EVEN IN PRISON, killer-cop Mathias Bachmeier continues to take a toll. The former King County sergeant convicted of one murder and accused of another just cost taxpayers another $320,000 in legal damages. The county has quietly agreed to give a $300,000 settlement to the family of the man he murdered in 1996 and is paying another $20,000 to the family of a man he killed in 1988, even though Bachmeier was cleared of that shooting by a coroner's inquest.
Combined with two other earlier settlements—totaling $165,000 for assaults by Bachmeier in 1989 and 1986—the county has now paid more than $500,000 in damages and legal costs resulting from one law enforcement officer's decade of mayhem.
"And he was a no-good SOB from the start," says attorney Thomas Olmstead, who obtained the settlements for the families after years of trying. "He even lied on his job application 25 years ago."
But taxpayers aren't off Bachmeier's hook yet. Now doing life without parole for the 1996 murder of James Wren, the 50-year-old ex-deputy is collecting $2,500 a month from the state as a disabled retired law enforcement officer.
Though a state prisoner, Bachmeier successfully claimed he couldn't return to duty due to depression and post-trauma stress disorder resulting from his murder conviction. In a remarkable catch-22, the state board says Bachmeier is qualified and can legally receive the $30,000 annual pension while doing time.
However, after learning of the monthly payments that are made to Bachmeier's family, attorney Olmstead was able to legally claim $1,500 of it each month as damages for the Wren family.
That's in addition to the $300,000 Wren's parents, Rex and Shirley, have now accepted in a wrongful death settlement with King County. They sued for $10 million, but Olmstead says the payoff potential was limited because Jim Wren was unmarried and not the support of his parents.
Still, "It should have been a lot more than what is was," says a disappointed Rex Wren, a retired aluminum worker who lives near Wenatchee. "My boy was worth more than that. They knew their officer was out of control. They just let him murder Jim."
James Wren, 36, was arrested by Bachmeier in a domestic dispute and was later killed, his body hidden by the sergeant. Bachmeier then falsely accused Wren of the fire the sergeant had set at his own Renton home to collect insurance.
After Bachmeier was found guilty of Wren's murder, Olmstead and co-counsel Mark Muenster set about getting financial compensation for the victim's family. They presented persuasive evidence of Bachmeier's unchecked volatility. According to a legal advisor to then-King County Sheriff Jim Montgomery, Bachmeier in 1996 threatened to kill one of his department captains shortly before killing Wren, but wasn't disciplined. The advisor quoted Bachmeier as saying he also "knew where to hide [the captain's] body where no one would find it." Montgomery was advised of the threat, but took no apparent action.
The Wren family said the department disregarded the sergeant's brutal history. Montgomery was certainly unaware of some of it. Not until Bachmeier was charged with the 1996 Wren murder, Montgomery admitted, did he learn of two earlier legal settlements against Bachmeier: $125,000 for the 1989 beating of a Renton man with a nightstick, and $40,000 for the 1986 illegal arrest and assault of an Issaquah man. Montgomery, who left the department in 1997 to become Bellevue's police chief, called it a communications breakdown.
Bachmeier's record also includes two dozen complaints by citizens, six of them sustained by internal probes, including one that Montgomery reversed. An African-American teen claimed Bachmeier told him "I could kill your black ass," but Montgomery ruled it no contest—the kid's word against the officer's.
The county insisted Bachmeier's actions were his own responsibility and sought dismissal of the Wren's family monetary claims. But after US District Court Judge John Coughenour made a preliminary finding that Bachmeier was acting under "color of law" when he killed Wren, the county became legally liable. The county then paid up.
Eight years before Wren's murder, Bachmeier shot and killed Guadalupe Rios, 32, whom Bachmeier claimed had tried to kill him. A 1988 coroner's inquest jury found that shooting justified—self defense—though witnesses unheard by the jury have since claimed Bachmeier planted Rios' gun (see "License to kill," SW, 11/4/99). "I called him a murderer at the inquest," says Olmstead, who represented Rios' family back then as well. "He was an executioner, and the county swept it under the rug."
Though Bachmeier was never prosecuted for that shooting, officials last week revealed the county has paid Rios' family a $20,000 settlement.
The county calls it a goodwill gesture, and even Olmstead says the county had no obligation to pay. During court negotiations, Olmstead told a judge about Rios' grown daughter, a maternity ward nurse, who— after Bachmeier had killed her father—one day found herself cleaning the birth blood off what turned out to be Bachmeier's own newborn baby. It was a traumatic moment for the daughter, and the judge was moved. He relayed the story to prosecutors, who then agreed to the small settlement.
Attorney Olmstead says his persistence in getting justice for Wren and Rios soured his relationship with the sheriff's office. When he ran for a county judgeship a few years back, Olmstead not only didn't get the deputies' union endorsement, he recalls an officer in the back of the union meeting room prominently laughing at him.
"It was Bachmeier," Olmstead says, "smirking. Mocking me. I thank him now. That kept me going all these years."