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Life without parole ordered for Utahn who murdered wife, tried to kill daughter

SALT LAKE CITY — A Salt Lake man who beat his wife to death with a crowbar and tried to kill their daughter in the same way will spend his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

As a judge read the sentence for Walter Eugene Brantzeg on Thursday, 50-year-old Valerie Sue Brantzeg's family members locked arms and cried. They wore purple, her favorite color, in her memory.

"Why can't people just walk away when they can't live without each other?" Valerie Brantzeg's sister Jeanne Long wondered aloud outside the courtroom.

Her little sister, she noted, had tried. Valerie Brantzeg filed for temporary separation from her husband about three weeks ahead of the attack, court records show. A week before her murder, she texted her husband to tell him she intended to seek sole legal custody of their daughter.

Walter Eugene Brantzeg, 55
Walter Eugene Brantzeg, 55
Salt Lake County Jail

Early on Aug. 22, 2018, Brantzeg kicked in the front door of his estranged wife's apartment near 850 W. 3900 South, then attacked the mother and daughter with a crowbar and pepper spray while they were still in bed. In the midst of the brutal attack, he told the girl, "If you want to be with your mom so bad, be with her," police said. The girl's skull was fractured while an autopsy revealed 28 blows had been dealt to her mother's head.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera called it "one of the most horrific domestic violence cases I've seen."

Brantzeg, 55, pleaded guilty in May to aggravated murder and attempted murder, both first-degree felonies, among other charges. In exchange for his guilty pleas, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty or file more charges. Brantzeg also faced an allegation of child sex abuse from last year.

"No sentence can ever correct for what he has done," 3rd District Judge Adam Mow said Thursday. However, the judge added, Brantzeg's guilty pleas resolved the case much faster than a trial, where his daughter and her sister would have testified.

Now 14, Brantzeg's daughter told him through a victim advocate Thursday that he means nothing to her.

"You should have taken my life, not my mom's," she wrote in a letter read aloud by the advocate.

The girl, who was travelling out of state at the time of the hearing, continues to recover and today is bubbly and bright, showing no signs of her head injury, her family members said.

When police arrived at the scene of the deadly attack, Brantzeg had left. He called a friend, his stepdaughter, and some Utah newsrooms while driving away to tell them he had used a crowbar to beat and kill his wife and daughter, claiming his ex had turned the girl against him, court documents say.

In a beard and yellow jail uniform, Brantzeg apologized.

"I did things that just were inhuman," he said. "I ask for forgiveness if there’s any out there to give or have."

Brantzeg said he loves his children, a statement that stunned their family.

"That's wrong. You don't make babies to kill them," Long said.

Long said the sentence served justice only "to a point." But pursuing the death penalty for Brantzeg would prolong the case and likely lead to years of appeals.

"It would cost the taxpayers so much time and so much money, and we would be going through this every three to five years. No way," Long said.

The Brantzegs had been separated and living apart for years but had never divorced. In the last six months of her life, Long said she didn't have much contact with her sister. At the time she had suspected that Valerie Brantzeg might be victimized, she said, but had no proof.

"We wondered if we were seeing signs, but how can you accuse somebody?" Long said.

Brandon Merrill, an attorney for the family, said he encourages those in abusive relationships make a safety plan with advocates when they are preparing to leave, but he and Long weren't sure Valerie Brantzeg knew there are resources to help victims make sure they and their children safe.

In addition to the life sentence, the judge ordered Brantzeg to consecutive terms of at least 15 years for attempted aggravated murder and at least five years for aggravated burglary, first-degree felonies. Brantzeg received credit for time he has served in jail for his conviction of animal cruelty, a class A misdemeanor, after he killed his cat following the attack.

Help for victims of domestic violence is available from a confidential Utah hotline, 800-897-LINK (5465), and at udvc.org.