DEL NORTE — There were few dry eyes in the room last Thursday as 12th Judicial District Judge Martin Gonzales handed down the maximum sentence to Victor Braun, 33, for the killing of Danice Day, who was 19 when she died on Jan. 9, 2002.
Braun earlier pleaded guilty to reckless manslaughter in a "contract" between parties involved that 12th Judicial District Attorney David Mahonee said was the only way Danice’s remains would be found, she would be brought home and her family would have closure.
Four of the dry eyes were those of Braun and his Denver-based attorney, David Jones, who attempted a last-ditch explanation of what happened to Danice in order to perhaps lessen the sentence.
Citing Braun’s alleged crack cocaine addiction and other explanations for what happened, Jones asked for a sentence in the mid-range, five to eight years.
Gonzales made it clear, when levying the maximum 12-year prison term, a $1,000 fine and three years of mandatory parole, that Braun had pled guilty to manslaughter and any other explanation at that point would change nothing.
The plea agreement, accepted earlier by Gonzales, did not include facts behind the discussion leading to the reckless manslaughter charge.
Jones alleged during the Dec. 10 hearing that Braun came home to discover that Day had died from a drug overdose and panicked, leading to his decision to dispose of her remains.
According to Jones, Braun feared going to jail, since he was on parole, and was afraid of losing custody of his daughter by Danice and her son by a previous relationship.
Jones contended that Braun was not a violent man; that his crimes were burglary, forgery and the like, but the judge told Braun, “You hurt people.”
To underscore that point, he gave Braun 12 months in jail each on two counts of burglary held over through the plea agreement, ordered $7,305.06 in restitution, gave credit for time served awaiting trial on those raps and ordered the terms served concurrently.
To have sentenced Braun to less than the maximum, Gonzales said, would be doing an injustice to Day and her family. With a list of previous felonies, Braun was ineligible for probation.
Plea entered and accepted
The judge reminded Braun that, “You pled to the crime of manslaughter. You pled that you committed the crime by recklessly causing the death of another person. You pled that you caused the death of another person on Jan. 9, 2002.”
Braun stared straight ahead, except for a glance back at his mother, sister and other family members sitting behind him. Even in saying, “I apologize,” he did not look at Day’s family.
In June 2009, the Utah Department of Public Safety dive team, assisted by the Apache County, Ariz., Sheriff’s Office, conducted the search in conjunction with Rio Grande County Sheriff Brian Norton and acting on information provided by Braun as a result of the plea agreement, located an oil barrel containing Danice’s charred, fragmented remains in Lyman Lake in the Arizona mountains some 400 miles away from the San Luis Valley.
Norton testified that Braun, in fact, had been taken to Arizona and confirmed that he had dumped the barrel containing Danice’s remains in the lake. A grid search by divers located one empty barrel and another which contained human remains and was taken to the El Paso County, Colo. Coroner’s Office for examination.
Norton said he was present when the barrel was opened and submitted some sonar photos of the lake, the barrel and bone fragments, which were admitted into evidence.
Dr. Leon Kelly, a forensic pathologist from El Paso County, testified that he examined approximately 800 fragments of charred bone that had been taken from the oil drum, along with oil, glass and one femur. With very little tissue left, toxicology was impossible and the cause of death was equally elusive.
Identification was made through DNA analysis, authorities reported earlier.
Kelly testified that the condition of the remains “told me the extent to which the perpetrator went to disfigure the body.”
The judge read portions of a statement made by Braun when the barrel was recovered, detailing how he took the blue-painted 55-gallon drum, cut it off about six inches from the top, placed Danice’s fragmented remains inside it, welded the top back on, covered the weld with tape and painted it blue so no one would notice that it had been tampered with before hauling the barrel and a boat to Arizona, drilling holes in the barrel so it would sink quickly and dumping it in Lyman Lake, watching as it sank.
Braun told investigators he went to the Arizona state park and waited for guards to leave before launching the boat and hauling the barrel out onto the lake.
Another paragraph read by the judge detailed how Braun said that he regretted not taking the barrel to the area near the dam, where the water was deeper.
