Blood Diamonds

Lemke, Hungerford, Chance

Everything Rick Chance did was bigger than life. He rose from farmer to millionaire faster than most; his marketing style was more brash, his marriages more passionate, his divorces rancorous, his death more violent. A paradox of personalities, Rick was part huckster, part born-again Christian, part genius, part fool. Labels did not seem to fit him, and he was constantly shedding one persona for another.
From his humble beginnings on a farm outside Tempe, Arizona, Rick built Empire Auto Glass into the Southwest’s largest glass repair business by bucking the conventional wisdom and not running from a fight. Rick knew how to market his company, and while sitting in an Arizona diner one day he hit upon the idea of giving away a free meal with every windshield replacement.
He figured it was a no-lose proposition. Empire would get more business, the customers would get a free meal, the restaurants would get free advertising, and the insurance companies would pick up the tab. In the beginning the insurance companies balked, but several lawsuits later his marketing plan had weathered the legal challenges and was taking off. Business was so good for a time that Rick had trouble finding restaurants willing to give away the volume of free meals his offer was attracting.
Rick starred in his own commercials and became a minor cultural icon on TV stations from Phoenix to Seattle. His spots were always in heavy rotation and the advertising paid off. Every market has a pitchman like Rick Chance, whether they are selling appliances, furniture, cars or auto glass. Their commercials seem louder than the rest and their repetitive catchphrases sear their way into the collective unconscious.
“People loved him or they hated him, or they loved to hate him,” Bob Hittenberger, president of the Arizona Independent Glass Association, told the Arizona Republic. “He got them talking about him non-stop whether it was good or bad. And it was good for business.”
In 1982 Empire Auto Glass was a one-man operation. Two decades later the operation had expanded into six states and was bringing in $13 million in revenue. Rick took home a salary of $2.1 million.
Business could not have been better, but Rick’s personal life was a mess. Rick liked the limelight, and that desire for recognition made his personal failings all the more public and humiliating. The first incident was an eerie dress rehearsal for Rick’s murder a decade later.
In 1993, Rick was focusing on his side business of jewelry design when he invited a woman he met at a resort back to his home to view his designs. She turned out to be a prostitute and not only did the woman look at the jewelry, she drugged Rick and stole his inventory. The loss of several hundred thousand dollars in jewelry by the TV pitchman made front page news and humiliated Rick’s born-again Christian wife, Christine. It caused his marriage to disintegrate in the public eye and the ensuing rancorous divorce proceedings provided everyone — particularly newspaper columnists — with no shortage of things to talk about
After the marriage ended, Christine took the children and moved to Colorado, where she owned the Denver Empire Auto Glass franchise.
Rick’s next marriage was a metaphor for his life — a fairy tale that served as cover for a soap opera existence. Jill Scott was a former Mrs. America and she had all the trappings of a beauty queen and then some: Big smile, big hair, and even bigger secrets. On Valentine’s Day 1996 Rick and Jill married before a national audience on “Good Morning, America.”
It was not to be happily ever after for this fairy tale couple. Stories about Jill surfaced. She had not been in compliance with the Mrs. America pageant rules because she was separated from her husband at the time, and worse, Jill had agreed to perform in a porno film, Mrs. XXX-America, shortly before she met Rick — something she kept from him.
The marriage was heavily discussed in public as Rick filed for an annulment in 1996, halted it a week later, and reinstated it in 1998. It got worse, with the National Enquirer weighing in on the matter. It turns out Jill lost a $400,000 lawsuit for wrongful imprisonment brought by her ex. She had a couple of bounty hunters pick him up and bring him back to California in handcuffs to settle an alimony dispute. The judge not only found in favor of the ex, he suggested that perhaps the district attorney might want to look at the case. Jill solved the issue by leaving town.
The divorce was finalized in 1999.
Brandi Lynn Hungerford was adopted from South Korea and brought to Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the most religiously and politically conservative areas of the United States. In parts of Grand Rapids, fast food restaurants cannot (or will not) open on Sundays, and woe unto the neighbor who breaks the Day of Rest to mow his lawn.
How Brandi went from having dreams of being a nurse to dancing nude for an outcall service to serving hard time for murder is a story of dashed hopes and tragic choices.
When Brandi was a teen, her family moved to Tempe and she planned to take classes at Arizona State. Looking for a part-time job one day, she happened across an ad that would change her life forever, and not for the better. It said, “Looking for Models.” Brandi was a pretty young woman with exotic good looks. But the modeling work she was hired for was not the kind that would put her on the cover of Vogue.
