Plea agreement reached in family slaying case

1993-04-23T00:00:00Z Plea agreement reached in family slaying caseBy Journal Times
April 23, 1993 12:00 am  • 

BALSAM LAKE (AP) - A teen-age boy who killed five family members two years ago and burned their bodies in a car pleaded guilty Thursday to two homicide counts and made an insanity plea on three others.

Bruce Brenizer was convicted on two counts of first-degree intentional homicide in the deaths of two adults. He also pleaded guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, the so-called insanity plea, to counts of first-degree intentional homicide involving three girls.

Polk County Circuit Judge James Erickson accepted the guilty pleas and ordered a sanity trial.

Brenizer was 15 when he was arrested May 18, 1991, in the rural northwestern Wisconsin slayings of his father, Rick Brenizer, 35; Ruth Berentson, 31; her two children, Heidi, 10, and Mindy, 7; and her child with Rick Brenizer, Crystal, 5.

Brenizer had previously pleaded innocent by reason of mental disease or defect to all five charges.

Thursday's admissions are the first time the teen-ager has publicly acknowledged his role in the killings, which have been characterized as the worst crime in Polk County history.

Under terms of the plea agreement, Erickson will decide the sanity phase of a trial on the three homicide counts still at issue, District Attorney Mark Biller said. That proceeding, involving expert medical testimony, is set for May 7, he said.

The shootings took place two years ago Thursday at the rural Cushing trailer home where the family lived, the criminal complaint said.

Jesse Anderson, Bruce Brenizer's stepbrother, told investigators under a grant of immunity that Brenizer used his .30-.30-caliber rifle to shoot each of the five in the head.

Anderson said Brenizer then called him for help in disposing of the bodies and they put the victims in the family station wagon, drove it to a nearby wooded area, doused the bodies with gasoline and burned them.

Brenizer was upset with his father and the family's backwoods way of living, Anderson told investigators.

Brenizer told authorities at the time that the five had gone to the Twin Cities and had not returned. A fisherman found the charred bodies May 11. The remains could be identified only through teeth fragments.

Lawyers have argued that Brenizer was a victim of emotional and physical abuse. The family lived in a ramshackle home that had an outdoor toilet.

The guilty pleas without the insanity conditions involve the deaths of the two adults, Biller said.

In the sanity phase of a trial, Brenizer would have to prove that he was incapable of knowing right from wrong at the time that he killed the girls.

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