Midwestern lawyer Rachelle Bergeron became attorney general of a small island state. Why did she die there?
Rachelle Bergeron’s wanderlust took her to New York City first. As a teenager, she visited the metropolis on a weeklong trip with her suburban Wisconsin church group. Her mother doesn’t remember what her daughter told her about the enormous buildings; she remembers how her blue-eyed girl said the people in the city seemed so different from the people in Waukesha, where the Bergeron family lived.
With four children, the Bergerons didn’t do much traveling, except to visit relatives in the Midwest. “But she liked adventure, and she liked discovering things,” said her mother, Tammy. Bergeron’s parents were not surprised when she decided to go to college and then law school in Florida, or when she took a job in Bangalore, India, at a Christian nongovernmental organization working to prosecute human trafficking cases. They were unfazed when, two years later, she told them she was applying for a job in Yap State, a cluster of tiny islands in the Federated States of Micronesia with a total landmass about the size of Disney World, 7,800 miles away from her home.
Bergeron’s lifelong goal was to fight human trafficking for the FBI. In the meantime, she wanted to catch criminals and see the world. To her brother Ryan, the job in the Yap attorney general’s office sounded like her next big adventure. Sitting around their parents’ kitchen table, he recalled, “we were all looking on the map to see where it was, because obviously we’d never heard of it.” Wherever Yap was, Tammy was positive her daughter could be useful. “She felt she had a lot of knowledge that she could help people, she had a lot of education, and I think she was using that for the good of the community of Yap.”
Bergeron herself was conflicted. “I’m in two minds about everything,” she texted her friend before she took the job. “I want to settle down, but I also want to travel everywhere and do everything.”
She opted to do everything. After arriving in Yap in 2015, Bergeron moved into a modest three-bedroom house. She didn’t have a car at first, so she would sometimes make the 20-minute walk to her office through a tropical rainstorm. For more than three years, she worked as the assistant attorney general, and when the Yapese acting attorney general left to become a judge, she assumed the position as the islands’ acting top law enforcement official. In her spare time, she took in stray dogs and coached a girls’ basketball team. Her friend Christina Fillmed, the executive director of Yap’s Environmental Protection Agency, said that Bergeron was always running late “because she was doing so much and trying to do even more.”
She fell in love in Yap, too. A group of stranded Nepalese and Indian migrants were being detained at the islands’ docks on the orders of the national government, and Bergeron had become a vocal critic of the federal response, even though she’d only recently started her job there. Charitable islanders took to visiting the 34 migrants and, when Bergeron went to see them one evening, she met Simon Hämmerling, a handsome German pilot. He worked for Pacific Mission Aviation, flying gospel and goods to outer islands of Yap and doing the occasional search and rescue mission. Hämmerling had lived there for the better part of 15 years. On their first date, Bergeron told Hämmerling she could spare one hour to watch the sunset with him before she had to go home to care for her just-spayed dogs. The pair often went to two Christian church services on Sundays — one service in Yapese, and the other in English so they would understand the sermon. They married in 2018, surrounded by tropical flowers.
A year later, in the fall, Bergeron and Hämmerling were ready to move somewhere bigger than Yap. She had accepted a job in the Wyoming attorney general’s office, and was interviewing for a job at the FBI. The couple planned to move to the United States in December, flying in on Christmas. They were in the process of adopting a local Yapese girl, Deesha.
After an evening run on Oct. 14, Bergeron pulled her Subaru SUV into her driveway and walked around the car to let her dog out of the back. It was around 7 p.m. According to court documents, the shooter had been waiting for her to come home, hiding on a ridgeline about 30 yards away, with a 12-gauge shotgun. Hämmerling, who was inside making brownies with Deesha, heard a gun fire three times. Many others also heard the shotgun blasts, an FSM national police investigator later wrote, but “no one observed anyone running or driving away from the crime scene.” One neighbor on the far side of the ridgeline told investigators she heard rustling coming from the jungle shortly after the shotgun blasts.
