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Originally published April 14, 2011 at 10:03 PM | Page modified April 15, 2011 at 9:00 AM

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Mother's death hits hard in quiet Friday Harbor

Until recently, the talk around town centered on efforts to oust a popular principal, the county councilman caught napping during meetings...

Seattle Times staff reporter

FRIDAY HARBOR — Until recently, the talk around town centered on efforts to oust a popular principal, the county councilman caught napping during meetings and a new law expanding the buffer between boaters and killer whales.

But that was before the body of 49-year-old Sharon Hammel was found April 3 in the smoldering wreckage of her San Juan Island home. The death of the gregarious and well-liked Friday Harbor city employee — known to some as the "face of the town" — cast a pall over the island at a time normally spent in anticipation of the all-important tourist season.

Days later, the tragedy took a shocking turn when Hammel's 15-year-old son was arrested in connection with her death.

"This isn't supposed to happen in Mayberry," said San Juan County Sheriff Rob Nou, a sentiment echoed by many in a waterfront town known more for artists' shops, whale-watching and kayaking than capital crime.

"No one can believe it," added Halley Byrne, who has spent 19 of her 24 years on San Juan Island. "It seems surreal."

In the restaurants, bars, shops and hotels where many island residents earn their paychecks, talk is now focused on the slaying. Many shake their heads as they try to comprehend a case in which the victim and the alleged killer were a mother and son known by many.

"This is a really tight-knit community," said Stacey Boyd, who moved to Friday Harbor from Lake Tahoe about nine years ago. "People know each other and care about each other. We have to."

Islanders identify with Hammel, who was from the East Coast but made the island her home after she fell in love with its rugged beauty more than a decade ago.

Hammel was a single mother by choice, according to her father, Norman Hammel, of Tampa, Fla. On San Juan Island she found the ideal place to set down roots and raise a bright and athletic son whose father has never been a part of his life, according to Hammel's friends.

She quickly found a variety of jobs at garden shops and restaurants before being hired by the town's Parks Department. Hammel tended the flower baskets that line the streets and eventually became one of its most visible residents, greeting all with a big smile and a bit of chat.

Authorities originally believed Hammel died from smoke inhalation in the early-morning fire at her Park Street home. The town rallied around her son, setting up funds for donations at local banks.

But an autopsy later revealed that Hammel had been stabbed nine times, bludgeoned and strangled, according to court documents.

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Prosecutors believe the fire was set to cover evidence of the slaying.

The boy was charged earlier this week in juvenile court with first-degree murder and first-degree arson. He's being held at a Clallam County detention facility because San Juan County does not have a juvenile lockup.

Prosecutors want to try the boy as an adult. If that happens, he could face a standard sentence range of up to 20 years in prison if he's convicted. If convicted of the same crimes in juvenile court, he could be held in detention until he is 21.

The Times generally does not name juvenile defendants unless they're charged as adults.

The teen, according to his peers and his mother's friends, was quiet and shy but generally known as a "really good kid." He was a member of the lacrosse team, an Advanced Placement student and had been a Boy Scout, prosecutors said.

Julie Huntley, who shared a house with Hammel and her son when the two lived in Seattle more than a decade ago, said she talked to her not long ago and asked about the boy.

"She said, 'He's such a great kid! I'm so lucky,' " said Huntley. "They were so close. It always struck me what a wonderful mother she was."

Police and prosecutors are still trying to piece together what happened in the days and hours before the crime that could possibly explain the level of violence.

According to San Juan County prosecutors, the boy told police that he had argued with his mother about his poor grades and she had suspended his television privileges for the duration of spring break. They also noted in charging papers that the boy collected knives.

"We're interested in his thoughts and we're going to be interviewing his coaches, teachers, counselors and principals to find what we can," said Randall Gaylord, who serves as San Juan County's prosecuting attorney, coroner and legal counsel.

Kristina Williams, 16, grew up with the accused teen. She said he has always been the quiet, shy kid who sat in the back of the room.

Nevertheless, she said that she'd seen signs over the years that he had some anger issues.

"Like when he'd get into it with a teacher, you could see this look on his face and it wasn't just the normal anger," she said Thursday.

In the weeks leading up to the slaying, she said, she could tell something out of the ordinary was bothering him. She's not sure what it was, but she did learn that he recently met his father for the first time.

The boy's arraignment Thursday in Friday Harbor drew many of Hammel's friends, as well as classmates of the teen and the curious.

The prosecution and the defense both asked the judge for more time to review the facts of the case before they present their arguments on whether the teen should be tried as an adult. The judge set a court date of July 12.

The boy, dark-haired and slender, sat in the courtroom with his shoulders hunched over. He appeared frail.

After the hearing, a number of people gathered around the teen's defense attorney, public defender Robert O'Neal, eager to give their phone numbers and contact information.

"They're flat-out interested and want to be involved," said O'Neal, who declined to say whether he would seek a mental-health evaluation of the teen.

There's crime on the islands, of course, and the police blotter is full of reports involving dogs roaming free, loose sheep, vandalism and lost wallets. In the 17 years that he's been chief prosecutor, Gaylord said, most of the cases he's filed were misdemeanors that involved alcohol and bad judgment.

There have been a handful of homicides in the county, but most recently those have involved drunken driving that resulted in deaths and vehicular-homicide charges. None has been as inexplicable as this one, said Gaylord.

"It's been a punch in the gut to the whole community," he said.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

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