Using the stage names “Eden” and “Tiara,” Brandi was licensed as an escort in Maricopa County. The work was barely a step above prostitution. For a fee Brandi would travel to a hotel room or home and while she shed her clothes, the customer would do…whatever. A bodyguard would accompany her to make sure nothing got out of hand, so to speak.
At the top of her game, Brandi was bringing in $1,200, but she did not get to enjoy the money. Her father, a machine shop foreman, had developed cancer and the money Brandi brought in was needed for his care. His illness and the nature of her job changed Brandi, friends told the Republic. She became sullen, cold and materialistic. By the time her father died in 2001, she was almost a different person.
Professionally, things could not be going better for Brandi. In addition to the outcall business and was working at one of the area’s top strip joints, or gentleman’s club if you prefer, where she was a frequent choice for private dances in the VIP rooms.
It was at the club where she met 24-year-old Robert Donald Lemke II, a male dancer from the Pacific Northwest with a checkered past. Rob had been convicted of felony assault and ended up in Tempe by jumping bail after he pleaded guilty to illegal possession of a firearm. Despite his criminal record, he had a fresh-faced, frosted-hair look that most people found attractive.
Friends told police that Rob liked living in the fast lane, drove a Cadillac and kept pit bulls. He was known in the adult entertainment business as a hustler and dealmaker, the Arizona Republic reported. He arrived in the valley as a skinny kid from Washington with a penchant for guns and violence. He discovered the world of exotic dancing and escorts and apparently had what it took to succeed. He bulked up from 185 pounds to more than 220, according to his escort license application.
In a little more than two years Rob managed to build his own escort business. Somewhere along the line he met Brandi. Friends recalled that the pair hit it off immediately. Business was still business, however, and Brandi continued to work outcalls and as an exotic dancer.
Trouble followed Rob, however. He was an aggressive dancer, sometimes taking his routine over the line of acceptability at the clubs. What was clear to everyone was that Rob liked the better things in life and was not averse to taking shortcuts to get them.
Rick was growing bored with the auto glass business, so he turned back to his avocation — jewelry design. He wanted to make it as big in diamonds as he had in glass, but he was reckless, naive and cocky, according to people in the business. He would carry around thousands of dollars in jewelry and gems and was proud to show them off. He told friends he was not worried because the jewelry was insured and could be replaced.
“But your behind can’t,” a friend recalled to the Republic
He had clearly not learned from past events, and it would cost him dearly.
While he was busy trying to crack into the very closed world of jewelry sales, Rick was marketing to the masses, as well. He placed several ads in the classifieds section of the Arizona Republic for diamonds at below-market cost. Asked where the jewels came from, Rick said sometimes people who owed him money would pay in gems.
Rob Lemke saw one of the ads where Rick was offering Rolex watches for sale (illegally, as he was not a licensed Rolex dealer) and thought he saw a good opportunity — not to get a great watch on the cheap, but to steal. He turned to Brandi. Rob wanted her to gain Rick’s confidence, drug him and then the pair would steal the jewelry. Brandi went along with the plan, later telling police that she liked Rick, but that he thought his money could buy her and that was not the case. Brandi was for rent, not for sale.
Rick and Brandi met several times over drinks, but she said the relationship was strictly platonic.
The pair’s first attempt to rob Rick was a comic failure. Brandi “ran into” Rick at a coffeehouse and he showed her some of his jewelry designs. A few nights later she called him and they met for Mexican food. After dinner, as she had planned, Rick asked Brandi to come back to his house. They talked and smoked some pot. At one point Brandi excused herself and while in the bathroom phoned Rob, who was driving around waiting for her call. Unfortunately, she later confessed, she was too high.
“And I couldn’t remember what street Chance lived on…’cuz he was aksking me which street does he live on, I told him I, I, I didn’t know,” she babbled to the cops. “I couldn’t remember.”
After that dismal attempt, Brandi and Rob formulated a better plan that not only would avoid getting lost, but preclude being interrupted by Rick’s family or staff.
Throughout the summer of 2002, Brandi and Rob continued to track Rick. Brandi made multiple calls to Rick, which later gave police a nice trail of evidence. She later told police she believed Rick was suspicious because he never returned her calls.
