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Marked for Death: A South Whidbey Record report on the Douglas murder investigation
Russel Douglas looked a little lost when he drove up a driveway off Wahl Road that December day.
He quickly figured out he was in the wrong place, thought the homeowner who had seen him drive slowly through the neighborhood 10 minutes earlier, as Douglas put his bright yellow Chevrolet Geo Tracker in reverse and, fast and straight, backed out onto Wahl Road, then drove away.
He found where he thought he was supposed to be just down the road, minutes later, because that’s where somebody killed him.
Douglas, a 32-year-old Renton resident who was back on Whidbey Island for Christmas to visit his estranged wife and their two kids, turned off at 6665 Wahl Road into a private driveway.
It had been a good visit so far. Douglas had been staying at his wife’s place in Langley for the holidays, and the day before, on Christmas, the family had all opened presents together before breakfast. Douglas got his kids an Xbox.
He pulled his car into a nest of trees next to the gravel driveway about 75 feet from the road, and waited to pick up a Christmas gift for his wife that one of her friends from her hair salon had promised to drop off at the hush-hush rendezvous.
Douglas was still sitting in his car when he was found the following day.
It was about 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 27, 2003. A Bellingham man who had been staying at a nearby cabin was out walking his dog with his two sons when one of the boys noticed the SUV with its passenger-side door open. The dome light was on.
They walked up, and the man yelled “Hello” as they approached the rear of the car.
They were met with silence. He walked up to the car, looked inside through the open door and saw Douglas slumped over, his fists clenched.
The man took his sons back to their cabin and returned for a closer look. He walked around the front, and saw that Douglas had a large wound on the front of his head and was covered in blood. He went back to the cabin to call 911.
More than seven years would pass before police would make their first arrest in the murder.
The law finally caught up with James “Jim” Huden in late June 2011 in Veracruz, Mexico, where he had been hiding under an assumed name and working as a music teacher know as “Maestro Jim.” He was arrested and turned over to federal marshals, and has been sitting in the Coupeville jail awaiting trial for eight months now.
Investigators have believed since July 2004 that he was the triggerman in the killing, and that his girlfriend, Peggy Sue Thomas, was an accomplice in the crime.
Thomas was arrested on July 9 after she stepped off her half-million dollar houseboat called “Off the Hook” in Navajo Dam, N.M. She was released on a $500,000 bail bond in September. Thomas had been staying with her mother in Langley, but in recent months has been living in Greenbank.
Both Huden and Thomas face charges of first-degree murder, and both have entered pleas of not guilty. And though authorities have laid out a compelling outline of the evidence against the pair — the murder weapon belonged to Huden, and a fingerprint from Thomas was found on the manual for the pistol — officials have only hinted at the motive for the murder and the massive amount of detective work that apparently connects the couple to the crime.
The case file prepared by detectives, reviewed by the Record via a request made under the state’s open records law, contains more than 3,000 pages and fills 12 three-ring binders.
Investigators have laid out a case that suggests a murder for hire, a thrill killing of sorts, where three suspects — Huden, Thomas and the victim’s wife, Brenna Douglas — had trouble keeping their stories in alignment and shared a dark secret that was too hard to keep.
The first deputies at the crime scene found Douglas slumped in the driver’s seat of his 2002 Geo Tracker, covered in blood. The steering wheel had bloody grip marks on it, and a pool of blood had collected underneath his seat.
It looked like he had been executed. Douglas had been shot between the eyes; the gun not far from his face.
He had blue plastic in his hair from the sunglasses he was wearing; pieces of the shattered sunglasses were at his feet, one lens and a bit of the frame was on the passenger side of the car.
Douglas was wearing white socks with sandals, but the one on his right foot was off. Rigor mortis had set in.
A deputy looked through the car and found clothes, shoes, trash. In the back there was a snow sled with coats on top of it.
About an hour after leaving the crime scene, two detectives went to the home of the murder victim’s wife, Brenna Douglas, on Furman Avenue in Langley.
It was a little after 10 p.m., and she answered the door after a dog started barking and a detective shined a flashlight through the living room window.
She asked what they wanted, and Detective Michael Birchfield of the Island County Sheriff’s Office said they wanted to talk to her about her husband.
They sat down at the dining room table, and Birchfield, in a follow-up report, said “Brenna seemed calm, showing little concern for why we were there at such a late hour wanting to talk to her about her husband.
