Woman found in truck in Tenino identified as 60-year-old from Yelm

Accompanied by defense attorney Patrick O'Connor, Bernard Keith Howell, 26, of Tenino listens Monday as Thurston County Superior Court Judge Christine Pomeroy sets his bail at $750,000. Howell was ordered held on suspicion of second-degree murder.
Accompanied by defense attorney Patrick O'Connor, Bernard Keith Howell, 26, of Tenino listens Monday as Thurston County Superior Court Judge Christine Pomeroy sets his bail at $750,000. Howell was ordered held on suspicion of second-degree murder. The Olympian

A 26-year-old Tenino man who was pulled over Sunday night with a dead woman in his pickup told police he had discovered the dead body, bloody and in "pretty bad shape," on the Yelm-Tenino Trail hours earlier and then had sex with the body, court papers state.

The suspect, Bernard Keith Howell of Keithan Street in Tenino, told a judge Monday that he is self-employed and delivers meat in Tenino. There was a refrigerator unit in the bed of Howell’s pickup when he was arrested Sunday night, but it was empty, according to Thurston County sheriff’s detective Steve Hamilton.

Howell was ordered held at the Thurston County Jail on Monday on suspicion of second-degree murder during a court hearing before Superior Court Judge Christine Pomeroy. Bail was set at $750,000. He has no criminal record.

Detectives are investigating whether Howell might also be responsible for the disappearance of Nancy Moyer, who went missing from her Tenino home in March 2009, and has never been found, Thurston County Chief Criminal Deputy James Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain said there is nothing specific that connects Sunday’s homicide to Moyer’s disappearance, but detectives will look very closely to see if there is a link because of the proximity of Sunday’s crime scene to Moyer’s home.

Moyer vanished from her home in the 700 block of state Route 507 on March 6, 2009, leaving her car, purse, wallet, credit cards and identification in the home. When Moyer’s husband went to the home to drop off their daughters on March 6, the front door was ajar, the television was on and a glass of red wine had been placed on the coffee table in the living room.

Hamilton and Detective Dave Haller, who both have been investigating Moyer’s disappearance for almost a year and a half, also are assigned to Sunday night’s homicide, Chamberlain said.

During Monday’s court hearing, Thurston County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John “Jack” Jones told Pomeroy that he will seek an order that Howell be sent to Western State Hospital for a mental health evaluation. During an interview at the jail, Howell repeatedly told court officials “he heard voices and that he wanted to be alone,” court papers state.

Thurston County Coroner Gary Warnock said Monday that he had yet to contact the homicide victim’s relatives on the East Coast, so The Olympian was not publishing her name. She was described in court papers as in her 50s. Moyer, a mother of two, was 36 at the time of her disappearance.

An autopsy is scheduled for today. Warnock said she died of homicidal violence, but he would not elaborate.

She is thought to have been killed in the area of the Yelm-Tenino Trail east of Churchill Road in Tenino, where detectives with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office located “blood evidence as well as other physical evidence,” court papers state. A Toyota RAV4 thought to have belonged to the victim was discovered on state Route 507, court papers state.

Howell has admitted to Hamilton that he took $11 and her car keys from her pockets, court papers state.

According to court papers:

A sheriff’s deputy pulled Howell’s Nissan pickup over about 8:15 p.m. Sunday while on regular patrol in Tenino near Dave’s Thriftway. A man had earlier flagged the deputy down and told him “that there was a suspicious male subject up the road that was attempting to move a body.” The man who flagged the deputy down said the suspicious male had asked him if he “could help him move this body.” The witness then pointed to a pickup and said it was the vehicle that belonged to the man who was attempting to move the body.

The sheriff’s deputy and a Tenino police officer pulled over the pickup and saw a mass of sleeping bags and blankets in the passenger seat. A human body was inside. “They checked the victim for a pulse and did not find one.”

The driver of the pickup, later identified as Howell, told Hamilton that “he just wanted to save the family of this woman the $5,000 it would cost to bury her. Mr. Howell stated that he just wanted to give her a free funeral and not have the family pay any money.”

Howell told Hamilton that he had “brought plastic bags, a sleeping bag, zip ties, bungee-type elastic cords and a 10-pound weight with him.” Howell said he brought the 10-pound weight to “help her body sink.” Howell denied having anything to do with the woman’s death.

Early Monday morning, Thurston County sheriff’s detectives obtained a search warrant for Howell’s Nissan pickup. As of Monday afternoon, the pickup had been removed from where it had been pulled over in the area of Parkside Elementary School in Tenino. Detectives also got a search warrant for the home on Keithan Street where Howell lives with his father. Howell’s father also is named Bernard Keith Howell.

The father, 57, said in an interview outside his home Monday that his son’s arrest is “the worst thing that’s happened to me in the world.” He said he had been up all night crying after being awakened by police around 11:30 p.m. Sunday night.

He said relatives had noticed that his son had been acting erratically as of late. “I hope he goes where he gets some medical help, because he does have a screw loose,” Howell’s father said.

According to court papers, Howell’s son told a court official “that his family wanted him to see a doctor in the past, but he would never return to one after the high cost and little help.”

But Howell’s father also said his son is a “people person,” and was well-thought-of by the family. His son was a good student and was a wrestler in high school, the father said. Until about a month ago, Howell said, his son had been staying with his mother in Lakewood.

He said his son delivered gourmet meats for a living, but that the business had fallen on hard times because of the recession.

Howell said his son dated a couple of women, and those women were older than him. He added that he worries that his son may have gotten involved with methamphetamine, and that he was hanging out with drug users who frequented the area of the Yelm-Tenino Trail in Tenino.

Hamilton confirmed Monday that the area of the Yelm-Tenino Trail in Tenino had been frequented by a criminal element.

Howell said the family lived on Whidbey Island for a time before moving to the Port Townsend area. He said he hoped for the best outcome for his son, but conceded that it didn’t look good.

“When you’re caught driving a truck with a body in the back, in a sleeping bag, that’s pretty incriminating to me,” he said.

According to court papers, after Howell was arrested he changed his story during a second interview with Hamilton. During the second interview, Howell still maintained he had nothing to do with the woman’s death. However, Howell admitted that after discovering the body, he “became sexually aroused” and had sex with the dead woman.

Grays Harbor County Undersheriff Rick Scott, who is in charge of another unsolved local disappearance, that of 11-year-old Lindsey Baum on June 26, 2009, was reached by cell phone out of state on Monday afternoon. Scott said he had not heard of Sunday night’s homicide in Tenino and he had no reason to think that it might be connected to Lindsey’s disappearance in McCleary.

Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5465 jpawloski@theolympian.com