Cowboy Mike: The Ladykiller

Armed with his guitar and cowboy persona, Mike Braae had a way with women. He also liked to strangle them.

Lori Jones had actually intended to go out with someone else the night she met Michael Braae. She’d been planning all week to hook up with David Bowman, a man she’d met online. Her daughter Elisa, 11 at the time, was going fishing for the weekend with a family friend near Hoquiam. And Jones, a single mother of two who’d complained in instant messages to Bowman about having a rough week, was ready to kick up her heels.

Elisa left town, but Jones and Bowman had a last-second e-mail argument. So instead of the long-planned romantic rendezvous, Jones, who had an affinity for Crown Royal, ended up alone at Bailey’s Lounge in Olympia. That’s where she met Braae.

The bartender would later report that the pair danced all night like they knew each other. Jones had her Crown Royal on the rocks. Braae, also a fan of Canadian whiskey, drank Yukon Jack with a shot of lime juice—a drink known as a “snakebite.” He was wearing a cowboy hat and jean jacket.

When Elisa came home on Sunday, she couldn’t get a hold of her mom. The manager at Summer Ridge Apartments, where they lived, unlocked the Jones’ home. There, hidden under the bed, was Jones’ body, naked all but for a pillowcase over her head. She had been raped and strangled.

That summer, Jones, 44, wasn’t the only Washington woman to disappear after being last seen with the man known in bars around these parts as “Cowboy Mike” for his western duds and penchant for serenading ladies with his guitar. In June and July 2001, Braae, 48, who at that time lived in a 1970’s-era trailer on what he dubbed a “mini farm” in Pierce County, went on a rampage that left at least one woman dead, two women injured (one critically from a gunshot wound to the head), and one police dog nearly drowned. He’s also suspected in the murders of two Oregon women in 1997.

But the evidence is scant in the other cases and complicated by time, lack of witnesses, and bodies. Susan Ault, a Wahkiakum County woman and girlfriend of Braae’s, hasn’t been seen since arguing with him in June 2001. Her body was never found. Marchelle Morgan identified Braae as the person who shot her in the head less than a week after Jones was found dead, but her condition had so deteriorated by the time her case went to trial in 2006 that she could no longer testify. The jury deadlocked 11-1, and the judge declared a mistrial.

Braae is serving time for aggravated assault and eluding a police officer in a high-speed chase in July 2001 that ended with him jumping off a 40-foot bridge into the Snake River. But that conviction still means he’ll be eligible for release in 2011. The last hope for putting him away for good would eventually fall to a small-town detective and a longtime Thurston County prosecutor.

Situated just north of the state capital on the east side of Interstate 5, Lacey is home to more than 31,000 people. While it has all the trappings of any suburb—chain restaurants and stores surrounded by seas of parking spaces—it also has a distinctively small-town personality. The city hall, library, and police department are all located side by side in a densely wooded area that seems more suitable for a cabin or campground. And it’s not unusual to see that Ward Cleaver–era relic, the Schwan’s man, delivering frozen dinners to the rows of ranch houses that line Lacey’s sleepy streets.

Detective Bev Reinhold has been with the Lacey Police Department for nearly two decades. She says that when it comes to murders, particularly those involving people who don’t know each other, things are pretty quiet. “I’ve been here for 19 years and I can’t think of another homicide in this jurisdiction that hasn’t been domestic or gang-related,” she says.

Reinhold remembers getting the call before dawn the morning that Jones’ body was found. “We determined pretty quickly that it couldn’t be an accidental death,” she says. “People don’t just die under their own bed, naked.”

They had to take Jones’ bed apart to get to her body. Reinhold says she thought it was odd that whoever put her there had removed all of the bedding, but draped the quilt over the top of the mattress. “But it wasn’t a bloody scene,” she says. “She hadn’t been shot or stabbed, though there was some blood by her ear. There was a small screwdriver, about four inches long, on the bedside table, and some small cuts on her hand that seemed to be consistent with [the screwdriver].”

Given the suspicious circumstances, Reinhold—whose short black hair is coiffed in a no-nonsense cut, with frosted tips—knew early that this wasn’t going to be any ordinary case. And it could be something the likes of which her department had never seen. So she took precautions, like calling Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim to the scene.

By the time Tunheim got there, Jones’ body had been removed. He says he was struck by how clean the place was. He says a few other things stood out, like a drinking glass by the computer “that looked like it had been used, and some laundry stacked on the dryer, just sitting there, still damp…There was marijuana residue and a pipe by the bed, and a cigarette in the toilet, but it had a brown filter.” Prosecutors would learn that Jones smoked white-filtered Marlboro Lights; brown-filtered Camels would later be found in Braae’s blue Nissan pickup.

