Lawsuit claims Utah rehab ranch broke its own rules by admitting an addicted teen — who then killed a staffer

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.

The wife of an employee who was beaten to death by a teen drug addict in withdrawal at a Utah rehabilitation ranch is suing the Garfield County facility for admitting the boy to the program, which she alleges wasn’t the proper setting for his treatment.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in 6th District Court on behalf of Brenda Woolsey, claims Clay Brewer, then 17, should have never been at Turn-About Ranch on Dec. 6, 2016, when he woke up “feeling heartless” and later beat to death 61-year-old ranch staffer Jimmy Woolsey with a metal bar.

Brewer was convicted of murder and aggravated assault in connection with Jimmy Woolsey’s death and an attack on another staffer, and sentenced to five years to life in prison in October. The woman Brewer attacked, Alicia Keller, survived but was disabled. She died in 2018, just short of the two-year anniversary of the attack, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims that in allowing Brewer into the ranch, purportedly against its own standards for enrollment, its operators were endangering the lives of its clientele and those who worked there, and, thus, they are liable for Jimmy Woolsey’s death.

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

Turn-About Ranch bills itself as a rehabilitation facility for 13- to 17-year-olds struggling to overcome emotional and behavioral issues, such as depression, attention deficit disorder, substance abuse and addiction, rebellion and poor academic performance, according to its website.

The ranch’s admittance standards, outlined in the lawsuit in addition to the ranch’s website, say it doesn’t allow in individuals who demonstrate aggressive behavior or have “active” suicide attempts, among other behaviors. The lawsuit also states the program was not “geared to deal with minors suffering from serious drug addictions and certainly not minors going through drug withdrawal.”

Despite this, the lawsuit says, the ranch took in Brewer, who had a history of suicide attempts and was addicted to prescription pills. During his short stay at the ranch, Brewer tried to kill himself by drinking bleach. On his fifth day there, he killed Jimmy Woolsey and severely injured Keller.

The lawsuit alleges Turn-About Ranch, its foundation, as well as director Matthew Bartlett, vice president John M. Webster, corporate directors Michelle Lindsey and Max Stewart, and employees Shane Young, Suzanne Catlett and Bart Carter are all liable in Jimmy Woolsey’s death. Brewer and his parents, Les Brewer and Nikki Carter, are also named.

(Bart Carter is the brother of Turn-About Ranch President Myron Carter, and was married to Clay Brewer’s mother, Nikki, at the time of the attack.)

An attorney for Turn-About Ranch, John M. Webster, said that while ranch operators and employees mourn Jimmy Woolsey’s death, they don’t believe Brenda Woolsey has grounds for a lawsuit under Utah worker’s compensation law. Webster said the ranch has held that position since 2017, when it first learned of a pending lawsuit.

In a letter to Brenda Woolsey’s attorneys dated Feb. 1, 2017, Webster quoted Utah law saying that worker’s compensation is the “exclusive remedy” when an employee is injured or killed while working.

“Turn-About Ranch, Inc. has maintained its Worker’s Compensation Insurance to comply with the law and to provide for its employees in the event of an unfortunate occurrence such as this one. As this appears to be her exclusive claim, it is our hope that Mrs. Woolsey and her daughter will receive an appropriate award from Worker’s Compensation,” Webster wrote.

Brenda Woolsey is seeking an undetermined amount of money compensation for her husband’s medical bills and funeral expenses, as well as for the loss of love, companionship and financial support, among other damages his death caused. Attempts to reach attorneys for Woolsey and Brewer were not successful Thursday.