“She did not ask why he was dead, how did he die, where he was when he died or any other question of concern about his death,” the detective added.
The dead man’s wife was aloof, emotionless. The investigator waited for a reaction, or for her to ask how her husband had been murdered.
Finally, he stopped waiting and told her that he had been shot in the head.
When asked about her relationship with her estranged husband, she told of a marriage that had been battered by her husband’s infidelity. She said he would go out clubbing and partying and rub it in her face. She said he could be controlling, and said he drank a lot, and would get drunk often.
They were living apart then
— he had an apartment in Renton — but Brenna Douglas said she didn’t know his address. He also had an older girlfriend while they were separated, at least until a few months ago. Her name was Marge, but Douglas said she couldn’t remember her last name.
A detective talked to Douglas again the next day, Dec. 28, two days after the murder, in the child interview room at the sheriff’s south precinct in Freeland.
Detective Mark Plumberg asked her if she had thought of anything else since she had talked to police the night before.
Then she started talking about Russel’s lifestyle, and how it wasn’t something she could accept. He had gotten body piercings, started wearing different kinds of clothes, like kilts, and said he had a homosexual affair and had downloaded pornography onto her computer.
Whatever he saw on the Internet was normal to him, she said, and when he came to visit for Christmas, he brought flavored condoms, lingerie and a sex swing as gifts. She couldn’t believe it, because she wanted them to take it slow as they rebuilt their relationship.
She also mentioned how he shopped for clothes in gay men’s catalogs, and wanted to join a swinger’s group called the “Key Club” that met at a restaurant in Freeland.
She recalled her husband’s arrival on the Tuesday night before Christmas, and the events through Christmas Day.
On Dec. 26, she said, he left sometime around 10:45 a.m. to run errands and never came back. She thought he might have gone surfing.
She started calling him later in the day to see where he was, “the usual wife, ‘Where are you? call” with no luck.
She also knew that he always had his cell phone in his car, and left it on. The last time she borrowed his car, she admitted, she scrolled through his recent calls to find out the last time he had called his girlfriend, Marge Bailey.
The detective asked if Russel had ever been abusive with the kids, and Brenna Douglas said yes, recalling how he had “backhanded” his son when he was 2 and the boy ran into his dad, making him spill coffee on himself.
When pressed for more recent examples — her son was now six years older — she said the abuse was mostly mental.
When he was on the computer, for example, he would sit on the couch and a DSL line would be stretched through the house, and everyone would have to tip-toe around him while he worked, she said.
They argued, a lot. He came to visit the children every weekend, she said, and sometime things would get heated over the kids.
Finally, it came time for the question that had to be asked.
The detective looked Douglas in the eye, held her stare, and asked if anyone in the family had a reason to kill Russel.
He then asked if she had any reason to kill him.
“No!” she said.
Police interviewed Brenna Douglas again on Dec. 30 at her home; Russel’s father and his wife were there, and his brother.
She recounted the days before her husband’s death, how he came over for the holidays late the night of Dec. 23. They spent Christmas together with their two kids, and the day after Christmas, Douglas again said her husband left in the morning to run errands. She also said that her husband had talked about going surfing that Saturday, probably to Ocean Shores.
The detective also asked Douglas about her husband’s relationship with Marge, the girlfriend, and she said he wanted to get back together with her, but her children didn’t like the age difference between the two.
She didn’t trust her husband. Douglas said she had the passwords to her estranged husband’s email accounts, and checked them on a regular basis “to see what he has been up to.”
Police wanted to know if there were any life insurance policies, but Douglas only mentioned the policy her husband had through his job, but thought that it wasn’t much.
Russel’s sister, Holly Hunziker, had a lot to tell police about her brother, about severe mood swings and how he liked to play “head games” with people.
After Russel’s marriage went south, Hunziker said her brother would stop by unannounced at her home — they lived in the same apartment complex, Mission Ridge, in Renton — and tried to get her to go out to the bars and party.
That stopped after her brother met his new girlfriend.
Her brother and Brenna argued a lot, his sister said, and said his wife “had a hard time taking his mental and verbal abuse.”
Hunziker added that almost all of her information about his marriage came from Brenna, because they talked a lot.
Brenna Douglas was also the jealous type, she said, and did not trust her husband. She would check his emails on a regular basis. Russel would goad her on, telling her of his sexual exploits with his new girlfriend. Or so said his wife.
The couple, she added, once sold sex toys together, and would give Tupperware-style sales parties in people’s homes.
