BELLINGHAM - A man convicted of his fifth felony assault must serve 16 years in prison for beating his girlfriend nearly to death at their Bellingham home because she wouldn't give him a kiss goodnight.
Two months ago County Prosecutor Dave McEachran charged Brent J. Bruwelheide, 33, with attempted second-degree murder for how severely he beat his girlfriend at an apartment on Cherrywood Avenue.
She had gone to bed around 1 a.m. June 8 when he came into the bedroom and yelled at her for not giving him a kiss goodnight. He accused her of cheating on him, pulled her from the bed, got on top of her on the floor and punched her again and again in the face and ribs.
Bruwelheide choked her with his hands, then wrapped a cellphone charger cord around her neck and tried to strangle her - yelling, "Die, (expletive), die!" - until she lost consciousness.
She woke up to Bruwelheide standing in the doorway, screaming profanities at her and blocking her from leaving. Eventually he let her take a shower but told her to come back to the bedroom afterward "so he could kill her," according to charging papers. That night she stayed up all night downstairs, in fear of what Bruwelheide might do if he saw her again.
She did not report the assault until her mother called police on her behalf two days later. The woman, 36, had a swollen face, bruising around her eyes, chin, neck, ribs and right arm, and four broken rib bones.
Days after Bruwelheide was arrested, he started calling her from jail, according to follow-up charges filed by the prosecutor. All inmate calls from the jail are recorded, and a Bellingham police detective heard Bruwelheide coaching his girlfriend to tell the "real story" of what happened. He told her to say she got jumped by someone down the street from their apartment, and in a panic came home and declined his offer to go to the hospital.
Over a series of phone calls, he told her he loved her, that he wanted and needed to see her, and that "his life rests in her hands and his fate rests with her," according to charging papers. He asked if she wanted to stay together. She said yes.
Bruwelheide explained to her how another violent crime would be his third strike, and if she testified against him, he would go to prison for the rest of his life.
On his adult rap sheet, Bruwelheide has three violent felonies: third-degree assault in 2004; second-degree assault in 2007 (which counts as one "strike"); and third-degree assault in 2009.
But as it turned out, under state law an attempted murder conviction from 1997 - when he stabbed a rival young man in the chest for kissing his girlfriend, leaving him for dead in rural Skagit County, McEachran said - didn't count as his first strike because Bruwelheide was a juvenile, even though he was charged in an adult courtroom. McEachran and Bruwelheide's public defender, Darrin Hall, dug through case law before realizing the defendant was not, in fact, facing 500-plus months behind bars, because of that technicality.
Detectives and the prosecutor struggled to get Bruwelheide's girlfriend to agree to testify against him. Before striking a deal with the defense, McEachran even considered going to trial based on only the victim's initial account of what happened.
Ultimately, Bruwelheide pleaded guilty Thursday, Aug. 14, to attempted assault in the first degree and assault in the second degree. Tampering with a witness charges were dropped in the plea deal.
At the sentencing hearing, the victim told Superior Court Judge Deborra Garrett that Bruwelheide needed counseling and treatment, not prison. She asked to waive a required order banning him from contacting her "because he's a huge part of my life and has been for a lot of years, and I need to have that contact."
Bruwelheide exclaimed, "Thank you!" as he broke into tears and wiped his eyes with a tissue. He needed a moment, to fight back his sniffling, before he addressed the court.
"We've been a large part of each other's lives for a long time now, not just intimately, but as a support system," he said. "Now's a time when we need that more than anything."
Garrett would not waive the no-contact order, because the crime was "not just as an offense to the person that's been assaulted, but to the community," she said. "It sounds to me like (she) almost died."
The judge ordered Bruwelheide not to communicate with her for 10 years. If Bruwelheide serves his time as a model prisoner, Garrett added, she might reconsider the length of the order.
She sentenced Bruwelheide to 16 years and eight months in prison, as suggested by the prosecutor and public defender. He'll be evaluated for mental health problems and get treatment for anger management and substance abuse.
Garrett told Bruwelheide she hopes this will be a turning point for him, to start changing his life for the better.
"I'm trying," Bruwelheide said. "I am trying."