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Documents show victim’s wife is suspect in murder

The wife of the Langley man who was murdered on the day after Christmas 2003 has been a suspect in the killing for more than six years.

Two people have already been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Russel Douglas: Peggy Sue Thomas, a friend and former co-worker of the victim’s wife; and James “Jim” Huden, a former boyfriend of Thomas who police have identified as the triggerman in the slaying.

Island County authorities have not publicly named Brenna Douglas, the wife of the murdered man, as a suspect.

According to documents obtained by the Record, however, which include a statement signed by Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks made during a civil lawsuit, detectives and the prosecutor’s office have identified Brenna Douglas as a suspect in the murder. Public records also allege that Douglas became a suspect because of the life insurance policies that covered her husband, her connection to Thomas, and that Douglas “did not exhibit great emotion when she was told by law enforcement of her husband’s death.”

Russel Douglas had three life insurance policies when he died. His wife collected on one policy, but had to file lawsuits against two other insurance companies when the insurers delayed payment of the proceeds from the policies.

Attempts to reach Brenna Douglas for comment through the attorneys who have represented her in the insurance lawsuits were unsuccessful.

In court records, Douglas has vigorously denied any involvement in her husband’s death.

Island County detectives claim Russel Douglas was lured to a remote property on Wahl Road by Thomas, who claimed she had a Christmas present for Douglas’ wife, where he was shot in the head by Huden.

Documents indicate that the homicide investigation determined Douglas was last seen on the morning of Dec. 26, 2003 when he left the home where Brenna Douglas was living.

Though the couple had split — they married in June 1994, but had separated, with Russel Douglas moving to Renton while Brenna Douglas stayed on Whidbey Island with their two children — Russel Douglas spent Christmas with his estranged wife.

He was found dead Dec. 27, 2003, though investigators later estimated he had been shot about 1 p.m. the day before.

Police name wife

Detectives concluded their homicide report nearly a year after the murder, and sent the referral to the prosecutor’s office on Dec. 21, 2004. The report — more than 3,500 written pages and a dozen compact discs — pointed to three suspects: Huden, Thomas and Brenna Douglas.

In the months and years to come, Douglas would find herself in court battles with two insurance companies — AIG Life Insurance Co. and Farmers New World Life Insurance Co. —  fighting for proceeds from her late husband’s life insurance.

Contested claim

AIG received a claim from Brenna Douglas on Jan. 27, 2004.

Attorneys for AIG at first refused to pay the $200,000 Douglas was due from the group life insurance policy that Russel Douglas had gotten from his employer, Tetra Tech, where he had reviewed permits for cell phone towers.

Initially, AIG discovered that Tetra Tech had never deducted the premiums for the policy from Douglas’ paychecks. After the insurer gave Tetra Tech the chance to pay the past-due premiums, lawyers then discovered Brenna Douglas may have been involved in her husband’s death.

AIG lawyers cited a law called the “Slayer’s Statute,” which prohibits life insurance proceeds from going to a beneficiary who may have been involved in the murder of the deceased.

Though AIG offered to put the $200,000 in a trust account for Douglas’ two children, Brenna Douglas refused and said the money should be paid to her instead.

Jessie Valentine, the attorney for Brenna Douglas in the lawsuit, said her client was not a suspect.

As proof, she presented a memo from the prosecuting attorney’s office that was dated July 22, 2004.

In the memo, sent to Mark Plumberg, the lead detective in the investigation, Banks noted that Plumberg may be contacted by one or more insurance companies where Russel Douglas had a policy.

Banks gave Plumberg the answer he was to give: “At this time, Brenna Douglas is no longer the focus of our investigation. The investigation is now focused on identifying suspects other than Brenna Douglas. She is no more a suspect than anyone else.”

In a letter to an AIG claims adjuster, Valentine again demanded that the company pay Douglas.

“As you can see, my client is not the focus of the investigation and is no more a suspect in the case than any other citizen ... There is virtually no evidence to support a theory that Ms. Douglas is in any way involved in the murder of her husband,” Valentine wrote.

Valentine said Douglas was at home with her children on Dec. 26, 2003 and went off the island to go shopping Dec. 27.

Valentine and Douglas also complained about how the Island County Sheriff’s Office had treated the victim’s wife during the department’s investigation. In court filings, they repeatedly complained about an investigator on the case who later left the department under a cloud.

Valentine said she was hired because Brenna Douglas was having difficulties “dealing with insurance companies and the sheriff’s department in the midst of grieving the death of her husband.”

She countered the claim made by opposing attorneys that Brenna Douglas had not cooperated with the murder investigation.

“She has done everything possible to assist in the investigation,” Valentine said.

“Prior to retaining me several months after the death of her husband, Ms. Douglas made herself available at all times to the sheriff’s department to answer questions and assist in any way possible,” Valentine said.

Valentine and Douglas criticized the work of Detective Mike Birchfield, saying that he had asked for an interview with Douglas but never responded to phone calls. Valentine also noted his subsequent arrest for domestic violence.

(Birchfield was put on paid administrative leave from the Island County Sheriff’s Office after he was arrested in June 2004 in Oak Harbor and charged with fourth-degree assault after a domestic violence incident involving his wife. He later resigned, but went to work for the Langley Police Department in 2006. He died the following June of pneumonia at the age of 48.)