Hämmerling rushed Bergeron to the hospital in the back of a friend’s pickup truck, but doctors were unable to save her. She was 33.
Western news outlets seized on the story of a young American white woman gunned down while fighting crime in the tropics. Many articles, including those in the New York Post, the Washington Post, and USA Today, focused on Bergeron’s interest in taking on human trafficking. A fellow expatriate living in Yap told reporters that she had “the most dangerous job” in the islands, and the New York Post claimed that she “made such dangerous enemies that she slept with a machete under her pillow.” In December, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in Congress that Bergeron was killed “as a direct result of her courageous fight against human trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual abuse.”
It was true that she wanted to use the law to fight for women’s rights, and she was making a difference in Yap. During the four years Bergeron lived there, she worked to raise the age of consent from 13 to 14; she helped the Yap Women’s Association update their bylaws; she worked on crafting new procedures for sexual assault victims who came to Yap’s hospital, and to ensure that the victims got free counseling. Fillmed recalled that Bergeron insisted that the police department hire more female officers so women would feel more comfortable reporting crimes.
But Yapese law enforcement have yet to connect her death to human trafficking. Two weeks after her death, prosecutors charged two men with the murder. Prosecutors said that one of the defendants, Anthony Rutun Teteeth, talked about acquiring a gun to “scare Rachelle off-island” about three months before the crime. The other defendent, Francis Choay Buchun, had been charged by Bergeron in multiple cases — for allegedly sexually abusing a teenage relative over a period of more than a year, threatening to harm the girl and her mother if they told anyone about the sexual violence, and violating the court-ordered terms of his pretrial release. At the time of Bergeron’s murder, he was still out on provisional release, awaiting his trial. (An attorney for Rutun declined to comment, and an attorney for Choay did not respond to requests for a comment.)
Locals were shocked by Bergeron’s death. Guns are heavily restricted in Yap, and even police officers have to leave their firearms at the police station until they need them. Violent crime rates in the state of 11,000 people are low, and the attorney general’s office where Bergeron worked handles at most one murder case each year. Her own death was the only known murder in Yap in 2019. According to the state court, from 2000 to 2019, there were six homicide convictions.
Hämmerling says he and Bergeron suspected Choay was angry. A disgruntled defendant was nothing out of the ordinary, and the location of Bergeron’s home was no secret in the small community — a previous defendant had slashed her tires. But, in an island state where quiet is so precious that disturbing the peace is prosecuted as a felony offense, Hämmerling thought property destruction was probably the worst thing anyone would do to retaliate. “I never thought that they would actually go and beat you up or kill you,” said Hämmerling. Bergeron really did have a machete, he said, but not for self-defense; she used it to keep the jungle from taking over her yard.
Meanwhile, in the news stories, the path by which a lawyer from suburban Wisconsin becomes the top law enforcement officer of a Micronesian state went unacknowledged, explained away by Bergeron’s love of travel and her charitable spirit. Her death made international news because it was unusual for a person like her to be killed in a place like Yap, and yet her presence there did not raise any questions.
Before she went to Yap, Bergeron studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, as a law student. Later, when she worked in Bangalore, India, she lived in an apartment complex that warned residents to keep their windows closed to monkeys that were “causing nuisance.” She briefly worked as a legal intern in Beijing, China in 2009, and, on vacation in Bangkok, Thailand the same year, she marveled at the cheap massages and delicious fresh juices. She was so well traveled that, shortly after her 23rd birthday, she wrote on her travel blog that she “didn’t expect to be impressed with the Taj [Mahal].” Ultimately, she loved the 17th-century mausoleum, widely regarded as one of the wonders of the world. Five years later, she was looking for a job, and she had a high bar for novelty.