Russel had strange sex habits, his sister told police. When asked by a detective how she knew that, her response was familiar.
“She replied that Brenna had told her all these things.”
Detective Birchfield pressed further.
“I asked when they had talked about this and she said a little that morning and some in the past.
“I told her I thought it was strange that all I’ve been hearing about Russel was mostly negative and the man hasn’t been dead more than two days. Hunziker just had a sheepish look on her face and said nothing.”
On Dec. 28, Birchfield, joined by Detective Plumberg, arrived with a search warrant at the dead man’s apartment building in Renton. They unlocked the door with a key they’d gotten from his wife.
The one-bedroom place looked like the home of a bachelor who wasn’t home much; sparsely furnished, not much in the refrigerator or the cupboards. They looked around, found two empty laptop cases; disappointing, because they had hoped to look for clues on his home computer.
One item stood out: a surfboard in its carrying case, in the bedroom leaning against a wall next to a closet.
A few days later, Brenna Douglas called the detective and said her husband’s brother had been to Russel’s apartment, to take a cursory look before packing up Russel’s stuff. She said they found a laptop computer in one of the cases.
It was a surprise to the detectives, since they had checked that same case a few days before and found it empty.
Birchfield told Brenna Douglas to have her husband’s brother keep the computer until police could retrieve it at the funeral, and said not to open the case or touch the computer. It was put into a white garbage bag and turned over to police after the memorial service that Sunday.
Detectives soon got another surprise when they looked for fingerprints on the computer.
The computer had been used when it was purchased, but they couldn’t find any fingerprints on the outside of the computer. There were none inside, either; on the mouse or keyboard.
“I found this to be very odd,” Birchfield noted at the time. “There should have been numerous latent prints on the computer’s outer casing. To operate the mouse you need to use your finger. There were no prints on the keyboard or mouse.”
“It is this deputy’s opinion that the computer was wiped free of any fingerprints.”
But how did the computer miraculously appear in the dead man’s apartment days after police had scoured the place?
“It is this deputy’s opinion that the computer was placed back into the apartment after the service of our search warrant. Brenna Douglas was the only one to my knowledge that had keys to Russel’s apartment after we served the warrant.”
Detective Birchfield later spoke with Steve Starkel, an investigator for Miles Investigations, a month after the killing.
Starkel had been hired by Farmers World Life Insurance Company to investigate the insurance claim that Brenna Douglas had filed a week after her husband’s body had been discovered.
Starkel told the detective that Douglas had been very evasive when they spoke last, and wouldn’t meet him at her home. Birchfield said police hadn’t ruled her out as a suspect, and recalled how she wasn’t sad or shocked about her husband’s death.
Later that month, the insurance company investigator called Birchfield to say that Douglas was refusing to release medical records, and that she had hired an attorney.
When asked how the interview with Douglas went, the insurance company detective said it was obvious she wasn’t saying everything she knew, was evasive and wasn’t telling the truth. She wouldn’t take a lie detector test, and Starkel said he doubted that the insurance company would pay the claim.
She also said they weren’t getting a divorce, and were working out the problems in their marriage — a big turnaround from what she had told police right after the murder.
Investigators also talked with Russel’s brother, Matthew Douglas, a captain in the Army stationed in San Antonio, Texas.
They weren’t close, but Matthew Douglas helped as much as he could during the investigation.
He also played the part of sounding board when the investigation stalled in the months after the murder.
In a Feb. 18, 2004 email, Detective Birchfield told Matthew Douglas that the investigation had hit dead ends on his brother’s email, cell phone and work computer.
Birchfield complained that Nextel, the parent company of Russel’s employer, took more than a month to process a search warrant and 11 messages that Russel had saved on his phone were lost.
“Another interesting development, Brenna has decided not to cooperate with the investigation anymore,” he added.
“She refuses to call me back or meet with me. She has retained an attorney and as of today,
I have many simple questions to be answered and she won’t comply.
I do not know why this happened, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the $600,000 of life insurance she stands to get is playing a huge part.”
Birchfield said she was being untruthful, too.
“She lied to me and told me she wasn’t aware of any policies except a ‘small one at Russ’s work.’
“She also had spoken to an insurance investigator from one of the insurance companies and, boy, the story she told him was 100-feet out from what she had told us. Things like her and Russ were working things out and staying married, he had no mental history, etc. I don’t understand why she is doing this. A good polygraph and a few questions answered, and she would have been eliminated as a ‘possible’ suspect.”