In court papers, Douglas said she was “mistreated” by the sheriff’s office.

She said Birchfield had sent an email to “my deceased husband’s mother telling her that I was refusing to cooperate in the investigation.”

“It was this sort of behavior that resulted in my hiring an attorney,” she added.

Douglas also complained that the detective would call her at random to talk about the case, and arrange to stop by to discuss the murder but never show up.

Her dealings with the sheriff’s office left her “emotionally devastated,” she said.

“On top of that, I did not know what insurance policies my husband had and I was too emotionally distraught to find out what to do about the insurance,” Douglas added.

Valentine noted that Detective Mark Plumberg and Greg Banks met with Douglas at Valentine’s office in Langley.

“They interviewed my client for over two hours ... They never indicated that they wanted another interview, and the times that Mr. Banks discussed the case with me, he repeatedly told me my client was not a suspect,” Valentine said.

Prosecutor responds

Banks submitted a declaration in the AIG lawsuit in October 2005.

The evidence in the investigation was enough to convict Huden, the alleged gunman in the crime, Banks said in his statement.

“After thorough review and analysis of the reports, I concluded that there is sufficient evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that James Huden murdered Russel Douglas.

“In my opinion, there is a strong possibility that James Huden did not act alone in this crime,” Banks added. “Peggy Thomas and Brenna Douglas remain suspects as accomplices. However, there is not, in my opinion, sufficient admissible evidence at this time to prosecute either Brenna Douglas or Peggy Thomas for the murder of Russel Douglas.”

“Brenna Douglas and Peggy Thomas remain suspects in the homicide of Russel Douglas. I have not formally declined to charge them. Rather, I have held their cases, pending receipt of additional evidence that may implicate or exonerate them,” Banks concluded.

Joan McPherson, an attorney appointed to represent the interest of the Douglas’ two children in the AIG lawsuit, also told the court that Banks had informed her that Brenna Douglas may have been involved in her husband’s murder. McPherson asked that the insurance proceeds be placed into a trust for the children.

The attorney noted that police reports in the case also said William Hill, a friend of Huden, had implicated Brenna Douglas in the murder of her husband.

Hill was the tipster who broke the case open for police. In July 2004, Hill, an Air Force retiree and a resident of Punta Gorda, Fla., called investigators in Island County to say Huden, his friend, had confessed to shooting a man in the head while visiting Whidbey Island during the 2003 Christmas holiday.

Hill shared many details of the crime that Huden had allegedly given him: the type of handgun; the involvement of Thomas, who was having an affair with Huden; and that Thomas had worked at a hair salon owned by Brenna Douglas.

Some say wife not involved

Douglas, and her attorney, strongly disputed Banks’ statement that she was a suspect.

While Douglas acknowledged she had spent the proceeds from one insurance policy on a new house and car, she said the AIG proceeds should be paid to her, and not her children.

“The insurance proceeds are rightfully mine and while I intend to invest the money and it will ultimately go to benefit my children, it is inappropriate to hold the money or award it to my children on the unsupported allegation of the prosecutor, which differs from what he said previously,” Douglas said in court papers.

“Again, I categorically state that I was not involved in the death of my husband in any way,” she said.

McPherson, the attorney representing the Douglas children, said she also interviewed Douglas, but came to her own opinion.

“This interview brought fourth no reason to believe Brenna Douglas was involved in the death of her husband. She appears to be a loving mother to her minor children and visibly upset by the death of her husband,” McPherson wrote.

Even so, McPherson said the money should not be given to Douglas.

“It is in the best interests of the children to withhold the insurance proceeds from the mother until the mother is clearly no longer considered a suspect in this case,” she said.

“Island County Prosecuting Attorney Gregory Banks believes Brenna Douglas is a viable suspect in the murder of her husband. If Brenna Douglas is found to have participated in Russel Douglas’ murder, the funds would rightfully go to the minor children ... The court should be cautious, as once the funds are spent they are irretrievable.”

Banks would not release the records of the investigation as part of the civil lawsuit. And without clear proof that Brenna Douglas was involved, Island County Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill ordered the insurance proceeds released to her, plus $1,200 in interest, in December 2005.

Douglas also filed suit against Farmers New World Life Insurance, on Dec. 26, 2006; the three-year anniversary of her husband’s death.

Brenna Douglas set up the appointment to talk about a life insurance policy for herself and her husband with Farmers New World Life Insurance in October 2002.

Both received policies, with Russel Douglas getting a $300,000 life insurance policy. Court documents also show Brenna Douglas later visited with her Farmers agent to get her coverage amount lowered.

In the lawsuit, Douglas said the company was refusing to honor the policy, and by adjusting the claim made by Douglas, had “engaged in extreme and/or outrageous conduct” that had caused “severe emotional distress” to Brenna Douglas.

Attorneys for the insurance company, however, said Russel Douglas gave false answers on questions about his health when he applied for the policy, and did not tell Farmers that he had been treated for depression and a heart murmur.

If the company had known his true medical history, Farmers’ lawyers said, he would not have been given a policy.

Judge Churchill agreed, dismissing the case on July 31, 2008, and Brenna Douglas received nothing.

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