The state of Yap — its four main islands surrounded by a coral reef —is one of the four Federated States of Micronesia, a sovereign nation comprising more than 600 islands and atolls. Citizens of the FSM have distinct cultures: 100,000 Micronesians, spread out over 1,000,000 square miles of ocean, speak 17 distinct indigenous languages. But the islands were grouped together over centuries by various colonial powers, and so they organized together when they sought independence from the United States in the 1980s. Japan’s military occupied the islands that became the FSM starting in 1914 and, starting in 1944, the U.S. military bombed them as part of its campaign against the Axis powers in World War II. (A Yapese woman, Palagia Mitag, told the University of Wyoming anthropologist Lin Poyer that it was a frightening and perplexing time.“Why wouldn’t they have the war in their countries instead of ours?” she said.)
After WWII ended, the FSM became a trust territory of the U.S. through a United Nations agreement made without the input of Micronesians. Yap got American judges, American lawyers, and American laws — and a promise that the U.S. would “promote the political, economic, social, and educational advancement of its inhabitants.” In return, the U.S. military was given full access to the Pacific region, focusing its attention on testing nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands.
More than 30 years later, the country continues to use an American-style judicial system, and the U.S. continues to supply more than half of the federal government’s budget. Nearly 20 percent of people in the state of Yap live below the poverty line, and the FSM has higher rates of military enlistment per capita than many U.S. states. Less than 1,000 tourists come each year to dive with manta rays and walk old stone paths to see tropical birds, like the Yap Olive White-eye, that make their home in the mangrove forests. The Yapese are famous for their enormous stone money, meters-wide limestone discs quarried 250 miles away, in Palau, and brought back to Yap by canoe starting as early as 1200 C.E. Traditional canoe races reflect this history as master ocean navigators and, although a majority of employed FSM citizens work in government jobs, many Yapese locals work as fishermen and subsistence farmers. All of this would make Yap appealing for a curious do-gooder with a law degree.
Family and friends weren’t sure how Bergeron found out about the job in Yap. American expats who have worked in the Yap state attorney general’s office said they found out about openings through personal contacts. Kathleen Burch, who served as assistant attorney general in Yap in the 1990s and has gone back regularly to consult on legal matters, said that when an American attorney goes to Yap, “Nothing really prepares you.” Burch, now a professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, said that one of the first cases she tried after arriving in Yap was a homicide. A few weeks after the trial, she passed the jail that holds a maximum of 40 people on her way to the police department.
“I’m walking by, and I’m like, God, that person who is out in front with a machete cutting the brush in front of the jail looks really familiar,” she said. “And I’m getting closer, and he’s like, ‘Hi, Kathy.’ It was the defendant. He was out in front of the jail with a machete. It was a little bit of a shock when you first get there.”
When Micronesians formed an independent nation, the tension between colonial influences and indigenous culture was written into law. The Yap constitution deems “our traditional heritage and villages as the foundation of our society and economy,” and provides that “nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to limit or invalidate any recognized tradition or custom.” U.S. law is “not always a relevant basis for decisions here in Micronesia,” delegates at the 1975 Micronesian Constitutional Convention wrote, a distinction American judges wrestled with.
In a set of landmark cases decided in 1990, two male rapists asked that their traditional punishments — brutal beatings by the victims’ families that put each of them in the hospital — lead to a lesser sentence. The participants in the cases agreed that the beatings were an appropriate response under customary law, as Washington University law professor and former Yap assistant AG Brian Z. Tamanaha wrote, and yet one judge rejected the argument because people should not “take the law into their own hands.” On appeal, a second American judge ruled in the defendants’ favor but expressed discomfort with his own ruling because he thought the community-sanctioned beatings violated the men’s civil rights.
Today, Yap’s American-style laws work in tandem with its unwritten traditional justice system. Traditional apologies, typically determined by the injured party or their relatives, are part of most criminal cases. Burch recalled a homicide case in which she tried three young men who, after a night of drinking, beat up another man who was known to be rowdy. “Unfortunately, someone hit him just the right way on the side of the head and cracked his skull and he died,” she said. The young men were sentenced to less than 10 years in jail.
