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The silence in a Shelby County court room Wednesday was broken only by the sound of a woman sobbing softly, as a handful of tearful family members huddled together, and a silent, subdued Mark Bruner waited to hear if he would be calling prison home for a mere decade or more than twice that long.
Taking a deep breath, Circuit Judge Charles Hickman leaned forward and uttered the words that Bruner and his family surely had been dreading to hear.
"It is the court's judgment that Mr. Bruner be sentenced on the assault first degree, to twenty years, and on the tampering with physical evidence, to five years – those are the maximum penalties that the court can impose in this matter," Hickman said.
Bruner, wearing inmate stripes but minus leg irons, shackles and handcuffs, remained seated next to his attorney, Public Defender Melanie Lowe, and listened stoically as he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for brutally attacking Denisse Escareno in November 2011 – almost two years ago to the day – and leaving her mentally incapacitated for life.
Hickman’s pronouncement came after nearly two hours of testimony from several members of Bruner's family whose words painted a portrait of a neglected – even abandoned – young boy, who grew into a dysfunctional adult after being ignored by his mother, detested by his father and shuffled around from the home of one relative to another, leading up to his homelessness in November 2011, when he attacked and nearly killed Escareno.
At the sentencing hearing Wednesday, Hickman also heard from Norma Zapien, Escareno's mother, whom prosecutors had flown in from Arizona.
Her testimony, through an interpreter, was emotional, punctuated with tears and broken by pauses as she struggled to control her emotions sufficiently to talk about the devastation her daughter's brutal attack had brought to her family.
A mother's heartbreak
Zapien began her tragic tale with the events of the day her daughter was attacked and stabbed multiple times with a screwdriver, and either jumped – or was thrown – from Bruner's moving pickup truck. She was found barely alive sometime later, lying on the side of Mount Eden Road, by passersby who at first thought her body was a pile of rags.
She told the court that she had been communicating daily with Escareno – who was living in Shelbyville with her uncle to help care for his children – either on Facebook or by cell phone. She had not heard from her daughter all that day, and a mother's premonition was making her grow frantic, she said.
"I tried for five hours to communicate with her on Facebook and by cell phone, but nothing," she said.
Then at about midnight, she got a phone call she would never forget.
"I didn't even stop to change my clothes, I grabbed some money, and I took off," she said.
"When I got to the hospital, I couldn't believe that was my daughter; I couldn't recognize her face," she said, beginning to weep softly.
Escareno was in a coma, stabbed in three places, in addition to a deep indentation in her forehead, an injury that would prove to be the most devastating, robbing her of all mental awareness.
Bruner, 39, of Taylorsville, was arrested 10 days later, and has remained incarcerated the entire time. He had told police that he picked up Escareno, who was walking, and offered to give her a ride to a phone store. The attack occurred inside his truck, although no clear testimony was given for the motive behind the attack.
A jury trial had been scheduled for Sept. 30, but Bruner pleaded guilty on Sept. 16, acting on his own, without entering into a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Zapien recounted Escareno's four-month stay at the University of Louisville Medical Center, where she slept with her in her room, and waited anxiously for her to regain consciousness, hope battling with fear at what she would find when – or if – her daughter awoke.
That fear was finally realized on Christmas Day, when Escareno opened her eyes, and her mother saw the vacant look, the sightless stare and heard the doctor's prognosis.
Her daughter's body was alive, but her mind, her very essence, was lost – gone forever.
"This is the worst agony any parent could ever suffer," she said.
In February, 2012, Zapien took her daughter back home to Arizona, where she cares for her continually.
"She doesn't talk. She doesn't move. She's always asleep," Zapien said, stifling a sob. "She has a feeding tube and a trache [tracheotomy tube]. She will be like this until God decides to take her from me."
Zapien described her daughter before the attack as a normal, happy young woman who attended the Mormon church and had gone to Shelbyville at the request of her brother, Manuel, who lives in Shelby County, to help care for his children, a chore that she said her daughter was happy to take on because of her love for children. She also had been hired at a day care center on Mount Eden Road, she said.
"She wanted to go to college, and she wanted to get married someday and have children of her own," Zapien said.
Escareno was a good daughter, she said, who had always helped her when she was home, and always stayed in contact with her two brothers and her sister.
"We are a close family," she said.
She said she never again would feel her daughter's embrace or hear the sound of her voice, she said.
"I know that no matter how much time he gets, it won't bring her back," she said, folding her hands in her lap and looking up with a lost look in her eyes. "But I just want justice for her, because she did not deserve what he did to her."