Russel’s brother emailed back, and said Brenna felt as if the sheriff’s department was targeting her because of the lack of information on the case.
He added that her grief seemed genuine.
The more that investigators talked to people who knew Russel Douglas, the more they found out that the image didn’t exactly fit with the one given by his wife.
Russell’s coworkers at Tetra Tech, where he was a zoning manager, said he was a good employee, and people liked him.
They remembered him being a bit flamboyant — he showed up to work in a sarong once, and came dressed in a kilt another time — before his boss told him to tone it down.
One coworker said he saw his children every other weekend, but fought with his wife a lot. He said she always started it, they recalled. Another co-worker said most of their fights were about money, but they never got physical.
Others said he was “success-minded,” and talked about him working to finish his master’s degree. No one ever saw him drink too much, or saw him with a hangover at work.
Russel Douglas had “a thirst for life” and a longing for the experiences he’d put on hold for so long, said Margaret Bailey, the 58-year-old Tacoma woman who had been Douglas’ girlfriend.
In a statement to police Bailey made a few weeks after his murder, she described how she met him on a Saturday night at the Beach House Tavern in Ocean Shores in July 2003.
Bailey was dancing with the husband of the lead singer of the band, and saw Douglas smiling at her from the edge of the dance floor.
She smiled back, and a little while later, she walked over and asked him to dance.
“We had a great time,” Bailey told police. “I took him over to my table, introduced him to my friends, we danced and talked the rest of the night.”
Actually, they talked until 5 a.m. the next morning. Douglas said he wasn’t married, but told Bailey that his ex was a wonderful and talented woman.
Bailey said she didn’t have a problem with his relationship with his ex, and when she told him that she had been married four times — twice to the same man — they laughed.
Russel Douglas also told her he was trying to rebuild his relationship with Brenna, and he was ashamed of their constant yelling and fighting. But they had moved beyond that, he added, and were trying to be friendly for the sake of their kids.
Bailey and Douglas spent a lot of time together, and saw each other four or five times a week. They had an easy and accepting relationship.
“He was shy, gentle, goofy, respectful, considerate and would dance with me just because it made me happy,” Bailey said.
Russel Douglas talked about Brenna a lot, but didn’t say bad things. He never called her fat, and the only bad thing he ever said was that she wasn’t good with money.
Brenna would always be family, he told Bailey, and he once said Brenna was “the one” for him.
When police mentioned that some had said Russel was a “swinger,” his girlfriend said he was too insecure for that. Bailey also said he wasn’t into pornography; she offered to pick up movies for them to watch and he refused. She never saw him do drugs, and she said she never saw him drunk.
They talked, often for hours, on the phone about real estate, investments, starting a business or buying an existing one. A few months before his death, in late September, early October, they talked about a vacation trip to Hawaii or Mexico, or maybe Australia, in 2004.
She couldn’t believe that he could be violent.
“Russ is the gentlest man I’ve ever known, but still a man. He is not perfect and I do not have him on a pedestal but there was never an indication by word or deed that I needed to be afraid of him,” she said.
Their relationship ended in early December, after she got mad at him and called him a spoiled brat. Still, her feelings for Russel were strong.
“Having met Russ has forever changed my life. It was a relationship of mutual respect and non-judgment,” Bailey wrote in a statement to police.
Bailey had a “Going Home Party” for Russel a few weeks after his death. About 20 people came, she said, and many of them brought chocolate (Douglas loved the stuff, and ate it every day).
Brenna Douglas didn’t do herself any favors in the months that followed the murder. Investigators felt she was being uncooperative, and after some time an interview was arranged with Douglas with her lawyer present.
A detective also asked about a check for $1,500 that she wrote to her estranged husband, roughly two weeks before he was killed.
When asked why she owed him money, she said it was just a debt she had.
The detective then asked about a tuition check she had stolen from Russel, and asked if the $1,500 check was a repayment. She admitted it was.
There were other troubling things. She also said she had been going into his email account since his death and had deleted emails — junk and spam messages, she said — so his in-box would not fill up.
The victim’s wife was on investigator’s radar for other reasons.
Investigators found what they called a “major difference” in the number of calls between Douglas and Thomas before the murder, then after the murder.
In the month just before the murder, including the day of the murder up to 1 p.m., Douglas called Thomas 46 times.
In the month after the murder, she called Thomas just 11 times.
