Stephanie Roller Bruner: ‘He threatened my life’
July 27, 2012
BRECKENRIDGE – Shortly before she died, Stephanie Roller Bruner told a Summit County judge her husband had put his hands on her throat and threatened to kill her.
On Thursday, the jurors who will decide whether wildlife photographer Dale Bruner is guilty of his wife’s murder, heard her voice, pleading with the court for help.
“He threatened my life,” Roller Bruner told a judge during a recorded restraining order hearing. “I can’t go back to him.”
Roller Bruner’s body was discovered in the Blue River weeks later, in November of 2010, three days after Bruner reported her missing from their home in Silverthorne. She’d died of a combination of strangulation, blunt force trauma, hypothermia and drowning.
Seven months later, a grand jury indicted Bruner on charges of second-degree murder, first-degree assault and tampering with evidence.
Testimony in court over the last week has indicated the Bruners’ marriage was falling apart in 2010. Roller Bruner, a dance instructor and mother of three, had taken out a restraining order against her husband, filed for divorce and was seeing another man.
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Prosecutors rested their case Thursday after a domestic violence expert testified that leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for a victim.
Two of Bruner’s ex-girlfriends joined Roller Bruner in claiming Bruner had put his hands on their throats and choked them during heated arguments.
“It is a unique assault,” deputy district attorney Kristine Word said of strangulation. “It’s an intimate crime and it is the defendant’s modus operandi.”
The defense asked the judge to toss the case out Thursday evening, saying the prosecutors, who hold the burden of proof, had offered no direct evidence that Bruner is guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, of any of the crimes with which he is charged.
Judge Mark Thompson resoundingly denied the motion for judgment of acquittal Thursday night.
The prosecution built its case on Bruner’s behavior leading up to and just after his wife’s disappearance, inconsistencies in his story about what happened between them the night she disappeared and his alleged history of domestic violence, both with the victim and other women.
Defense attorney Robert Bernhardt countered by attempting to demonstrate the flaws in the police investigation of the case and by highlighting the lack of direct evidence.
“In that respect, without a scintilla of direct evidence, I remind the court that my client has been charged with the crime of second-degree murder,” Bernhardt argued. “In almost 20 years of both prosecuting and defending cases … I’ve never tried a homicide or any other serious felony (case) that has been brought with no direct evidence whatsoever.”
While the prosecution’s case has been largely circumstantial and there is no DNA evidence, prosecutors called an email that Roller Bruner appeared to have written to the man she was seeing, Ron Holthaus, the night she disappeared direct evidence.
Roller Bruner seemed to have started the message – in which she tells Holthaus he is the love of her life – but never finished or sent it.
The computer auto-saved the email just before 11 p.m. that night, 30 minutes to an hour after Bruner claims she left the house, never to return.
Bruner reported Roller Bruner missing from the couple’s home in Silverthorne just before Thanksgiving, 2010, saying she went out for a walk the night before and never returned.
Search and rescue teams searched for three days as temperatures dipped below zero at night, before finally finding Roller Bruner’s body in the Blue River near her house.
The cause of death was later ruled a combination of blunt force trauma, strangulation, hypothermia and drowning.
Bruner was identified soon after as the prime suspect.
Court records and family accounts paint a picture of a troubled marriage in the weeks leading up to Roller Bruner’s death.
The couple reportedly fought after Roller Bruner was laid off from her job with the county government. She would later take out a restraining order against her husband and eventually filed for divorce on Nov. 1, 2010.
The couple’s three children are now living with Roller Bruner’s brother and his wife in California.