Teo Armus: It was the passion of Rachelle Bergeron passion for defending the marginalized that took her thousands of miles across the world to the tiny Pacific island of Yap, where she worked as its only prosecutor.
Paradoxically, that passion may also be what led to her untimely death. On Oct. 14, the Wisconsin native, 33, was killed as she was out on a run with her dog. This week, authorities in the Federated States of Micronesia announced they have charged two suspects in her killing. The grisly incident has rattled the community of 12,000 people, where crime rates are low and only police can carry guns.
Police arrested Anthony Teteeth and Frances Buchun and charged them with several counts, including murder, according to the Guam Daily Post. The men had been plotting the killing for over a month, according to local law enforcement officials, who are collaborating with the FBI.
Some speculated that the alleged killers had probably targeted Rachelle Bergeron because of her work, though a criminal complaint released Thursday by police does not identify a possible motive.
“It was a very shocking event,” Constantine Yowbalaw, the director of youth and civic affairs for Yap State, told The Washington Post. “She was an advocate for the marginalized here. She was a part of the Yap family, and everybody is quite taken with this case.”
After graduating from law school, Bergeron worked in New York, Washington and India, where she represented victims of human and sex trafficking. About four years ago, she moved to Yap, a sliver of dense mangrove swamps that’s about 550 miles southwest of Guam and is served by just two flights a week.
Outside the Pacific, the island is perhaps best known for the remains of its indigenous currency, giant stones shaped like discs. But working in an office of three people, Bergeron was also forced to confront human rights abuses that represented what Yowbalaw called “the worst aspects of island life.”
Rachelle Bergeron had been critical of how the state had handled a group of 34 Nepalese and Indian men, whose boat had washed ashore. Because of Micronesian immigration law, the men spent a year and a half living in a moored boat and then in a hut on the docks of the island’s wharf area, even though locals had wanted to adopt them.
“I don’t think that the situation was handled very well, particularly after there was a restriction on even visitations to the men,” she told the Cook Island News in 2016, pointing out that there was little oversight in terms of giving them food, access to medical care and shelter.
Tony Ganngiyan, the former governor of Yap State, said that human trafficking was not a topic of conversation when he first hired Bergeron to serve as one of three people in the state’s attorney general office.
“But there were several incidents that kind of caused people to start talking about the law in that area, and that’s when it started to become a bigger issue,” he said in an interview with The Post. “Most people supported her, but there may be that part of the community that was not happy with her work.”
Ganngiyan declined to name specifics, but a prominent sex-trafficking case against two men made headlines when it went up to the Micronesian Supreme Court earlier this year. William Chunn, a local taxi driver, was convicted of delivering underage girls to several men who forced them into paid sex. His alleged associate, Joseph Parisi, fled Micronesia in late 2018 after being charged with 13 counts of human trafficking, including paying a minor for sex.
Outside her work, Bergeron also seemed to adapt well to her new home. A little less than a year ago, she married a missionary pilot, Simon Hammerling, with hundreds of Yapese locals attending their wedding. The two had started seeking legal guardianship for Deesha, a girl they had been looking after, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
At one point, Bergeron’s colleagues left Micronesia and she became the acting attorney general for Yap State. A family friend, Amos Collins, told ABC News he thought Bergeron had the “most dangerous job” on the island.
“She was a target,” he said. “She had to deal with a lot of the worst things.” At one point, Bergeron reportedly started sleeping with a machete under her bed.
When Rachelle Bergeron was shot three times, her husband and Deesha were inside their house baking brownies. He rushed outside immediately and called police, and Collins showed up on the scene shortly after.
“I just kind of fell by her, not really thinking about anything else,” Hammerling told ABC News. “She was just crouched over and breathing really heavy.”
But by the time Bergeron was rushed to a hospital, she was pronounced dead. Her death sparked an outpouring of grief on Yap, where 800 people attended her funeral.
“The murder of a selfless American who came thousands of miles to live among and serve our people is beyond my ability to comprehend,” Henry Falan, the governor of Yap, said in a statement. “Her loss will be greatly felt by all who knew her. Yap’s spirit is broken by this senseless and heinous act.”
For others, however, it has left more questions than answers.
“People didn’t go and hide and wait for the victims to show up, like it happened with Rachelle,” Ganngiyan said, noting that one of the suspects used to work in Yap’s police force, while the other is Falan’s nephew.
The Small Arms Survey, a Swiss nonprofit, estimates that there are 700 guns total in Yap, according to the Associated Press, while Ganngiyan said that those come in illegally through ships and are then passed onto civilians.
“She was trying to help the majority of the community have laws in the books,” he said, and “there may be that part of the community that was not so happy.”