In an emotion-packed hearing, a teen is sentenced for murdering a Utah staffer at a rehab ranch

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Clay Brewer, 17, of Snowflake, Arizona meets with his defense attorney Ron Yengich in Judge Wallace Lee's 6th District Court in Panguitch Thursday Dec. 29 to make his first court appearance. He is being charge as an adult with first-degree-felony counts of aggravated murder, attempted aggravated murder and aggravated robbery, as well as a third-degree-felony count of failure to stop at the command of police, and misdemeanor counts of tampering with evidence, reckless endangerment, theft and reckless driving. He is accused of killing 61-year-old Jimmy Woolsey during an attack at Turn-About Ranch School, located north of Escalante.

Panguitch • Clay Brewer was once a happy kid who loved baseball and making people laugh — until a pain pill addiction sent him spiraling.

He once tried to kill himself, then brutally killed another man at a Utah youth ranch in 2016.

And for the death of 61-year-old Jimmy Woolsey, Brewer was sentenced Thursday to spend at least five years and possibly the rest of his life in prison.

It was an emotional hearing in the Panguitch courtroom, as the community that knew and loved Woolsey wept at the loss of the man who was raised in rural Garfield County, a beloved father and a husband who worked at the ranch to help others. Even the judge became emotional, saying he grew up alongside Woolsey and knew his family well.

And then there were those who cried for Brewer.

His family stood by him, penning letters to 6th District Judge Wallace Lee asking for mercy and speaking on his behalf at his Thursday sentencing. Two years after his crimes, they say, he’s clean and getting better. The old Clay, the teen who was so happy and helpful, is still there.

But his crimes were too terrible for anything less than a prison sentence.

“I want you to know I don’t consider you to be a monster,” the judge told the teen before sending him to prison. “I don’t consider you to be a bad person. I hate what you’ve done. But I don’t hate you.”

Sinking into addiction

Growing up, Brewer was funny, well-behaved and loved playing baseball. The Arizona teen helped other kids at school and coached his younger cousins. An “all-American boy,” an aunt described in court.

That all changed when he was 15 years old. He struggled with his parents’ divorce, his mother wrote in a letter to the judge, and she began noticing a change. His friends were different. He started drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana and eventually started taking prescription pills.

“I was at a loss for a solution,” his mother, Nikki Carter, wrote. “I felt I had tried everything I knew to help him.”

As his drug use increased, Brewer’s parents decided to send him to rehab. They settled on Turn-About Ranch, a private youth-rehabilitation facility in the small south-central Utah town of Escalante.

The price tag was hefty — a $15,000 down payment, his mother wrote, and the parents expected to pay $36,000 for his stay.

But they were desperate.

“We wanted nothing more than to help our son and save his life,” the mother wrote.

During Brewer’s stay at the ranch, he struggled with withdrawals and tried to kill himself by drinking bleach. His mother wrote that she found out later that he was in a part of the ranch where students were not allowed to wear shoes and given very little food. On those cold December days, the teens were allowed to go inside a cabin only to sleep at night.

It was on Brewer’s fifth day at the Utah ranch — Dec. 6, 2016 — that he would pick up a metal bar and rock Garfield County.

Violence at Turn-About Ranch

Brewer woke that morning feeling “heartless,” he would later tell police, like he had lost his mind.

It was in those early morning hours when Woolsey came to check in on a group of teens who were sitting around a fire when the attack began. Brewer ran toward the 61-year-old staffer and began hitting his head over and over again with a piece of metal rebar.

“I paused,” the teen later told police about the attack. “I couldn’t bear to think about what I had done. I just stood there.”

But he didn’t just stand there. The violence continued.

As Brewer attacked Woolsey, the other teens rushed to a nearby cabin and alerted another staffer, Alicia Keller.

Trying to hold the door closed, she struggled to keep Brewer out of the cabin, and in the process, the teen beat Keller’s hand and smacked her in the head. She still is disabled from the injuries.

Brewer went back to Woolsey’s body, Keller told police, and grabbed the man’s wallet and keys and tried unsuccessfully to start his truck.

Keller finally gave Brewer her own car keys so he would leave.

From there, Brewer led police on a high speed chase through the rural residential area until police were able to stop his car.

After the 17-year-old’s arrest, news of Woolsey’s death and Brewer’s other crimes spread through Escalante and the county.

Garfield County Attorney Barry Huntington said Thursday that so many in the community were left grappling with how something like this could happen. Why Jimmy? Why Alicia?

“Jimmy wanted to help people,” Huntington said. “Alicia wanted to help people. That’s why they worked where they worked.”

‘We take care of each other’

As Brewer’s case wound its way through the legal system the past two years, the crimes continued to haunt Garfield County residents, Huntington said. Officers who chased Brewer through the neighborhoods, emergency personnel who tried to save Woolsey’s life, the other teens who then witnessed a brutal assault — all were affected.

But Huntington also noted at Brewer’s sentencing hearing that the community rallied around the ones who were hurting, providing support to Woolsey’s and Keller’s families.

“That’s why I live in Garfield County,” he said. “We live here because we take care of each other. We take care of our own when we get hurt.”

Because the crimes impacted so many, Huntington told the judge Thursday that a prison sentence that could keep Brewer behind bars for possibly the rest of his life was necessary.

(Courtesy of Sena Spencer) Jimmy Woolsey and his family.

Woolsey’s widow, Brenda Woolsey, said she never wants Brewer to be free again. Her husband’s death has shattered her, she said Thursday, and left her teenage daughter without the man who adored her.

“I ask that you receive the same sentence that you gave me,” she read from a letter directed to Brewer. “To be alone.”

Brewer, now 19, has spent two years wondering how he could make right what he had done. The first step was pleading guilty in July to murder and aggravated assault instead of going to trial. He said before he was sentenced that he would accept whatever punishment came to him, and he would work to help others and make himself better while in prison.

When he pleaded guilty, Brewer apologized in court and asked parents to speak with their children about drug abuse, how the most dangerous substances are often sitting in a medicine cabinet.

“It’s a matter of time before they are found and abused potentially by a young child who has no knowledge of these demons that are pressed inside those pills,” he said. “It’s an epidemic not only in my own case but in close friends I used to know who have lost their lives.”

As he apologized, Brewer said he thinks of Woolsey’s widow and prays for her every day. He often thinks of Keller, and hopes she heals and finds happiness. He thinks too of the other youths at Turn-About, how his actions affected their own recoveries.

But most of all, he thinks of Jimmy Woolsey.

He regrets his actions every day, he said, and will look to Woolsey’s life as an example of how to live his in prison.

“I really pray that one day I can meet you and say this to your face and apologize from the bottom of my soul,” Brewer said. “And you may accept my apology not because of my words but how I lived my life after I have taken yours.”