SALT LAKE CITY — A man accused of beating a counselor to death at a southern Utah rehabilitative youth ranch when he was a teen has pleaded guilty to murder.
The now 18-year-old Clay Brewer, of Snowflake, Arizona, pleaded guilty to the first-degree felony murder in 6th District Court in Panguitch Thursday. He had originally been charged with aggravated murder.
Brewer killed James "Jimmy" Woolsey, 61, with a metal fire poker on Dec. 6, 2016, as he tried to escape Turn-About Ranch in Garfield County just five days after he got there. He struck another staff member in the head before stealing her car and leading deputies on a brief chase that they said topped 80 mph.
Brewer admitted in plea documents to beating Woolsey to death and hitting the other employee, Alicia Keller, once or twice as he forced her to give him her car keys.
After his arrest, Brewer, who was 17 at the time, told police "I lost my mind" as he was coming off drugs at the camp. He said he had attempted suicide in the days before the killing and that he'd felt abandoned by his parents.
Under Utah law, Brewer was charged as an adult due to his age, but because he was a juvenile the death penalty was not an option for the aggravated murder charge.
On Thursday, Brewer also pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, a second-degree felony, reduced from attempted aggravated murder, a first-degree felony.
In exchange for the plea, prosecutors dropped charges of attempted aggravated murder and aggravated robbery, first-degree felonies; failing to respond to an officer's commands, a third-degree felony; tampering with evidence and reckless endangerment, class A misdemeanors; and theft and reckless driving, class B misdemeanors.
In video of a police interview shown in court during a preliminary hearing last year where he was ordered to stand trial, Brewer told an officer he found out the employee, 61, had a daughter and wished he could undo what had been done. He also described a path that led him to addiction, starting with his parents' divorce when he was 14. He said he came to use tobacco and began taking pills several times a day to get high, and his thoughts turned dark as he detoxed at the ranch and tried to kill himself by drinking bleach.
The next day, Brewer said he grabbed the fire iron, waited in the "circle" where his group would meet, and when Woolsey walked over and wasn't looking, he said he struck him in the head.
In the video, Brewer estimated he struck Woolsey about 10 times, mostly to the head, and tried to drag his body out of sight, but it was too heavy.
Keller saw the scene and ducked into a cabin, where Brewer described charging in and hitting her before breaking into her car through a window. He led officers on a chase to nearby Escalante and said he intended to act like he had a gun to try to get the officers to shoot him so that he could die.
Brewer could serve up to life in prison. The murder charge carries a sentence of at least five years and up to life, while the assault charge is at least one year and up to 15. Plea documents stipulate the sentences will run at the same time.
Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 11.