Addressing Braun, the judge reminded him that he got a plea deal that wiped out many of the charges pending against him. Closure for the family, he said, was the “bargaining chip…” which came about “after years of non-closure”
2,851 days of loss
“I did the math,” the judge said. “The parents and family have lived with this crime 2,851 days since you committed this crime; it has been 2,851 days the children did not have a mother; 2,851 days she couldn’t say she loved her father. Every day, every hour, every second of that time, you were silent.”
“Your counsel points out that you do not appear to be a violent man, but he overlooks that on Jan. 9, 2002, someone undertook the mangling of the body to the point that toxicology was impossible,” Gonzales continued. “to avoid confessing, you pleaded guilty to causing the death of another human being.”
Victim impact statements occupied most of the Thursday afternoon hearing as, one by one, Day’s family members told of the agony Braun’s actions had caused.
Her mother, Jonene Day, now a resident of Laramie, Wyo., wept as she said, “Ron and I lost our baby… The light has gone out in her little kids’ lives.”
Her older sister, Julie Flint, remembered how Victor had been invited into their homes and the seven years the family spent not knowing where Danice was, and that her children had been told she ran away from them. “We wondered if she ran away from all of us; whether we’d see her walking down the street… When we found out what happened to her, it was even more terrible.”
“He (Braun) not only took her, he took the children’s mother,” she said, her voice shaking with emotion.
Jacqui Flint, a sister seven years older, maintained a web site devoted to Danice over the years she was missing, and told the court, “She was my little sister, my best friend, a big part of my life. I tried to watch out for her, but I couldn’t. The person who was supposed to look out for her hurt her.”
She told the court that, when she thinks of fragmented bones in a barrel, “I can’t comprehend how you could hurt someone like that… Her kids don’t have a mom. They’ve lost their mom and a lot of their father… It’s incomprehensible. It’s just not fair.”
Richard Day, uncle of the victim, sent a withering glare in Braun’s direction as he walked to the witness stand, and then read a statement on behalf of the family members who couldn’t be there. He said he wouldn’t acknowledge Victor Braun as a person.
Victor, he said, took the only child of his brother, Rodney, and her children never knew their mother because she was taken so early in their lives. Their only memories will come from fading photographs and shared family memories.
Her daughter is now with her maternal grandfather and her son lives with his father out of state.
Richard said Braun’s recent guilty plea is of no consequence. “(He) wouldn’t accept responsibility for how Danice died; how she got into a barrel in a lake. Not once did he step forward, he was so sure Danice would not be found,” he told the judge. “Sentence him for what he could have done, but chose not to do.”
Finally, Rod Day, Danice’s father, took the stand and told the judge, “This boy took the life of my little girl, my only child. Over the years, he showed no conscience, no remorse whatsoever.”
“Because of his actions, I will never be able to enjoy the company of my little girl again, to hear, “I love you, dad.”
“Holidays mean nothing to me.”
Day told the judge, “This boy was senseless and out of control. He put her in a barrel, welded the lid shut, took her 400 miles away and dumped her in a watery grave.”
Asking the judge to impose the maximum allowable sentence, he said, “It’s not fair. This boy has rights. Does Danice not have rights any more?"
'The devil's drug'
Only one character witness for Braun was called by the defense. Valerie Braun, sister of the defendant, reaffirmed the drug abuse defense, saying “cocaine is the devil’s drug. It makes people do the worst things possible.”
She said the family loved Danice, who trusted Valerie with her children, but stopped short of saying anything positive about Victor.
Judge advises victims
The judge told the people in the courtroom, "Don’t think of her the last time you saw her (remains). Recognize that her legacy ought not be damage, sorrow and despair.”
"Think of her legacy through her children. When they smile, you will see her smile; when they hug you, she will be hugging you.”
“Nothing I do here will change what happened. I wish I had the power, but I don’t.”
The incarceration of Victor does not, by any means, mean that the case is closed. Sheriff Norton said, “The investigation continues into that person, or those persons, that had knowledge or assisted in the disappearance of Danice Day.”