Bruner sat silent through the entire hearing and spoke not a word from the time he entered the court room until the moment he was taken away to begin his sentence.
But he listened, sometimes stoically, sometimes covering his face with his hand, as his brother, stepmother, attorney and social worker took the witness stand and talked about his troubled life.
Kathy Bruner, his stepmother, told of his growing up years in Shelbyville and how he was always "different" from other children.
"He went to Florida one time to live for three years, and when he got back, he thought he didn't age while he gone," she said.
Bruner, who worked for 15 years at a center for disabled adults in Shelby County, said she knew that her stepson had cognitive problems.
"I feel like he has developmental disabilities," she said.
Ilker Onen, who described himself as a mitigation specialist hired by Bruner’s attorney, said he had investigated Bruner's school records and found that he had attended special education classes throughout elementary and middle schools in Shelby County. Bruner had received average grades, but when he entered Shelby County High School, his grades plummeted to the D range and below before he finally dropped out in the 11th grade.
He said that Bruner had never had any psychiatric evaluations done.
Kathy Bruner said her stepson never had stability, either emotional or financial and was shuffled from one household to another when he was growing up. After his parents divorced when he was young, he stayed with elderly grandparents, who died when he was 17 years old.
Mark Bruner's stepbrother, Corey Bruner, told how their father, Roy Bruner, had despised him, though he gave no reason for that behavior.
"He was always rude to him and never treated him well," he said, adding that his father alternated between calling Mark foul names and ignoring him whenever he came to his house.
He had never lived with his father, and seldom with his mother, he said.
Kathy Bruner said Mark's entire life has been characterized by frequent moving from place to place, as well as frequent episodes of homelessness, even after he married his wife, Peggy Bruner.
"Sometimes they lived in his truck," she said. “I think they were living in a motel in Taylorsville when this happened.”
She said that Bruner’s father had passed away on Oct. 6, 2011, just a month before the attack on Escareno, and that his death hit Bruner hard.
"He had a major breakdown," she said.
Corey Bruner said he believed that his brother took his father's death so hard because he had always wanted his father’s love and had never gotten it.
Plea for mercy
In her closing statement, Lowe told Hickman that in disclosing Bruner's history to the court, she was not trying to make excuses for him, but rather, was hoping for understanding.
"He has taken responsibility for this crime," she said. "He had pleaded guilty and has put himself at the mercy of the court.
"He would take it back if he could," she said. "When this happened, he was living hand to mouth and didn't know where his next meal was coming from. I ask the court for compassion and understanding and mercy and to sentence him to less than the maximum penalty."
Shelby County Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Melanie Carroll spoke last.
"Denisse is absent; she can't be here," Carroll said. "She can't embrace her mother or continue her education or get married or have children. She is now left in a state that requires twenty-four-hour care, and her mother is unable to do much work outside the home because she has to care for her. This has not only changed the life of a young, twenty-four-year-old woman but the lives of all those who love her and have to care for her on a daily basis."
Carroll said she acknowledged that Bruner had little control over his past.
"But he absolutely had control over his own actions on November fifth, two thousand and eleven, and because of those actions, Denisse Escareno's life will never be the same," she said. "Because of those actions, and those results, the commonwealth asks that the court consider only the maximum sentence in this case."
Before pronouncing sentence, Hickman told those assembled in the courtroom what factors he had considered in making his decision.
"Certainly, Mr. Bruner's life circumstances have been difficult," he said. "He did not have a lot of control over those circumstances. A lot of people are in similar situations as Mr. Bruner. We don't have control over a lot of things that do affect our lives."
Hickman acknowledged that Bruner has a minimal criminal history, having only had one charge against him previously, a felony theft charge in 1993.
Hickman said that what troubled and puzzled him about the crime is "how these events unfolded."
"How this crime was perpetuated was absolutely brutal," he said. "She was stabbed with a screwdriver, stabbed in her chest, her side and her leg. The circumstances of how she arrived at the side of the road, abandoned, are still really unknown at this point, whether she attempted to escape on her own, or was actually thrown from the vehicle. Regardless, Miss Escareno is no doubt the victim of a brutal and senseless act, that not only has she suffered from, but has impacted her entire family.
“We are unable to hear from Miss Escareno, because she is unable to speak, and she does not stand a good chance of recovery. As Ms. Carroll so aptly stated in her closing, Mr. Bruner certainly did have control over the events that occurred that evening."
Peggy Bruner, who did not give testimony during the hearing, said she wished her husband could have gotten probation so he could spend some time with his family.
Despite his guilty plea, she said she still does not understand how he could have committed such a heinous crime.
"He never hurt me," she said.