“There wasn’t any obvious signs of struggle,” Tunheim says. “It was unique that she was under the bed. Seemed an attempt to hide her that took some deliberate effort.”

“I think he did some clean-up,” adds Reinhold, noting the wet laundry on top of the dryer and the load of bedding in the wash.

But the killer didn’t leave without a trace. Investigators found a fingerprint on the inside of the bedroom door and got a match with Braae, who’d been in the system since a 1979 shoplifting arrest in Pierce County. (Braae’s DNA would later be found on Jones’ body.) And police at the scene turned up another key clue: a receipt in Jones’ purse from a bar named Bailey’s.

Bailey’s Lounge, on Martin Way in Olympia, is a classic dive. Adjacent to a motel that looks like something out of a Hitchcock movie, it abuts the only bomb shelter in the neighborhood—a relic of the Cold War and a peculiarity the regulars mention with pride. Though the bar’s gone through a number of remodels over the years, some things have stayed the same: Bailey’s is nearly as busy at 8 a.m. as it is at 8 p.m., and it functions as a shift-end hangout for everyone from factory workers to nurses. A large parking lot nearby also makes it a favorite of truck drivers.

Brothers Rick and Jim Talley, both long-haul truckers, have been coming to Bailey’s for decades. Jim is from Lacey. Rick lives in Oregon. While Don McLean sings “American Pie” on the jukebox, Rick remembers how the place used to be a straight-up cowboy bar, before they put windows in. But Bailey’s still has karaoke and a dance floor, and remains the kind of joint where talk often turns to NASCAR.

“Why is it the best sport?” Jim says, taking a swig from his schooner of Bud while reminiscing about his last trip to the track. “It’s just flat-ass America.”

The Talley brothers know the Cowboy Mike lore; both think they’d been at the bar within days of when Braae met Jones there. Rick says his sister’s car, which he’d been driving and had left in Bailey’s parking lot, showed up in news footage when the story broke.

George, another Bailey’s regular who would only give his first name, says he ran into Braae at the bar the week of Jones’ death. “He was a nice guy, smart. I didn’t think anything about it at the time,” he says, adding that he, Braae, and the cook were just “bullshitting about food” that night.

George says he remembers Braae wearing a cowboy hat and a jean jacket. “He just seemed like a regular guy,” he says. “When I saw his face on the news, I thought, ‘Oh, shit!’ He didn’t seem like that kind of guy. He should’ve been shot for what he did.”

When police came to Bailey’s after finding the receipt in Jones’ purse and getting a match on Braae’s fingerprint, it was bartender Michael Dekluyver, the son of the owners and just 21 at the time, who was able to identify him as having left with Jones that night. From there, Reinhold says, the Cowboy Mike persona came into focus.

“We knew he liked to sing karaoke and bring his guitar to western bars, so we flyered bars in Pierce, Thurston, and south King counties,” she recalls. A tip line yielded information about how Braae liked to ride horses and drink snakebites, further confirmation, says Tunheim, that they were looking for the right guy.

Reinhold, who grew up in Yelm, had originally planned to be an accountant. But she soon realized that crunching numbers wasn’t her natural inclination: “It was way too black and white for me.” So she switched tracks and got a degree from Western Washington University in psychology, which she says is more her style, “grayer.”

Her first job was with the Washington State Patrol, in records. From there, Reinhold was promoted to the fingerprint section, where she got her first introduction to crime scenes. She was hooked. She says she found herself always wondering about the big picture of an investigation and what happened in each case.

Soon she was on her way to the police academy, an experience she still remembers as being incredibly foreign. “I grew up in Yelm,” she says. “I never shot a gun, never drove fast…I thought, what the hell am I doing here?”

At the academy, Reinhold excelled at academics, so she helped her classmates study in exchange for instruction in things she wasn’t so good at, like marching and shining shoes. She started as a patrol officer in Lacey in 1989 and made detective in 1996.

Pictures of her 12-year-old son, Dylan, in his football uniform adorn the desk in Reinhold’s second-floor office. “When I have really horrible days when something really bad has happened to somebody who doesn’t deserve it, I can go home. It’s so nice to have that,” she says. “[Dylan] is so innocent. It’s nice to have something separate from the ugliness.”