Meanwhile, the traditional part of their sentence required them to pay the victim’s mother restitution, regularly deliver food to her, maintain her house, and care for her taro patch for the rest of her life. “She had lost her son, and now she didn’t have anyone to take care of her in old age,” Burch said. When the grieving mother needed them during their time behind bars, she informed the police, who would release the young men so they could do what she asked.
Yap’s less punitive system would have been totally foreign to Bergeron, coming from the country with the world’s highest incarceration rate. But the cases she would prosecute there were essentially the same as those she would have worked on at home. Yap offered her a government salary of less than $30,000 a year plus the perks of free housing and an interesting life experience. In 2015, Bergeron signed an initial two-year contract and moved just north of the equator to a place where termites would eat her law books.
The people of Yap needed Bergeron. This is a fact formally acknowledged by the Yap State Bar Association, which says in its rules that because a shortage of attorneys in Yap is “likely to exist for some time,” special provisions must be made for the admission of “attorneys from elsewhere.” The bar association says the need for foreign attorneys is regrettable, and suggests that it’s a persistent vestige of Yap’s occupation: “It is in the best interest of the people of this state” for its own citizens “to obtain a formal legal education and return.”
The FSM has no four-year universities or law schools, and when Micronesians are able to pursue a law degree, there’s more money to be made in the U.S. Constantine Yowbalaw, acting as a spokesperson for the state in the aftermath of Bergeron’s death, said the state attorney general’s office struggles to retain locals. “It’s quite challenging as far as salary,” said Yowbalaw, who directs Yap’s Department of Youth and Civic Affairs. The minimum wage for government positions is $1.60 per hour and the private sector is unregulated. After Bergeron’s predecessor, who grew up in Yap, left, the office was having trouble finding new candidates. And Fillmed watched her good friend struggle with her workload. “They never had on as many attorneys as they needed,” she said.
Bergeron had taken a pay cut to go to Yap, but she was there because she could afford to be there and because she could afford to leave. When she was looking to fill her own role before she left for Wyoming, the opening line on the job posting was “Practice law on a tropical island.”
The night Bergeron was killed, the news traveled across the island fast. Her colleague and close friend Aileen Tareg got a call from her cousin shortly after Bergeron was taken to the emergency room. At the hospital, she found about a dozen people waiting to see her friend’s body. Tareg filed into the ER, where Bergeron was lying on a bed, mostly covered by a sheet, her lips blue.
“I saw with my own eyes that my friend was gone and I just couldn’t process everything that had happened,” she said. “I put my hand on her leg and her skin felt soft, no longer warm but still as if she was with us. And in my mind, I kept apologizing for what happened and finally said goodbye before I walked out.” Hämmerling went to Wisconsin with Deesha for her funeral in November, and he hasn’t returned to Yap since. He said he decided to stay with her parents and wait before he made any big life decisions, hoping that his dizzying grief would give way to some kind of clarity.
In the weeks before and after the funeral, colleagues and friends from around the world contacted the family. “Rachelle didn’t really talk much about herself,” Tammy said. But when she died, “People from India were writing us, and people from different states were writing us, and telling us about her life, and things that she did.” Some stories were small, like how her old cat, Panda, had been a sickly kitten she found at a juice stand and nursed back to health. Others were bigger, like how in Bangalore, when she worked for the human rights NGO International Justice Mission, she would stay late after work to teach her colleagues’ children English.
The messages resonated with her brother Ryan, who remembered that once, when a senior administrator at their high school said something disparaging about him — he couldn’t remember what — his teenage older sister confronted the adult male authority figure herself. She didn’t mention the faceoff to Ryan, and he only learned that she defended him later, when their parents told him. “A lot of the things that she did, especially the good things, they were just things that were done,” Ryan said. “You’d find out through someone else that that had happened.”
