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EARLIER: Assault victim puts up 'a heck of a fight'

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Investigators say suspect Bruner has cooperated

By Lisa King

Almost two weeks after she was beaten, stabbed and left by the side of Mount Eden Road, a Shelby County woman hangs to life with the help of machines, and the man charged with assaulting her is behind bars.

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Denisse Escareno remains in a coma and fights an infection at the University of Louisville, and her closest friends and family continue to express outrage and horror that she was beaten beyond recognition and left with immeasurable injuries.

“She was so brutally beaten, when I had to go to identify her, I was only able to identify her by her fingernail polish,” said Melody Riddle, Escareno’s best friend and roommate who said she considers Escareno to be like a daughter to her (“She calls me ‘mama,’” Riddle said.)

The details of how Escareno came to accept a ride from a stranger and ended up on the side of the road emerged Tuesday after police arrested a Spencer County resident in connection with the incident.

Shelby County Sheriff’s detective Eric Hettinger said that Mark Bruner, 38, who is charged with first-degree assault, did not resist arrest when he was taken into custody at the motel in Spencer County where he was living and that he has cooperated with the investigation.

Sheriff’s Det. Jason Rice said Bruner has a prior criminal history, although no charges of this type. “Nothing violent, just a theft charge and criminal trespass, I think,” he said.

Spencer County Sheriff Buddy Stump, who was with officers who arrested Bruner, said that Bruner has no prior criminal history in Spencer but that he has theft-related charges dating back to 1993 in Shelby County.

Taylorsville Police Chief Toby Lewis, who was a Shelbyville Police officer in the mid-1990s, said he arrested Bruner a couple of times on non-violent offenses, including theft.

“There were never any problems that I had with him,” Lewis said of his previous encounters with Bruner. “I don’t recall him being down here at all.”

 

The arrest

Bruner was arrested at the Eagles Motel on KY 44 near Taylorsville shortly after 5 p.m. Tuesday, Lewis said.

He said the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office had a search warrant and that Bruner’s wife answered the door when police knocked.

Bruner told police he had a back injury. “He was down in his back and could barely move,” Lewis said. “He said it was a work-related injury.”

Lewis said Bruner and his wife, whose name was not available immediately, were living month-to-month at the motel.

The vehicle that is suspected of being involved in the crime, a Ford F250, was found at the scene and confiscated.

Lewis said Bruner has lived in Taylorsville on East End River Road in the past but appears not to have a permanent address in the area.

On his Facebook page, Bruner lists that he owns Mark Bruner’s Garage at 729 Dabney St. in Frankfort, which shows to be in a residential neighborhood.

Bruner remains lodged at the Shelby County Detention Center under a $100,000 cash bond.  He has not hired an attorney, and he has not been arraigned, clerks at both circuit and district courts say, and no date has been scheduled for that.

 

The charge

Detectives had said before the arrest that charges against the assailant would probably be attempted murder, and the charge of assault instead has not set well with Escareno’s family and friends, who reacted with shock and disbelief.

“Assault one? No, that’s not going to cut it,” said Escareno’s aunt, Krissi Tipton. “What if she can’t have a normal life because of what he did to her?”

Rice said Escareno’s family need not be concerned about Bruner’s being charged with first-degree assault rather than attempted murder.

 “They are both Class B felonies and carry the same penalty,” he said, which is 10 to 20 years in prison.

He said there is a better chance of conviction with the first-degree assault charge, because attempted murder carries the burden of proof of that motivation.

“You have to show there’s intent to kill someone, with assault one, you just have to show that someone assaulted someone and that resulted in serious physical injuries,” he said.

 

That day

The tragic events of that Saturday began in early afternoon, when Escareno started walking from her home near Midland Trail to a nearby cell-phone store, Riddle said.

“He [Bruner] said he picked her up and gave her a ride there,” she said. “Mark was seen with her at that store.”

That may have been on the store’s security surveillance video, but Rice declined to comment on that.

Riddle said after the ride to the store that Escareno got back into the truck with Bruner.

Shortly after that, at around 3 p.m., she was found on Mount Eden Road by passersby, clinging to life. 

Riddle said she does not know the motive for the beating but that Escareno did not have her purse or her wallet when she was found.

“She had it with her at the Cricket store, but she didn’t have it with her when she was found out on Mount Eden Road,” she said.

Riddle’s voice trembled as she talked about how Escareno must have fought for her life in her last few moments of consciousness.

“I know she put up a heck of a fight, because you can see the wounds on her hands where she grabbed the knife when he was trying to stab her,” she said. “She clawed him so hard she broke her fingernails off in his skin.”

 

Sweet, happy person

Riddle said she just couldn’t stop thinking about the happy, sweet person that Escareno was before this unthinkable horror descended into their lives and ripped her away from a family that loved her.

“She had her family and friends and her job [at Jacob’s Ladder Preschool], and she was working toward getting her citizenship next March,” Riddle said. “She has been working hard to get ready for that.”

Riddle said Escareno, 24, is from a small town on the Arizona/Mexican border, that she graduated from high school in Arizona and, after obtaining U.S. citizenship, was planning on going to college.

Riddle said she shudders when she thinks about Escareno being attacked so viciously by someone who doesn’t know her at all.

“This could have been any woman walking on the street. It just happened to her,” she said. “How could anybody have that much rage, to do this to a woman?

 “She has suffered brain damage; right now, we just don’t know how much. We have no idea if she in fact, will heal, and if she does come to, if she will be the same person, or have memory loss, or be disabled. We just don’t know.”

 

Prayers

Riddle continues to ask for prayers for Escareno on Facebook, where many people have been expressing feeling of outrage and horror about the crime.

One woman, Paula Long, apparently knows Bruner, because she made reference about going to school with him.

She did not respond to Facebook messages, but she posted:

“Never in my mind would I think he would do anything this horrible. He was always very strange in school with a temper. But to do what he did to that young lady he should be punished to the Max! Prayers for her.”

That, Riddle said, is what she continues to do.

“Her things are still where she left them,” she said. “Her toothbrush still sits on the sink. My children still wait for their big sister to come home, and we’re just waiting for her to come back to us.”

 

Mallori Bilger of The Spencer Magnet contributed to this report.