Like Reinhold, Tunheim is a Thurston County lifer. Last month marked 20 years since he started his career in the prosecutor’s office as an intern. Dressed in khakis with a simple white shirt and red tie, Tunheim says he isn’t planning anything special to celebrate the anniversary. Construction sounds outside his office herald measuring for new carpet, the first replacement since he’s been there—a welcome improvement and perhaps enough of a present.

By the time Reinhold tracked Braae to the drinking establishments around Lacey, he’d already left western Washington with Marchelle Morgan, an on-again, off-again girlfriend he liked to hang out with at a bar in Grand Mound called the Red Barn. By July 13, Morgan and Braae were in Yakima at another Western watering hole, Suzie’s Saloon. Morgan would turn up in a ditch with a gunshot wound to the head later that day. And hours after the shooting, Braae was back at Suzie’s Saloon, drinking snakebites and introducing himself to Karen Peterson.

According to court documents, Braae was wearing a cowboy hat, gray shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. He followed Peterson to her Yakima home, where they encountered her 14-year-old daughter Veronica Culp and Culp’s 19-year-old boyfriend Jeremy Clouse. They made small talk in the living room. Braae asked if anybody had a guitar. He grabbed a snack from the fridge, then followed Peterson to her bedroom. Culp and her boyfriend reported hearing “thumping noises” a little later, but just figured it was because Peterson and Braae were drunk.

Peterson, who woke in the morning without any pants on and, like Jones, with her head covered (this time with a baby blanket), says in court papers that the last thing she remembers before losing consciousness is being struck on the head and feeling hands on her throat. At her daughter’s urging, Peterson went to the hospital, where doctors determined she had been strangled. They saw Braae’s picture in the papers the next day.

But he was on the move again, this time to the tiny White Pass town of Glenoma, where he showed up at a garage sale and asked to donate some video equipment (none of which was ever tied to the victims). “He ends up playing guitar for them for a little bit,” says Reinhold, “and asks them where they like to go out.” According to Reinhold, Braae tagged along with Brenda Keen, a woman from the garage sale, to the nearby Road House Tavern, and later spent the night with her. Keen was unharmed, but saw Braae’s picture in the newspaper the next morning, called the tip line, and gave them the last piece of the puzzle: a description of his car and the license plate number.

This is how, a few days later, a delivery truck driver saw Braae’s blue Nissan pickup at a truck stop on Interstate 84 near the Idaho/Oregon border. By now Reinhold and the Lacey police had alerted law enforcement all along the West Coast, as well as in Idaho and Montana. A high-speed chase ensued, with Braae shooting at the cops and blowing through a blockade before ditching his car and leaping into the Snake River, the natural boundary between the two states. He lost a tooth in the fall, but Reinhold, who’s been to the bridge, says it’s amazing Braae didn’t die. “There isn’t much water there,” she says.

Idaho police sent a dog after him, but called it back after Braae tried to drown it. Braae was apprehended by boat on July 20, 2001, about two weeks after Reinhold and the Lacey police discovered Jones’ body.

In a letter addressed to SW last month, Braae insists he didn’t attempt to harm the dog. “I didn’t try to drown that damn dog! Lyin’ cops! I saved him!” he writes. The letter, the first of three, is a response to a request for an interview, which Braae declined. The handwriting is meticulous and in all caps.

Here, Braae says he hasn’t been the “recipient of any affection from the media,” and professes his innocence in Jones’ murder. “Like I told my [Oregon] attorney… 7 years ago when I waived extradition, (against his advise [sic] …) ‘Things aint like they’re trying to make it appear…I’ve got to admit, it looks bad but I didn’t do it!'” Braae uses “cowboy” phrases like “little darlin'” throughout, and signs the letter “El Esclavo de Dios”—slave of God.

In a subsequent communique, Braae says he’s angry that the police and the media call him Cowboy Mike, because he thinks that implies he’s “not really a country boy” and that his “‘apparel’ is merely a costume.”

“Hey…crazy people,” Braae writes. “Are you not aware that I own horses, live on a (or rather in) a pasture with my horse, (& cows) I sing & play country music, not just in bars, but everywhere I go, (all day and all night?)”

He’s still reluctant to grant an interview, and claims he’s had lots of requests, including one from NBC’s Dateline. “I’m really trying to give you the opportunity to prove yourself worthy of my attention,” Braae writes. “And I don’t mean that in a crazy psycopathic way…So don’t make more of it than what it is.”

