Bruner trial: Defense takes aim at Silverthorne Police Department investigation
July 19, 2012
BRECKENRIDGE – Defense attorney Robert Bernhardt turned up the heat on Silverthorne police officer Anne Baldwin, who testified for the prosecution Thursday in former Silverthorne photographer Dale Bruner’s trial for the murder of his wife.
Bruner is charged with second-degree murder, first-degree assault and tampering with evidence in the killing of his wife, Stephanie Roller Bruner, whose body was found in the Blue River near the couple’s home in November 2010.
The Silverthorne dance instructor and mother of three had been having an affair, and filed for divorce weeks before she died.
Prosecutors are calling the case domestic violence, while the defense holds the Silverthorne police led a sub-par investigation that was focused on Bruner from the start.
Baldwin was among four witnesses who took the stand in the second day of jury proceedings Thursday, including the victim’s brother, Aaron Roller, who said the tensions in his sister’s marriage peaked the night she disappeared.
“That was a peak of stress and tension that day that I had observed,” Roller told the court. “There was just too much tension for this to be a random anything.”
During the three-day window between when she was reported missing and when her body was discovered, Roller said Bruner was his No. 2 suspect and the man his sister was seeing, Ron Holthaus, was No. 3.
Roller testified Thursday his sister herself was his No. 1 suspect, as he believed she had either left willingly or committed suicide.
Bernhardt went on the offensive Thursday, with tough questions for Baldwin, who was among the first police officers to investigate the case. He threw suspicion on Roller Bruner’s lover, Holthaus, whom he said the police did not properly investigate as a possible suspect.
He also suggested the police hadn’t lent enough urgency to the missing person’s investigation.
“(Is it true) you are there to protect and serve, not conduct an investigation when it’s convenient for you?” Bernhardt asked Baldwin during cross-examination.
Both the defense and prosecution have zeroed in on the timeline between Roller Bruner’s disappearance Nov. 22, 2010, and the discovery of her body three days later, particularly on the emotions and demeanor displayed by Bruner during that time.
Roller Bruner’s uncle, Hank Ronish, who was among the family members that gathered when she was missing, testified that Bruner’s emotions and concern for his wife seemed less than genuine, saying he sobbed at times but never appeared to cry real tears.
Baldwin testified that Bruner changed his story when speaking with different law-enforcement officers about whether he had gone out to look for her the night she disappeared.
Ronish also noted that Bruner seemed nervous about anything happening on the west side of his home – the side facing the river where Roller Bruner’s body was later found.
It was on that side of the house, through the backyard, that police discovered a set of footprints in the snow leading out from the house.
However, multiple witnesses testified that though the house was cluttered, there was no sign of a struggle, no blood and no evidence of a body having been dragged through the snow.
The defense pointed out that while Bruner’s emotions during the period of time his wife was missing may have seemed odd to Roller Bruner’s family members, Ronish did not know him well enough to know how he would display true sadness.
Roller Bruner’s body was discovered frozen in the Blue River around midday Nov. 26, 2010.
She was naked but for a T-shirt that had been almost completely pulled off her body and had suffered an injury to the head. The jury was shown a picture of the body in the river during opening statements.
When Roller gave Bruner the news that a woman’s body had been found, he testified his brother-in-law fell to his knees and began dry heaving.
An autopsy later revealed Roller Bruner had suffered a blow to the head and had been strangled before she was dumped, likely unconscious but still alive, into the Blue River in freezing temperatures where she died.
Bruner reported his wife missing from the couple’s home the morning of Nov. 23, 2010, telling authorities they had gotten into a small fight the night before and that she’d gone for a walk to clear her head.
She never came home.
The following morning he tried to call her cellphone several times before taking his children to the school bus and contacting the police.
Law-enforcement officers, police dogs and later search and rescue combed the area around Roller Bruner’s home for three days as her family and friends poured in to town from other parts of the country to help.
On Nov. 26, 2010, her body was discovered in the river, and cause of death was later ruled a combination of blunt force trauma, strangulation, hypothermia and drowning. She’d been the victim of a homicide, the Summit County Coroner said.
Bruner was publicly named the prime suspect soon after.
He was indicted by a grand jury on multiple felony charges in August 2011. He has declined several plea deals from the prosecution.
Court records paint a picture of a crumbling marriage in the weeks leading up to Roller Bruner’s death and things appeared to begin to unravel after she was laid off from her job as a planner for Summit County government in October 2010.
The same evening she reportedly caught Bruner spanking their son, the couple argued and she later requested a restraining order against him, according to testimony at trial.
Family members say she was erratic at the time, changing her mind frequently about whether she would leave her husband, and admitting that she was having an affair with Holthaus, who was her dance partner.
She eventually vacated the restraining order, but later filed for divorce.
The couple had been married 11 years.
Several people who knew the couple, including Bruner’s former girlfriend, said he had a history of physical abuse, according to court documents.
The couple’s three children are now living with Roller and his wife in California.
Bruner has since moved to Fort Collins