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Originally published March 30, 2011 at 9:22 PM | Page modified March 30, 2011 at 10:29 PM

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After 30 years tackling tough cases, Marilyn Brenneman leaving Prosecutor's Office

After a legendary career, Marilyn Brenneman is retiring from the King County Prosecutor's Office after tackling tough cases for more than three decades.

Seattle Times staff reporters

As a high-school student in the 1960s, Marilyn Brenneman expressed an interest in becoming a lawyer. A counselor at her Georgia school — in keeping with the norms of the day — suggested she consider a career as a legal secretary.

Brenneman ignored the advice, demonstrating the stubborn determination that would become her trademark during a career of some 30 years in the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

Thursday is her last day in the office.

She will leave a legacy as the prosecutor who took on the big, tough cases.

Among them: arsonist Martin Pang, who set the warehouse fire that led to the deaths of four Seattle firefighters in 1995; Frank Colacurcio and his son, Frank Jr., whose roles in the "Strippergate" campaign-contribution case led to the demise of their strip-club operation last year; sociopathic wife killers Randy Roth and Steven Sherer; and Joel Zellmer, found guilty last year of drowning his 3-year-old stepdaughter in 2003 after taking out a life-insurance policy on her.

Each case presented major obstacles, testing her razor-sharp intelligence.

Her courtroom pursuit of Sherer in the 10-year-old disappearance of his wife exemplified Brenneman's tenacity. His first-degree murder conviction in 2000 made him one of only a handful of people in Washington state history to be successfully prosecuted even though the victim's body had not been found.

Weaving together circumstantial evidence, Brenneman portrayed Sherer as a violent, possessive husband who transformed his once-bubbly wife into a subservient, broken young woman.

"She has always been drawn to the difficult cases that other people might have passed on," King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said of Brenneman. "She took that on as a challenge."

As a result, there are killers in prison who "might have gotten away with murder if not for Marilyn Brenneman," Satterberg said.

Brenneman, 62, who joined the Prosecutor's Office in 1980 and is now the longest serving deputy prosecutor, has always been reluctant to talk about her cases. Though blunt and opinionated in private, she has steadfastly avoided the limelight.

All she has wanted, she said in an interview this week, was to do cases that were "meaningful and challenging."

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She can still vividly recall her first murder cases: the fatal stabbing of a man and the attempted murder and rape of his wife by a Fort Lewis soldier — a "sad" and "very bloody" case that took two trials to get a conviction, she said.

Asked how she can remember details from so long ago, she responded: "I don't think those things ever leave you. I can see the pictures. Autopsy photos don't ever leave you."

It has been that way ever since, she said.

"In this job, it's just little bits of carnage scattered over 30 years," Brenneman said.

But that has been offset by the "affirmation of the fact that people are basically good," she said, citing the courage of those who were willing to step forward and testify, even when they faced dangers and had little stake in the outcome.

Because of Brenneman's fearless reputation, police came to her with the cases that were stalled.

She always seemed to find a way around the problems — through creative investigative work, extracting testimony from reluctant witnesses and understanding the importance of documents.

It was her 2006 memorandum that laid the foundation for the dismantling of the Colacurcio strip-club operations by federal prosecutors. Go after the Colacurcios and their associates for promoting prostitution and make them forfeit their property and assets, she wrote.

"She is the best prosecutor I ever worked with," said Patrick Sainsbury, who was Brenneman's boss for more than 25 years before retiring in 2007.

Not only did Brenneman help find evidence, Sainsbury said, she made detectives and investigators feel like part of a team.

Clam case was big

That was never more true than during Brenneman's strangest case — "Clamscam."

In 1987, game wardens caught two men illegally fishing for geoduck clams off a boat in Dumas Bay in South King County. At Brenneman's urging, Kevin Harrington, a state Fish and Wildlife detective, tracked down the purchaser of the boat's equipment. It was Washington King Clam, the company that harvested most of Puget Sound's geoducks. Brenneman knew they'd stumbled onto something extraordinary.

The FBI and State Patrol had investigated the company, but never filed charges. Brenneman sent Harrington and other cops to the airport to check freight bills. They learned that in one month, the company had shipped 100,000 pounds more geoduck than it had a right to gather. All told, they later determined, the company had smuggled at least $1 million in geoducks over several years.

The case was so complicated, Harrington wasn't even sure how to write a search-warrant affidavit. He asked Brenneman if she could instead.

"She said, 'I can write it, but I also know you can write it, and it will make you a better officer if you figure it out yourself,' " Harrington recalled. "So I did. She made me want to prove to her that I could."

Brenneman ultimately convicted the company's owner and several colleagues and shut down the business. It was, at the time, the largest white-collar fraud case in state history.

"I can't say enough good things about her," said Harrington, who retired in 2004. "She knew how to inspire everybody."

Detectives sought out Brenneman in the Roth case, which almost didn't go to trial because it consisted largely of circumstantial evidence. The sensational 1992 trial produced a cross-examination that was the stuff of television dramas.

Roth, now serving a 55-year prison term, took the stand to defend himself against the allegation that he had drowned his fourth wife in Lake Sammamish to collect $350,000 in life insurance. His second wife also had died, after falling off a cliff, allowing Roth to collect insurance money.

When Roth denied Brenneman's assertion that he had married for insurance money, Brenneman, with her arms folded and her back to Roth, turned toward him, stepped in closer and leaned across the rail within a few feet of his face. "Controlling people and controlling money," she snapped, "is what your lifestyle is all about, based on the testimony in this trial."

Still working in law

Brenneman credits other women who worked in the Prosecutor's Office for inspiring her — Joanne Maida, now retired, who was known for tackling tough cases as a deputy prosecutor and later in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle; and Patricia Aitken, who became a longtime judge.

Brenneman was among a number of women who broke down barriers and took prominent roles under the late King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng — today there are more women deputy prosecutors than men in the criminal division.

Although she is retiring from the office, she plans to continue doing legal work — something involving "public benefit" civil litigation — but more on her own schedule.

She wants to spend more time with her husband and four grown sons and pursue her interests — gardening, hiking, travel and reading mysteries and nonfiction.

While it won't be easy to replace her, Satterberg said, she has mentored the next generation of deputy prosecutors who look up to her.

Still, noted former boss Sainsbury: "Theoretically, everybody is replaceable. But I am not sure we will see another one like her anytime soon."

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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