Because he’s considered a flight risk, Braae’s being held in the intensive management unit at the state prison in Shelton. In fact, Braae’s escaped before. And he’s tried to multiple times. In 1997, he slipped away while on a work crew at the Thurston County Jail, where he was serving time for a drunk-driving conviction. And after he was picked up in Idaho, Braae fashioned a chicken bone into a lock pick and used it to get out of his cell at the Payette County Jail. He beat up the guard, but other inmates heard the commotion and subdued Braae before he could slip out.

Reinhold says she’s not surprised the other prisoners turned on him. While interviewing his cellmates, she found that Braae’s not well-liked. “In Idaho they talked about what a jerk he was, how arrogant he was,” Reinhold says. “For people in the jail not to like you, you must be really bad.”

Braae also plotted an escape from Idaho’s maximum-security state prison, where guards found rope woven from a laundry bag and a crude pair of mittens, presumably to help him scale the razor wire surrounding the jail’s perimeter. And while at the Yakima County Jail, he attempted escape through the heating duct, but was foiled when it ended at an interior brick wall instead of outside.

Originally from Bonney Lake, about 40 miles south of Seattle, Braae was once married and has four children, now in their late teens and early 20s. His ex-wife Brenda (they separated in 1993) lives in Yelm, and could not be reached for comment. Reinhold, who interviewed her during the investigation, says there was a history of domestic violence in their relationship, and that Braae’s ex-wife remains terrified of him. “She got out for the sake of the kids,” Reinhold says.

Nevertheless, Reinhold theorizes that being married may have grounded Braae with some sense of normalcy. “After that, he went through a series of relationships that failed. He has a hatred for women. He feels that they’ve all done him wrong,” Reinhold says. “He’s very controlling. He used to tell his ex-wife what makeup and clothes to wear. When he got involved in relationships where he wasn’t able to call the shots, he didn’t do well. And he’s a heavy drinker. Any time you have a bad temper and alcohol, it’s a bad combination.”

Braae got lucky for a while, says Reinhold, adding that he likely learned with Valina Larson, the woman last seen with him in 1997 in Clackamas County, Ore., that the more time that goes by before a body is discovered, the less chance there is for damning evidence. “I think this is why he hid Lori Jones under the bed: to buy some time,” Reinhold says.

Larson’s bones were discovered in 1998 by kids playing in a field. They took them to school, where their teacher reassured them the bones were from a deer, says Clackamas County Sergeant Wendi Babst. Later, when the kids dug up her skull, they realized they’d found human remains. “The problem was that it was a skeleton and we had no cause of death,” Babst says.

But she was eventually able to place Braae and Larson together at a nearby storage locker—where a witness saw the two arguing—around the time that Larson disappeared. “Braae later comes out of the locker and is seen leaving,” Babst says. “Valina is never seen leaving.”

However, a judge eventually dismissed the case due to credibility issues with the witnesses. But Babst pressed on, searching for another Oregon woman, Debra Van Luven, also last seen with Braae in 1997. She has yet to be found.

“I’ve encountered a handful of people who absolutely should never be let out of jail,” she says. “He’s one of them. He’s an incredibly violent man. I think he’s a sociopath.”

While the physical evidence connecting Braae to Jones’ murder was strong, pulling together witness testimony would prove to be a small miracle. For one, Dekluyver, the Bailey’s bartender who positively identified Braae, is now in the Army, deployed in Iraq.

Originally, military officials said they wouldn’t release Dekluyver to testify, so Tunheim had a motion ready to ask that he testify via live video feed, a request without much precedent in murder cases. But it happened that Jeff Sullivan, the U.S. Attorney for the western district of Washington, is a former Yakima County prosecutor and was familiar with the Braae case. Moreover, Sullivan was scheduled to meet Phil Lynch, head of the Justice Department’s operations in Baghdad, just days after Tunheim and co-council Christen Anton Peters made one last-ditch request.

It worked. Dekluyver was soon on a plane home to testify.

Prosecutors also had trouble finding another key witness, Cheryl Baker-Rivers. She was Washington State Patrol’s latent print examiner, the person charged with matching the fingerprints found at the scene with the inked cards on record—the specific evidence that put Braae in Jones’ apartment. Turns out she’s now living in rural British Columbia, 130 miles from the closest paved road in an area virtually impassable in winter. So court officials scheduled the trial for after the thaw, and sent the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to retrieve her.

“You talk about the stars aligning around this case,” says Peters. “Horizon [Airlines] has just started flights between Seattle and the nearest town [Prince George, B.C.] May 1. The trial started May 5.”

