Meth, mental illness and murder: How one prolific offender was given chance after chance

SEATTLE — Less than four weeks after police say repeat offender Travis Berge killed his fiance, some people are blaming a broken judicial system.

Investigators say Berge killed Lisa Vach, then himself died in a tank filled with bleach and water.

“They knew he was violent. He shouted it from the rooftops,” said Vach’s friend Sirena Ross.

Berge was the impetus behind a list of prolific offenders outlined in a “System Failure” report compiled by attorney Scott Lindsay.

“He was a one-man chaos machine. He was just as prolific of a recidivist as I’ve ever come across in Seattle,” said Lindsay.

Berge moved to Washington in 2013.

“When I came to Seattle, I was really at the height of my musical career as a freestyle rapper, beatboxing accordionist,” said Berge.

Busking on the streets did not bring in the kind of money Berge had hoped. He turned to crime and drugs. “There’s nothing in my life that makes me functional quite like meth,” said Berge in January of 2019.

Berge became a fixture on the streets of Seattle. He drew the attention of police and pedestrians. During a conversation with him in 2019, Berge wanted to shoot up methamphetamine on camera. He dipped his syringe into the street to mix the meth with dirty water.

“Diseases, for me, are like Pokemon. I got to catch 'em all,” said Berge.

Methamphetamine became the constant in Berge’s chaotic world.

“Then I started stealing a lot. I would just steal from everywhere, really.”

Petty crime led to more serious offenses including harassment, assault and the attempted rape of a homeless woman in Capitol Hill.

“Travis was involved in hundreds or thousands of criminal incidents in his six years in Seattle,” said Lindsay.

Berge openly mocked police and boldly defied prosecutors and judges.

“Travis had what I consider 100% failure to comply with virtually every single court order, court mandate that he ever faced,” said Lindsay.

When Berge was arrested, he was often out within hours.

“Our criminal justice system is designed to enable people who will flout the system. Don’t show up for probation, doesn’t matter. Commit a new crime within a week of your last crime, doesn’t matter. Nobody will hold you accountable,” said Lindsay, who served as the public safety adviser to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

“There were massive failures with Travis Berge,” said King County Prosecuting Attorney spokesperson Casey McNerthney.

Despite repeated run-ins with police, very few of Berge’s cases were referred to the King County Prosecutor.

“Every felony case involving Travis Berge that was referred to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for a filing decision led to charges and convictions. There were no felony cases sent to us that we declined,” said McNerthney.

Berge refused to voluntarily undergo mental health or substance abuse treatment. He became emboldened on the streets, openly mocking police.

“I go around and look for cops, and once I find cops, then I’ll shoot up and I’ll be like, best friends,” said Berge.

“The whole thing was a game to him,” said Lindsay.

When Berge was detained by police, he would frequently threaten officers. On May 4, a Seattle police body camera captured Berge’s erratic behavior.

“Dude, I could kill you for that,” said Berge as he challenged officers to a fight.

“Travis was a major drain on police resources,” said Lindsay.

In 2019, Travis Berge received his longest sentence. He served 240 days for vandalizing a county building. When he left the King County Jail in February, he vowed to take a different path.

“I’ve completely changed my life from what I was doing before. I’m done doing what I was doing before,” said Berge.

Despite a vow to change his life, Berge immediately returned to the love of his life.

“First thing I did was went downtown, got some meth and shot it up.” Berge promised it would only be a weekend romance, though. “I’m actually going to be giving it up Monday through Friday,” said Berge.

Over the next few months, Travis was back on meth full time. He became a fixture in the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest Zone and handled trash duties. When KIRO 7 caught up with him during the summer, Travis was scavenging for used needles while singing a hymn.

Berge’s path to trouble was proceeded by a road to redemption.

“I was born into and raised in a charismatic Pentecostal Christian family and group. My whole life I thought meth was the devil. I never thought, ever in a million years, did I ever think I would be close to homeless and eating trash, you know,” said Berge.

In July, when Seattle police closed down CHOP, Berge and his fiance, Lisa Vach, were arrested for failure to disperse. KIRO 7 was outside the jail when Berge and Vach were released.

“It is an absolute miracle that I got out. Somehow, someone tricked Northwest Community Bail Fund into bailing me out,” said Berge.

Friends say Berge and Vach were an unlikely couple.

“She was so kind. She was so loving. She was intelligent, well-read, compassionate. She was a whole, real person,” said Sirena Ross.

Ross and Vach worked together at Bill Speidel’s Underground Tours. Lisa ran the gift shop.

“She was so creative. She could draw. She could paint,” said Ross.

Ross speculates that a creative connection and a rescue personality may have led Lisa to Travis.

“When it comes to domestic violence, once the person is through being charming, they’re like a bomb attached to you and they’re gonna detonate,” said Ross.

On Sept. 11, Berge bragged on his Facebook page about beating Vach.

“She’s still recovering from me beating the (expletive) out of her the other night. Ima be posting all her blackeyes with triumphant pride,” wrote Berge.

Five days later, police were called to Cal Anderson Park and discovered Vach beaten to death in a tent.

“It’s horrible. It’s just horrible to think of her being threatened and beaten and intimidated and then beaten to death and just left on the ground,” said Ross.

Berge barricaded himself inside a pumping station, while Seattle police SWAT negotiators asked him to surrender. After an hourslong standoff, police cut their way inside and discovered Berge dead at the bottom of a tank filled with bleach solution.

“That right there is such a sad thing for us in this city. There’s so many systems that have been broken, whether they didn’t serve him properly, and we’ve got to figure out how we actually make that better,” said Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz.

Sirena Ross believes a lack of accountability put her friend in mortal danger.

“Whoever kept letting him out, whoever kept reducing the charges, whoever kept ignoring this problem, Seattle failed and if somebody from the prosecutor’s office doesn’t step up and say, ‘We failed, we’ll do better,’ this will happen again.”

Many of Berge’s cases were referred to the Seattle City Attorney’s Office. Spokesperson Dan Nolte released a statement to KIRO 7: “A misdemeanor conviction means a person will eventually be released back into society, so restoration and rehabilitation is the North Star we work toward with each defendant’s unique set of facts and challenges. It is incredibly tragic that these two people’s stories came to an end in such a way,” said Nolte.

Sirena Ross says allowing Berge to stay on the streets is not progressive. She pleads to prosecutors, judges and other leaders for safety and sanity.

“I know there are other Travis Berges out there. I know there are other Lisas out there. I know that there are people with histories that are just being released again and again, and this needs to end,” said Ross.