By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
While attorneys for the Tenino man found with a dead woman bundled in a sleeping bag in the passenger compartment of his truck in August told him they believed he had a viable insanity defense, Bernard K. Howell III chose a straight up plea of guilty to first-degree murder.
Howell, now 27, initially denied any involvement in the death of the 60-year-old woman whose throat was cut and was found partially unclothed inside his pickup truck. But on March 17, he pleaded guilty in Thurston County Superior Court.
There was no plea agreement, there was no so-called Alford plea in which defendants deny guilt but accept a conviction admitting they would likely be found responsible, according to lawyers handling the case.
“Why? Because he knew he did it, he knew he was going to get punished no matter what happened,” his defense attorney Robert Jimerson said yesterday. “He simply wanted to get that punishment started.”
Investigators believe Vanda Skau Boone, a massage therapist who worked in Olympia and lived in Yelm, was attacked on the bicycle path known as the Yelm to Tenino Trail near Churchill Road Southeast.
Howell was arrested Aug. 8 when he was pulled over near Tenino’s elementary school with Boone’s still warm body.
According to charging documents, the self-employed door-to-door meat salesman told detectives he had a 10-pound weight in his truck and was going to bury her in a swamp to save the family the cost of a funeral. He told detectives he had in sex with her after he found her dead.
Howell, who goes by his middle name of Keith, is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday morning in an Olympia courtroom.
Deputy Prosecutor Jim Powers says he will recommend a prison term of 26 years and eight months, the high end of the standard sentencing range. The low end is 20 years, according to Powers.
Jimerson said his client didn’t want to sit through a two to three week trial with horrific details and horrific pictures.
“He had asked to try and get some sort of a deal, and we weren’t able to do that,” Jimerson said.
Howell has no criminal history, but he has a history of mental health issues, according to his father, his lawyer and even an attorney for the prosecution.
He was sent to Western State Hospital to be evaluated, treated and subsequently was found competent to stand trial.
Jimerson didn’t go into specifics or describe his client’s diagnosis.
“Mental health was an issue before this event and it’s going to be for the rest of his life,” Jimerson said. “That, without question, is the case.”
Jimerson said he and co-counsel Patrick O’Connor spoke at length with Howell about an insanity plea. However, if an individual is found not guilty by reason of insanity, they can be held for the maximum term of the charge, which in this case would be life, Jimerson said.
“I think this presents a little more certainty for him” knowing his incarceration will end at some point, he said.
Jimerson said he hasn’t decided yet exactly what he will present at the sentencing. As awful as it is what happened to Boone and what Howell did, he and O’Connor wish that Howell’s life could have been a little different, he said.
“(The judge) will hopefully see that Mr. Howell is a human being who I know regrets what he did, knows, I think, understands, the nature of what he did, and is ready to accept punishment,” he said.
Howell lived off and on in Tenino with his father. Before that, he lived in Lakewood. At one time, he was employed as a security guard working in places from Lakewood to Auburn, according to his father, fifty-seven-year-old Bernard K. Howell Jr.
Soon after his arrest, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office was contacted by other law enforcement agencies in the state – including Pierce, Snohomish and Grays Harbor counties – who wanted to know if Howell offered any information about anything else he’d been involved in.
The sheriff’s office still considers him to be a person of interest in the March 2009 disappearance of Nancy Moyer, a 36-year-old mother of two when she vanished from her Tenino home.
Moyer’s house is less than a mile from where Howell lived with his father.
She was last seen by co-workers on March 6, 2009, and two days later her ex-husband went to her home, discovered she wasn’t there and reported her missing.
Deputy Prosecutor Powers said Howell hasn’t yet been interviewed about any other cases, because it’s inappropriate while this case is unfinished.
Thurston County sheriff’s Lt. Greg Elwin said they expect to talk with Howell after he is sentenced.
Read background on the case here