appeared to be bone fragments staining the wall nearby. The bullet itself was missing, but Rosas concluded it had probably dropped to the floor between the studs of the wall rather than penetrating the next wall.
Sherri Sherer and two of the Sherers' friends told Rosas that the dead man had been drinking heavily over the past few days. The house showed no signs of forced entry or burglary; it was neat and clean and nothing was ransacked or missing. David Sherer was fully dressed and had no defense wounds on his hands. The only signs of violence were the entrance wound of a bullet in his right temple, the exit wound in the left temple, and blood on his shirt. There were gunpowder burns around the entrance wound. Even though he had left no suicide note, the circumstances suggested that David Sherer had died by his own hand. His blood alcohol was .10 percent— legal proof of intoxication in most states.
"Based on the physical evidence, statements made by the spouse and friends, the findings of the Indio Police Department, the victim's psychological condition,
his alcohol disease, and the findings of the pathologist," Rosas wrote, "the death was classified as suicide."
His body was sent home to Washington State for burial in Green Lawn Cemetery. At age thirty-nine, Sherri was a widow, but she would remarry the next year.
There is no information about Steve accompanying his mother to Palm Desert that day after Thanksgiving, nor is there any record of his whereabouts at the time. For a while there were rumors that Steve had killed his father, but that is unlikely. There is only a thin file relating to the elder Sherer's death; it contains the coroner's report and autopsy findings that showed the deceased was in good health before the bullet traversed his brain. One way or another, however, Steve had surely added to his father's depression. The Sherers' daughters didn't cause their parents heartache, but Steve had been in more trouble than any three ordinary young men. From the time he was born, he was indulged, and he grew up with a tremendous appetite for all things forbidden and with a stubborn insistence that he should have whatever he wanted.
He usually got it. David Sherer left his family well provided for, and Sherri always had trouble saying no to her only son. At first she gave him what he wanted because she loved to see him happy. Later she may have been afraid of his temper and what he might do if she refused to grant his requests.
Sherri sold the Palm Desert house, purchased another southwestern vacation spot in Scottsdale, Arizona, and one on Lake Chelan, Washington. All of the homes that might have brought back sad memories of her late husband were sold.
Steve Sherer jumped from job to job and from girl to girl. By July 4, 1987, he was with Jami. David Harrington, Steve's high school buddy and first roommate, re
membered that holiday, and a bizarre incident that ended their friendship. Steve, then twenty-five, invited David and his girlfriend to join him, Jami, Jami's brother Rich, and Rich's girlfriend, Timarie, at the Sherers' resort home on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington. David was annoyed to see how Steve picked on Jami when he was drinking, but he never saw him hurt her physically. "I wouldn't have tolerated that," he said.
"It was the usual Steve holiday celebration," David continued. "Big house, very nice— on the lake. Illegal fireworks, drinking, cocaine. And then Steve commented that my girlfriend was very attractive. He asked me, 'You want to swap girlfriends? 'I asked him, 'You kidding? 'and he said he'd enjoy watching Jami get fucked by another guy. He said, 'I'd enjoy watching, but if she ever cheated on me with another guy, I'd kill her.' "
After that, David avoided Steve, still unsure if he was serious about his offer to exchange girlfriends. "But I never introduced Steve to my current wife," he said later.
Steve seldom worked, but he always had a new car and plenty of spending money. Sherri had tried desperately to help Steve grow up, alternately indulging him and banishing him. He was moody and unpredictable, and she worried about him. Still, his main activities were partying and breaking the law. Sherri was always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Steve's police contacts were initially limited to his own fairly circumscribed neighborhood. In November 1981, shortly after his twentieth birthday, he and a girlfriend were at a Lynnwood pizza parlor. Steve, who was drunk, stared at two attractive women; one was with her husband, and the other was with a boyfriend. Emboldened by alcohol, Steve pinched one woman's buttocks. When she whirled in disbelief and dismay,
Steve threatened her male friends. Lynnwood police responded and found Steve argumentative and uncooperative. When they moved to handcuff him and take him into custody, he ran. He was charged with simple assault and resisting arrest.
Steve Sherer's troubles with the law seemed always to be sparked by alcohol or women— or both. His attraction to Jami Hagel wasn't surprising when one looked at the women he dated before— and after— his relationship with her. He had a preferred type and he often found women who fit it. He was never without a fabulous-looking petite woman at his side.
Steve was unfailingly attracted to women who were tiny, large-breasted, and blond. He would send roses and romantic cards to them during his courting phase. He could be charming and exciting— at first. But almost every girl who dated Steve for any length of time eventually came to regret she ever met him. Beyond emotional and verbal abuse, they were subjected to threats, choking, and beatings. Steve seemed to have an almost Svengali-like power over certain women that kept them captive long after common sense would have dictated that they leave.
Two months after his father's suicide— in January 1984, long before he met Jami Hagel— Steve began to date Bettina Rauschberg.* Bettina was a prototype for Steve's ideal woman, and she found him fun and loving when she first met him. Entranced, Bettina moved with Steve to Balboa Beach, California, in early 1984. They lived in an apartment there, but Bettina soon learned that Steve could erupt into violence whenever he imagined that she was unfaithful. She never considered being with another man and was upset when Steve wouldn't trust her.
Even so, when one of his friends dropped by their apartment, she didn't think twice before telling the man he could wait for Steve. The friend was lying on the living room carpet watching TV and Bettina was in the kitchen making pizza when Steve came home half an hour later. He was agitated to begin with— she didn't know why— and the sight of another man in the apartment threw him into a maniacal rage. Steve grabbed a bottle and smashed it over his friend's head. The man ran, and Bettina raced for the bathroom, slamming it and locking it against Steve. She was scared to death of him when he was angry.
"He broke down the door, broke through glass," she said. "He hit me in the face and put his hands around my throat until I passed out."
Someone in a neighboring apartment called for an ambulance, and when Bettina came to, she was in the hospital. "Steve was sitting beside my bed, saying he didn't know why he'd done that to me. He said he was sorry. He begged me not to leave him… I called his mother and she said she didn't want to hear about it. So I stayed with him."
It was always like that; after he hurt her, Steve was contrite and seemingly horrified at his own violence. Nobody is as pitiful as a batterer when he swears he will never, ever, hit a woman again. For a while, during their second honeymoon period, Steve kept his word, but inevitably something set him off again.
Bettina wasn't encouraged to have friends of her own, but she met a couple at work who sensed that something was wrong in her life. When she confided in them about Steve's abuse and how frightened she was sometimes, they told her that no one had to live in fear. The next time Steve blew up at her, she accepted the couple's offer to move in with them.
When they knew Steve was away, they took Bettina back to the apartment she'd shared with Steve so she could pack some of her clothing and belongings. Her key still worked in the front door, but when they walked in, they gasped in horror. All of Bettina's stuffed animals and dolls lay on the carpet, and they had been neatly decapitated.
There was a note that read "That's what I'm going to do to you."
Bettina moved out, but only for a short time. She soon moved back in with Steve, convinced that he really would kill her if she stayed away too long.
Bettina stayed with Steve through a number of other brutal incidents, relenting each time when he sobbed that he couldn't get along without her. His promises meant nothing at all. By May 1985 they were back in Lynnwood when police were called to a fitness club where they worked out. They found Bettina bruised and scratched. Tearfully, she told them that Steve had hit her in the face several times and kicked her car. She had made the mistake of trying to break up with him. He was arrested on May 29 for simple assault and malicious mischief.

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