Investigators also discovered that from two months prior to the murder, from Oct. 21 to Nov. 25, calls from Douglas’ home phone were made to Thomas 24 times.
The investigation hit a critical point in May 2004.
Detectives found three incoming calls, and two outgoing calls, on Russell Douglas’ cell phone from Dec. 23. A detective called the number, and found it belonged to Peggy Thomas.
Thomas first told police that she did not see Russel during her visit to Washington in December 2003, but then later said she met him the night of Dec. 23 at his apartment to give him a present for Brenna.
He was in good spirits, she said, because he felt that they could get past the affair that had damaged his marriage. She added that Brenna had been crushed by Russel’s affair with a man.
Thomas also said he was a swinger, but said she couldn’t remember if Russel told her that, or if it came from his wife. Brenna, she said, was definitely against that kind of thing.
Still, the case seemed to go cold in the months that followed.
A detective went to different places on the mainland that Russel Douglas would frequent, using his bank records to guide the search, and talked to employees at banks, gas stations and stores that may have remembered the murdered man.
Someone at a Fred Meyer in Renton remembered seeing him in the toy department, looking at Hot Wheels. Another employee said she saw him in the health products aisle, and looking at lotion for his skin and face. No one at the nearby Starbucks remembered him, or at the Safeway a block away.
In late July, Plumberg went to the Clinton Ferry Terminal to see if the Crimestoppers poster with Russel’s picture on it was still hanging on the bulletin board.
He started talking with the terminal supervisor about the murder, and she told them she had heard Douglas was gay or bisexual and had left his wife for another man in Seattle.
The detective asked her where she had heard that, and she said from another ferry employee who worked in the ticket booth.
The terminal supervisor called him, and as Plumberg listened in, the man said he was told the story by his wife, who said she had heard it from Brenna Douglas.
That was a Wednesday. By the following Monday, the case broke wide open.
Plumberg was out talking with residents again on Wahl Road and Admiralty Way, when another detective called and said they got a phone call from an anonymous man who was asking if the sheriff’s office had an unsolved murder.
The mystery man turned out to be Bill Hill.
He knew Huden, the alleged gunman in the murder, when Huden lived in Punta Gorda, Fla.
But he was more than a best friend; he was the best man at Huden’s wedding, a fellow musician who played in Huden’s band, “Buck Naked and the X-hibitionists.”
Hill said Huden had confessed to the murder, which happened during Huden’s visit to Whidbey Island in 2003 for the Christmas holiday.
Huden told Hill he had used a .380-caliber handgun in the shooting; investigators had found a single casing of a .380-caliber round in Russel Douglas’ vehicle.
On Aug. 5, 2004, Detective Plumberg and Commander Mike Beech came to Hill’s door at the end of the dinner hour. In his home on Navajo Lane, Port Charlotte, Fla., Hill was ready to give a tape-recorded statement.
He started at the beginning; the day he first called Island County authorities.
It was guilt, he said. Guilt made him call. He just knew too much.
Earlier in 2004, at the start of the year, Jim Huden had told him he murdered someone, in a revenge killing on Whidbey Island.
Hill wasn’t planning on turning his friend in, however.
“I was having a hard time dealing with what I knew,” he told Plumberg and Beech. “And the reason I made that first telephone call was, I needed to know if it was really true.”
Huden had a bad childhood, Hill said, and much bitterness remained. Huden had a “problem in his head” about wanting to get revenge on his stepfather for what was done to him and his mother.
Hill said Huden said he’d gotten that revenge, in a way, by putting a gun to Douglas’ head and pulling the trigger.
In another startling revelation, Hill said Thomas and Douglas’ wife plotted the murder, and Huden was brought in later.
Hill recounted what’s become the basic outline of the murder: that Douglas was lured to the scene of his death under the ruse that he was picking up a Christmas present for his wife that was coming from Thomas, a co-worker and friend of Brenna Douglas who worked with Douglas at her Langley salon, Just B’s.
Huden told Hill about the plan. He also said that the victim’s wife was the one who called Russel to swing by to pick up the present.
Police wanted Hill to wear a wire and talk to Huden, but Hill refused. He also didn’t want to give a written statement just then, because Huden was such a good friend.
Hill said Huden and Thomas were deep in debt — Huden was about to declare bankruptcy
— because they did nothing but party when they lived together in Las Vegas, and they put all the fun on their credit cards.