But there was one final surprise: Braae ultimately decided to take the stand, leaving prosecutors with only a couple of hours to prepare for cross-examination. During his testimony, Braae said that he and Jones had been dating for weeks and that they had sex in the parking lot of Bailey’s, in Jones’ Toyota Tercel, before she was picked up by someone driving a dark SUV.

Juror Daniel Farber says Braae didn’t help himself by taking the stand. “He eliminated any doubts that jurors had just by his own presentation. Every aspect of what he said had this ring of incredibleness to it.”

The three-week trial was emotionally draining, Farber says. “It’s not the kind of life I’m exposed to. This guy preyed on people who are vulnerable and prone to bad choices. The absolutely most chilling thing is that rape in the throes of death was something that turned him on.”

The trial lasted three weeks, but the jury returned with a verdict after just two and a half hours of deliberations: guilty on counts of first-degree rape and second-degree murder.

Farber says the quality of work done both by the police and the prosecutors was impressive. “The way the criminal justice system discovered and prepared evidence was phenomenal, to see all of those procedures and see them followed,” he says. “At the end of it, you couldn’t help but think of the people who’d been there all those many years, like Bev Reinhold—you couldn’t help but imagine her emotions. That was the heart of it for me, to see evil, but to see the capacity of a good society and the functionality of a capable society to put this guy away.”

Prosecutors will ask for close to the maximum, 56 years, when Braae is sentenced this week. Braae says he plans to appeal the conviction, but his attorney, Jim Shackleton, says he can’t talk about any details of the appeal until his client has been sentenced.

With this seven-year case finally behind her, Reinhold plans to dig into another local homicide, a 1993 cold case involving a man who mail-ordered a bride from the Philippines who later vanished. Reinhold believes the man killed her. He moved to Texas shortly thereafter, she says, and “remarried a couple people that no one’s seen again either”—circumstances eerily similar to those of Cowboy Mike.

“I don’t think you can kill your wife and get away with it,” Reinhold says dryly.

Reinhold notes that the effort to put Braae away has been the crowning work of her career. “It’s certainly the biggest case we’ve ever done, both because of the magnitude of its impact and the number of victims,” Reinhold says. “This may be their only hope for justice, knowing that he’s never going to get out.”

The survivors and their relatives— Jones’ daughter, Morgan’s mother and son, and Peterson and her daughter—are also hoping for some monetary justice. They’ve filed three civil suits in Thurston County against the state corrections department for letting Braae out on lenient parole in the late 1990s. Yakima-based attorney Bryan Smith says the state was negligent in putting Braae on legal financial obligations only, a level of supervision typically reserved for the least dangerous offenders, requiring only that former prisoners pay a fine every month.

“We have a very extensive chronology of his criminal record and activities dating back to the 1970s,” Smith says. “He was in and out of jail on all kinds of crimes. It’s shocking that he was placed on LFO.”

Indeed, Braae’s criminal record in Washington is extensive: six gross misdemeanors, including multiple DUIs; fourth-degree assault, and reckless driving; felonies for drug possession; and that 1997 escape from the Thurston County Jail. The state isn’t commenting on the lawsuit because the investigation is still in progress. But, says Washington Department of Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis, “Our hearts and concern remain with the families who have been tragically victimized by Michael Braae. With the resolution of the criminal trials, the civil cases can now move forward.”

Reinhold says a national search indicates that Braae, though he spent much of his time in the Northwest, also surfaced in Illinois and Florida, had a DUI arrest in Oregon, and was convicted of assault in California for inflicting corporal injury on a spouse—actually a girlfriend named Teri Conway. According to court documents, Braae met Conway in New Orleans in the summer of 2001 at a cowboy bar, singing karaoke. A month later, he moved to California to live with her, and was arrested after twice trying to strangle her. She reported that the relationship was both volatile and violent—that he would rape her, grab her head and bang it against the headboard, and pin her arms down with his knees. But she didn’t know him as Cowboy Mike. Apparently he was called the “barefoot cowboy” in California, where he had a preference for going shoeless.

Both Reinhold and Tunheim think Braae is probably responsible for other yet unknown rapes and possibly murders. “He’s done some things that he hasn’t been caught for yet,” says Reinhold. “He’s pretty cunning and frightening in that he goes from zero to 90 in a second and a half. Things are going well, and all of a sudden something sets him off and he becomes this livid, choking fiend.”

“He has a typical serial-killer profile,” Tunheim adds. “He became convinced he couldn’t be caught, that he was invincible. I kept thinking during the trial that if we don’t convict this guy, somebody else is going to get killed.”