Choay and Rutun’s trials have been pushed to the fall due to the coronavirus pandemic and the arrival of a new assistant attorney general, and they’re in jail without work release. Yapese authorities have given no indication that the case against them involves organized crime, though Western media persistently floated the theory that Bergeron might have been “targeted for her work as a prosecutor trying to disrupt human trafficking rings in Yap.” There is a certain intrigue to the explanation that Bergeron, with her typical self-effacement, was taking on cases that put her in the sights of global villains.
But while Bergeron did serve on the state’s Human Trafficking Task Force, Linda M. Teteth of the state’s Gender Support Office said trafficking simply wasn’t a widespread problem to begin with. “Yap has a population of 11,000, so we don’t have that much of an issue with human trafficking,” she said. “Yes, we do have crimes — not much compared with the world.” One of Bergeron’s alleged killers had been charged with a much more common form of abuse — sexual assault of a girl he knew.
It’s more likely that Bergeron was targeted because she was both an outsider and a woman. “Americans must tread softly in Yap because they can seem abrasive to a culture that’s not used to openness, forwardness, directness,” said Tareg, who worked alongside Bergeron as the director of health services for Yap State. “Women can be victimized no matter what.” Tareg believes that a male U.S. prosecutor would not have been targeted by a Yapese defendant the way the criminal complaint says Bergeron was. “The most I heard about one American man in the past with the same job was that he was threatened and his dog was poisoned to death,” she said.
Yap is a unique place in many ways, but violence against women is not one of them. In the U.S., about 25 percent of women experience intimate partner violence. The FSM’s Department of Health and Social Affairs found that 27 percent of women in Yap who had ever had a partner said they experienced physical and/or sexual violence. Yap Women’s Association President Laura Ngaden called Bergeron “one of our strongest and bravest advocates for human rights, for women’s rights,” but Yapese women had made great strides for themselves, too. Unlike the United States, the constitutions of both the FSM and Yap explicitly grant women equal rights under the law. As of 2014, Yap was the only state in Micronesia with women’s shelters — not because of state intervention, but because grassroots advocates created them.
Teteth, who is Yapese, said the state is at a crossroads when it comes to gender-based violence. Awareness of the problem is growing, but the issue, and its enforcement, remains tied up in the clash between Yap’s history and its postcolonial present and future. “Yap is going through a transition of lifestyles, and balancing the Western [and] traditional lifestyles is very challenging.” When asked to elaborate, she demurred. “The dynamics in Yap are very complicated. It’s an area where you have to live for a long time to understand the living, culture, et cetera, and the limited resources we have out here.”
You can’t understand Yap through the lens of an American visitor’s murder, in other words. But that’s the only time the U.S. thinks about Yap. “I don’t recall any other event that’s quite as international,” Yowbalaw said. “Bad news travels wider than good news, and this is one time that’s been the case.” The last time the island state was the subject of significant American news coverage was 2009, when another young white woman, 20-year-old Seventh-day Adventist missionary Kirsten Elizabeth Wolcott, was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death while jogging. Like Bergeron, she planned to be in Yap for a limited time, doing charitable works in the former U.S. colony.
The American news media interest waned long before the man charged with Wolcott’s murder took a plea deal in 2013, so his sentence — and the particular conception of justice it put on display — was not reported. The man was given a life sentence, with the possibility of release after 25 years, provided a village was willing to be responsible for him. For the court to consider any type of release from incarceration, Judge Cyprian Manmaw wrote, “a Yapese village must accept the Defendant and agree to act as his custodian for the duration of his sentence. This acceptance must be memorialized in writing and signed by the village chief or village elder, whichever is applicable.”
Both women’s murders drew attention for their far-flung setting. But, from an American perspective, it’s the Yapese vision of justice — oriented towards rehabilitation, with the help of the community — that is truly exotic.
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