While Beech and Plumberg were in Florida, Detective Ed Wallace and Detective S.D. Warwick went to Henderson, Nev. to talk to Thomas.
By 9:30 a.m. the next morning, Wallace and Warwick were camped outside her two-story stucco home on Spreading Oak Drive. Her Lexus, with the Nevada vanity plate “FIRYRED,” was in the driveway.
Later in the day, the pair checked in with the Henderson Police Department, and police told them that since the warrant involved a homicide with a firearm, local officers would need to serve the warrant. The department’s Special Response Team served the warrant, just before 2 p.m, and Thomas wasn’t home.
Instead, next to the dining room table, they found her house guest, a 53-year-old friend from Florida who was laying out lines of cocaine on a mirror when police barged in.
He told police he’d only been in Las Vegas for three days, and had met Thomas on Mother’s Day in the lounge at Bally’s.
Thomas came home about an hour later, and said she had known Brenna Douglas since they worked together at different hair salons in Langley, and that she worked in Brenna’s salon, Just B’s. She said she also owned the home on Furman Avenue where Douglas was living.
Brenna and Russel broke up, she said, after Russel had an affair with a man and wanted Brenna to get into wife swapping and swinging.
Thomas told police she went back to Seattle in December 2003, flying back with her daughter. Huden, she said, drove her Lexus to Washington so they wouldn’t have to rent a car.
They stayed at a friend’s vacation home through Dec. 23, but came back Dec. 26 to drop off a key to the place.
She did laundry while Huden went out for smokes (he liked Swisher Sweets), and they caught the noon ferry to Port Townsend to visit friends. They drove south, stopping in Vancouver — a 200-mile trip — for dinner with Thomas’ sister at about 6 p.m.
When the couple got back to Nevada, Huden said he was going home to Florida to finalize the divorce with his wife. Thomas thought he’d be back in two weeks, and later found out he never had filed for divorce.
Heartbroken, she said, she lost 25 pounds. She gave him an ultimatum to come back by Valentine’s Day, and he did.
Thomas’s story started to fall apart. First, she said, he packed his stuff and left the day after he got there. Then she said he stayed four or five days.
Thomas told detectives she called Huden and said she was coming to Florida, but then left a day early so she could talk to his wife.
Thinking that she was the odd one out after she spoke with his wife, Thomas left, but added that Huden later called and said he changed his mind. He wanted Thomas instead.
Police wrapped up their search by looking through her Lexus, and then, her Mitsubishi Eclipse convertible. They found methamphetamine inside, and Thomas said she bought it from a toothless hooker.
Back in Florida, Plumberg and Beech went to Huden’s home on Yucca Street, to talk to him about the murder. Huden didn’t seem surprised, and agreed to join the two investigators down at the local police station so they could tape a statement.
The interview lasted nearly an hour, and near the end, the detectives told them they’d talked to Hill, his best buddy.
They told Huden the guilt was destroying his friend, ruining his health.
“Well, I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Huden said.
They told him that two detectives were with his mistress in Nevada, at the same moment, talking to her about the murder. They asked him to come clean.
“I think the plot for this didn’t come from you. I don’t think the scheme for this came from you,” Plumberg told him.
“Is this the point in time when you guys would suggest I ask for an attorney? You being professionals,” Huden replied.
“That’s up to you,” Plumberg said. “I was hoping I could enlist your help, to enlist you on my side to go after the two people that I think are the most responsible. That’s what I’m after.”
“I don’t want to see you go down by yourself. I don’t want to see you hit rock bottom and be the only one down on the rocks,” he added.
“You got played, Jim,” Beech added.
“That’s fine. It’s attorney time,” Huden replied.
Huden slipped away as Hurricane Charley pulverized the Florida coast.
A few weeks later, investigators got their next big break after they sent out a news release on Aug. 18 that named Huden and Thomas as persons of interest in the case.
That night, Donna Ogden read a story on the South Whidbey Record website that said the Island County Sheriff’s Office was looking for Huden and Thomas. She told her husband Keith about it; they were casually acquainted with the couple and had met them when they lived in Las Vegas.
The next day, Keith Ogden brought a two-tone Bersa “Thunder” .380-caliber pistol to the sheriff’s office in Dona Anna County, N.M., where he lived.
It was the murder weapon. Huden had given it to the Ogdens for safekeeping.
Detectives Wallace and Beech were at the Ogdens’ home in Radium Springs, N.M. by the next day.
Keith Ogden recounted how they met Huden and Thomas through his cousin.
