Bergeron’s murder bares the underbelly of an idyllic island
By Joyce McClure
Like the shock of an earthquake, the text from the island’s Lt. Gov. Jesse Salalu sent me reeling backward, gasping for breath. Rachelle Bergeron, 33, Yap’s acting attorney general, had been shot, her blood-covered, bullet-riddled body rushed to the hospital less than three miles from the scene of the shooting.
On Oct. 14, 2019, around 7:15 p.m., three shells were fired from a 12-gauge shotgun, killing the island’s young acting attorney general. Despite valiant efforts by her husband Simon Hämmerling and his friend, Amos Collins, to resuscitate her as she was rushed to the hospital, Bergeron was pronounced dead on arrival. She had suffered 21 gunshot wounds, including one to the heart.
The murder drew the world’s attention to this otherwise sleepy island with a population of 7,000.
The culprits, Francis Choay Buchun and Anthony Tun Teteeth, were both found guilty of murder, capping the three-year-old case that was stalled by Covid lockdown.
Six months prior to the fateful day, Bergeron and I met for lunch and talked about the experiences we both shared, she as an American attorney and I as an American journalist on Yap. We received anonymous threats and had our tires slashed – common coercion techniques in this place where violent retribution is excused as part of the culture. I told her I slept behind several locked doors. She confided that she slept with a machete under her bed before marrying Hämmerling.
Hämmerling is a tall, handsome German pilot who worked for Pacific Mission Airways, a Christian missionary organization that services the distant outer islands. He had lived in Yap for his entire adult life.
Bergeron was a native of Waukesha, Wisconsin, who had worked not only in New York and Washington, D.C., but in India where she represented victims of human trafficking. She came to Yap in 2015 to be an assistant attorney general
Wearing colorful flower crowns, they married in their local church in July 2019.
Bergeron loved the people and the island, and they reciprocated. She was active in the local Baptist church, an outgrowth of her strong religious upbringing, often attending two services on Sunday, one in English and the other in Yapese. She coached a girls’ basketball team. She formed a group to address human trafficking and family violence. She worked closely with the state’s Women’s Interest Office and Yap Women’s Association.
Like many Americans who find themselves on this small Pacific island, Bergeron and I happened upon one of the most traditional cultures still practiced in the region.
Below the surface of the energetic Yapese dances, WWII history and divers who come to swim with the resident population of manta rays in the surrounding reef, there is a darker side that stretches back two thousand years when the Yapese ancestors are believed to have first arrived in ocean-going canoes from the Malay Archipelago.
Bergeron discovered that while the government structure closely hews to that of the U.S., a fourth branch tasked with matters concerning “custom and tradition” also prevails. This additional layer often means that crimes of family violence are rarely reported, no less punished. “It’s none of my business” pretty much sums up the local ethos.
On April 3, 2019, Bergeron filed two cases in state court charging Buchun with 37 counts of sex offenses involving incest rape.
But nearly everyone on Yap is related in some way and customary justice is often handled by the victim’s family or the village chiefs, not by the court.
A former police officer, son of a deceased police chief, Buchun was a member of the Airport Rescue & Fire Fighting squad, where his uncle Francis Tamag was captain.
Remanded to the custody of his uncle while awaiting the hearing for the sex charges, Buchun was arrested in June 2019 and charged with illegal possession of a 9mm pistol and 50 rounds of ammunition. He was later released pending trial.
Buchun began plotting his revenge and enlisted his cousin, Anthony Tun Teteeth, into his plan. Tun told the FBI investigators that Bergeron was “going out of her way” to prosecute Buchun who was “like my brother.” They claimed they only wanted to “scare” her into leaving the island.
It was a partially cloudy 77 degrees that evening in Yap. There was a light breeze. The full moon was on the rise. Light rain was forecast.
Bergeron and Hämmerling lived with their young Yapese daughter in a small, three-bedroom house on a hill at the edge of the island’s only town, Colonia. Bergeron had found the child on her doorstep when she was still single. The girl asked for help to get away from an abusive home. Bergeron and Hämmerling received approval that week to legally adopt her, a mutual friend told me later.
After work, Bergeron left Hämmerling and their daughter baking brownies and drove her SUV to a favorite spot for a run with her dog. It was getting late and had started to rain. Hämmerling began to worry. It was unlike her to be late. But moments later, her car pulled up.
She went around to the back of the car, opened the cargo door and let the dog out. Then came a loud explosion of gunshots, audible from more than a mile away. Shot twice and calling for help, she fell to the ground. A third shot rang out. Hämmerling raced outside where he first saw the dead dog, then Bergeron.
A neighbor who is a nurse ran over while Hämmerling called the police and his friend and fellow pilot, Amos Collins, to quickly bring his truck. With Bergeron in the flatbed and Hämmerling administering CPR, Amos sped to the hospital three miles away. But it was too late.
The national police, assisted by the FBI, took both Buchun and Tun into custody 11 days after the shooting. Investigations revealed that they had been planning the murder for more than a month. Having scoped out the area around the Hämmerling house and obtained a shotgun and ammunition, Buchun drove Tun to a footpath by the house, gave him the weapon and went home. Tun waited a half hour until Bergeron arrived.
Under questioning, Tun maintained that, while he aimed the gun at Bergeron, he did so just to “scare” her.
Tun then ran home in the shadows and stashed the gun in an old car, going back early the next morning to retrieve it. He then hid the gun in some tall grass next to the lagoon.
Due to border closures resulting from the Covid lockdown, court proceedings were disrupted. The trials eventually began in November 2022.
In January, Buchun and Tun were found guilty of murder and a long list of lesser charges. Both are facing a separate trial in the FSM Supreme Court for gun charges related to the murder. Buchun received a life sentence with a review after 30 years.
Tun got life with a review of his sentence in 25 years, plus work release beginning in four and a half years. Bergeron’s family is angry with Tun’s lenient sentence.
Bergeron’s death subsequently resulted in the deferment, if not demise, of the sex charges that she initially filed in court against Buchun.
And as for the people of Yap, embarrassment and shame run deep on the small island. Locals worry that tourists will be too afraid to return, knowing Tun will be out on work release in a few short years, most likely returning to one of his family’s businesses next to the island’s main dive resort.
For now, Buchun and Tun have filed intentions to appeal.