They apparently talked at least once. In August Rick agreed to meet Brandi for dinner at a local P.F. Chang’s and they went out on the town later. They apparently had a pretty good time: Brandi told police that at one point, they were “playing around on a statue.” According to Brandi, Rick tried to affix a hand-drawn penis to the statue.
“And then it wasn’t big enough, so he went and sketched out a penis with a pen on a piece of paper and taped it on the guy in Scottsdale,” she confessed.
A few nights later they met for dinner again. This time, according to Brandi, Rob would be waiting. She suggested that they get a bottle and have a few drinks at a hotel nearby. Not surprisingly, Rick agreed, not knowing that this would be his last bad decision.
On August 9, 2002, Rick and Brandi were captured on surveillance video checking into a Best Western motel. Rick looks relaxed in his print shirt, leaning on the reception desk. Brandi stands slightly apart from him, but she is also relaxed, one arm on the desk.
“Rick’s probably thinks he’s gonna get sex,” Brandi told police when they showed her a still photo.
When the pair got to their third-floor room, they kissed briefly. Rick lit a cigar while Brandi went into the bathroom. Like she did from Rick’s house, Brandi called Rob and this time was able to give him the room number. They agreed to meet out in the hallway. Brandi asserted in her confession and in her later allocution that no violence was planned.
Using the excuse of going to get ice and a drink, Brandi left Rick smoking his cigar in the room and met Rob in the hallway. She said she never returned to the hotel room. Instead, she stood in the hallway, “not even a minute and just fidgeting around.”
“And, uh, I peek around the corner and at some time I hear a pop and it scares me,” she said. “It sounded like a gunshot.”
Brandi’s claim, typical of someone minimizing their guilt, was contradicted by other witnesses. In her confession Brandi said Rob, wearing a mask and gloves and carrying a gun, was alone when he confronted Rick in the room. He took the jewelry Rick kept in a black bag.
But a witness told police she heard a woman say, “Don’t hurt him. He’s not going to say anything,” and then four gunshots. At first, the witness thought it was a dream. The woman told authorities she looked through the peephole and saw a man “standing in the hallway, as if standing guard.” Whether or not she identified the man as Rob is unclear — not that it was really necessary.
The killers left a wealth of forensic information in the hotel room. Brandi did not bother to wipe down her plastic room key or the courtesy hair dryer. She and Rick were recorded in the parking lot, at the front desk, and outside their room on the third floor. The images were good enough for the cops to share with the media. Police also had a security tape still of Rob Lemke, who lingered long enough in front of a camera to provide a perfect mug shot.
Within 24 hours they had hundreds of leads, many from people who recognized Brandi from her dancing days. One tip was stronger than all of the others and it came from the Maricopa County Jail. The tip did not come from an inmate, but from Brandi’s mother, a civilian employee who identified the suspect as her daughter. From there it was a hop-skip-and-jump to Brandi’s cellphone records and Rob Lemke. Police searching Rob’s apartment found tags unique to Rick’s jewelry brand, further increasing the evidence against him.
An NCIC check revealed Rob’s criminal past in Washington and authorities between Arizona and the Canadian border were alerted to be on the lookout for the pair, believed to be armed and desperate. It was clear the cops were on the right track and were not far behind their fugitives.
Brandi Hungerford was arrested five days after the murder in Tacoma, Washington. She was quickly charged with first-degree murder and waived extradition to Arizona. Once she was back in Arizona she immediately confessed, implicated Rob and led police to the murder weapon, which Rob had skillfully hidden in a pizza box and given to a friend. In return for her cooperation, prosecutors offered Brandi a deal: Plead guilty to second-degree murder and get a sentence of 11 to 22 years. Brandi jumped at the opportunity.
Lemke Hungerford todayRob was arrested two days after Brandi and fought extradition, unsuccessfully. He was returned to Tempe where, the needle looming large, he pleaded guilty and received a life term.
For most people of Tempe Rick Chance’s legacy will be that of a murder victim who ignorantly placed himself in danger by letting his base instincts get the better of him. Whether it was the lure of sex with Brandi or just a chance to make a few more dollars, Rick’s gluttony put him in a position to get himself killed.
But for others who knew Rick better, the loss was painful. After he died dozens of people came forward with stories of Rick’s compassion and generosity. Candess Hunter, a friend, told the Republic how Rick was responsible for paying for the care and board of his 96-year-old former babysitter, even though she no longer recognized him. Still, Rick visited the woman he called “Mama Doll” every week.