Thomas was already famous to them, sort of, because of the stories passed around by friends and family about the 6-foot-tall striking redhead who thought Vegas wasn’t ready for someone the likes of her.
“The latest out of Peggy is …” Ogden recounted in one retold conversation, “‘I’m gonna take this town by storm.’ God, and we all laughed about that.
“But yeah, she was,” he said.
Women were caught off-guard; her ease was admirable, and she could warm up quicker than a microwave. With men, she could be flirty, but in a way that just kept it flirty; a porch light for many a moth that would spin around dizzy before the night was done and the light gone.
After they went out two or three times, Ogden recalled how Huden and Thomas expressed an interest in guns and suppressors (devices used to muffle the sound of gunshots).
“And I’m talking about both of them. They were both very interested in suppressors and guns,” Ogden told police.
Huden had asked Ogden if he had any guns he wanted to sell.
“I told him that I really didn’t. Anything I had,
I wanted to keep,” he said.
Later, out of the blue, Huden called up and said he had a gun, and would Ogden show him how to operate it.
Huden came over for lessons, and Ogden showed him how to load it, take it apart, put it back together. Huden had brought a box of ammo, and they went to the backyard and fired six or seven rounds through a pillow so the noise wouldn’t bother the neighbors.
Ogden’s wife came outside.
“Oh, great, you’re aerating the lawn,” she told them.
Ogden also showed Huden how he could use a plastic Coke bottle as a silencer.
Huden appeared inexperienced with weapons, and seemed impressed with himself after he squeezed off some rounds into the dirt behind Ogden’s home. Detectives would later dig up the bullets and match them to the murder weapon.
Given that Huden had once been in the Air Force, Ogden was a bit surprised that he needed to be shown how to use a gun. But why did he even need a weapon in the first place?
Pigeon poop. That’s what Ogden’s wife, Donna, told police.
“He said he wanted to shoot the pigeons that were pooping all over his back patio,” she said.
Huden had pointed out the fowl mess to the couple. And he was interested in suppressors, the Ogdens said, so the neighbors wouldn’t find out.
“He didn’t want the neighbors to know he was shooting pigeons. That’s what we thought this was all about,” Donna Ogden said.
“But I don’t think you buy a .380 to shoot a pigeon,” her husband chimed in.
“Well, yeah,” she added. “He mentioned he didn’t want a weenie gun, you know.”
In early January, Keith Ogden went over to the couple’s house with his wife because they were going to go out to lunch.
Huden and Thomas weren’t dressed to go out, though, so they ordered pizza instead.
While they were at their house, Ogden said Huden asked him if he could hold on to the gun for safekeeping.
Thomas’ daughters were in the house, and he didn’t have a way to keep the gun safe and secure.
Ogden agreed, and took the gun. It was in a box, and still had a manual in it.
In a later interview with a detective, Ogden said he remembered the day they gave him the gun. Thomas’ mother had called to tell her that someone they knew on Whidbey had died or was murdered.
It was shortly after that phone call, Ogden said, when Huden gave him the gun.
Also during the same interview, Ogden made a discovery that surprised everyone in the room, himself included, when he brought out the box the gun came in for detectives to take a look at. Along with the instructions, there was a trigger lock.
Why would Huden be worried about Thomas’ kids getting the gun if it had a trigger lock?
Investigators learned even more about Brenna Douglas in early March 2005, after she fired her employees at Just B’s Salon.
It was an abrupt exit for the workers; she told them to be gone the next day and she was changing the locks.
Her ex-employees did not have nice things to say about their former boss to detectives.
One employee, Aimee Engler, said Douglas was swift to say terrible things about her husband.
“She talked about every little nasty, dirty detail of how awful he was, how bad he treated her,” Engler said.
“Before he was murdered he was like the worst thing walking on the planet,” she said.
That quickly changed after he was killed.
“The minute he was murdered, the rings went back on,” Engler told police. “She put a picture of him in her daily appointment book. And then she’d say how they were really trying to get back together and how much she loved him.”
Engler told the detective other things, like how Brenna bought a police scanner just before Christmas 2003.
Engler made fun of her over it, but Brenna brushed off the criticism.
“She just said … you’d be amazed, you can hear everything that’s going on, you know where everyone is, you know.”
Though it was a present for herself, Douglas later claimed she gave it to her husband, Engler said.
