What’s Buried Beneath: The Case of Pearl Bruns

Her fingers ached from another long day at the fish processing and packing plant. She wondered again if the distinctive scent of raw and rotting fish would ever fully wash out of her hair. But where she was headed, it didn’t really matter… Everyone was nose-blind to the smell anyway. After work, like always, 41-year old Pearl Smith walked up the pier and towards Commercial Street on Portland’s working waterfront, turning onto the brick sidewalk and making her way into her favorite bar. 

It was the 1980s and Portland and the Old Port were different than you might know them today. Portland was a local’s city — locals like Pearl, who made her living in the fishing industry alongside so many others. 

Though I don’t know for sure, I imagine Pearl’s favorite bar to be Three Dollar Dewey’s — a staple in the Old Port to this day, even after closing and reopening after an unexpected year-long hiatus in 2018. 

In the 80s it was located on Fore Street, not Commercial. In a 2015 piece by Olivia Gunn for Portland Monthly, titled 1980s Redux, she wrote: Cheesy maybe, but it was the place where everybody knew your name. And if no one knew your address, they could send your post to Deweys.

Pearl slid up to the bar and with a knowing nod the bartender placed a glass of her usual in front of her. Stools filled up around Pearl, other men and women, salty from a day’s work. Among them was a man named William Bruns. He introduced himself to Pearl as Bill. 

Bill was 13 years older than Pearl, but she found common ground with him. She, a fish packer, he owned a fish hauling company, and he drove that fish from Maine up to Montreal and to New York. They both enjoyed their time at the bar… And they’d also seen their fair share of struggles in love. Bill recently divorced his third wife. Pearl had been married and divorced five times.

In 1986, Pearl became Bill’s fourth wife. 

The Day She Disappeared

By all accounts, their first few years of marriage were good ones. They lived in a one-story ranch-style home on Broadway in South Portland, they continued their work packing and transporting fish, and in 1991, when Bill wasn’t on the road, they’d meet for lunch at Becky’s Diner. Nothing finer. 

But their ritual lunches at Becky’s couldn’t fix the cracks forming in their marriage. The booze-filled fights escalated. Money was tight and a constant wedge in their relationship. 

And Pearl was known to take off for days at a time, staying with friends in Old Orchard Beach, to get some space from Bill. 

The decline of her sixth marriage was weighing on her. She was drinking more, and she confided in friends that she was depressed and she and Bill were fighting constantly. She told her friend Deanna Cyr one night, “There’s one thing I want you to know, if anything should ever happen to me, tell them Bill did it.”

On August 11, 1991, Bill and Pearl stood in their kitchen, each taking verbal jabs at the other in another argument over money. As the shouting got louder, Bill grabbed his keys and slammed the door on his way out of the house. He’d be on his own to find dinner that night — He peeled off in search of Chinese food.

When he got home hours later, the house was quiet. Pearl was gone. “Probably run off with one of her ex-husband’s,” Bill thought. He crawled into bed and didn’t give his wife a second thought. 

At least, that’s what he told police on August 14, 1991, two days later, when Pearl Bruns’ daughter Elaine reported her mother missing. 

The Whole Story

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