Engler said she couldn’t figure out how the scanner had disappeared, since Russel never went home to Renton after that Christmas. She asked Brenna if police had found it in his car, and she said no, that police couldn’t find it.
Another oddity: When news reports first started naming Huden and Thomas, Brenna was uncharacteristically silent.
“She didn’t go on and on and on and go into depth like she did everything else, so that was strange,” Engler said.
Brenna Douglas talked about anything and everything, she added, so her silence on the murder was baffling.
“She never gave a theory on anything. And she’s the woman who can’t shut up.”
“She was really secretive,” Engler said, adding that Brenna would go sit in her truck and talk on the phone, or go outside the building.
The case against Huden and Thomas grew stronger. Not only was a fingerprint from Thomas on the gun manual, but Huden’s prints were all over it.
Earlier, detectives couldn’t figure out why Russel Douglas would go to Wahl Road; there was no connection.
While the murdered man didn’t know the neighborhood, police learned Thomas sure did.
Thomas knew the people who had lived next door. In April 2003, she stayed at the home next to the murder scene for a few weeks, and called police to lodge a harassment complaint on behalf of a friend who was being bothered by her ex-boyfriend. Huden had also stayed at the home with Thomas.
It was June 20, 2011 just 10 days after the man known as “Maestro Jim” had been arrested in Mexico.
Detective Plumberg sat down with Jean Huden at her home, a ranch-style, two-bedroom home with a huge palm tree in the front yard and just minutes from Charlotte Harbor, where Hurricane Charlie came ashore Aug. 13, 2004.
Huden thought back to July 2004, and how her husband Jim had been going back and fourth to Washington, how he was having an affair with Thomas, and flipping back and forth between the two women.
“He was quite the sociopath and was good at playing both of us, you know,” she said.
Her husband was a “software geek from Seattle”; never violent, never any problems with police.
“I just didn’t know he had it in him,” she said.
When her husband got back from answering questions at the police station, he told her he had killed Russel Douglas.
When the hurricane hit, she said, her husband used it as his chance “to get the hell out of Dodge.”
For her, life was hell. Headlines, reporters, cops hanging out, she said. Her business collapsed, her parents were terminally ill.
Three or four weeks later, however, she got a call from a Greyhound employee in Houston, Texas.
They found Jim’s bag that had his ID inside, a gun and a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey. There was something else inside they didn’t want to talk about.
Jean Huden knew what it was: the $5,000 or thereabouts in cash she’d given him when he left.
“He, like an idiot, left it on the bus,” she recalled.
He was still in Houston, she later found out, staying in some “no-tell motel,” so she sent him more money and he got across the border into Mexico.
Jim Huden eventually wound up in Veracruz, got a little apartment, and Jean Huden said she went down to Mexico four or five times to see him.
After three years of having her phone tapped, being trailed by federal marshals, and sending him money to keep him going in Mexico, she decided to join him in 2007.
She said she picked out where she would cross the border and get a new identity. She dreamed of taking her seven cats and horse with her.
Then, the unexpected. In December 2007, her father was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“I wasn’t going to bail on my dad,” she told Detective Plumberg.
Jean Huden said Jim told her about killing Douglas — “that he and Peggy and Brenna had planned on it.”
Russel Douglas wasn’t a nice guy, she was told, a lot like the stepfather who used to beat up on Jim Huden’s mom. The murder was his way of getting revenge.
But it was more than that, she said.
“He also said at one point that he wanted to know what it was like to kill somebody, which blew my mind,” she said.
“And, um, then, of course, there was money involved,” she added. “He told me it was like $50,000 would be his cut of insurance money if this happened; if it went down and no one got caught.”
Brenna Douglas was supposed to share the money with Jim Huden and Peggy Thomas, she said.
“But to be honest, I think he did it more for the thrill of killing somebody,” she said. “He thought it made him feel like a man. He was hitting his early fifties and you know, his mid-life crisis thing, I guess.”
Jean Huden also said Thomas told her that Brenna Douglas was involved.
“She said they had talked on the phone, and she and Peggy had talked personally, so Brenna was aware. Maybe not of very minute details, but she was in … and was kept in the loop of what’s going on.”
“In hindsight, I’ve found that Russel wasn’t that horrible of a person that deserved to die. And it may have been more greed than anything on the girl’s part.
“’Cept Brenna wanted to be rid of her husband, Jim wanted some money because, you know, he was pretty much tapping me dry, and knew that was going to run out soon, and ah, Peggy would of done anything for Jim.”