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UTAH STATE PRISON — Brian Keith Stack admits it has taken time, but he says he is not the same person he was 40 years ago when he entered prison at age 18 for shooting and killing a Utah Highway Patrol trooper.
"I’m no longer the 18-year-old kid whose thoughtless and selfish actions brought so much pain into so many people’s lives. It saddens me to say its taken so many years to become the man before you,” he said in a recording of his most recent parole hearing on Feb. 19.
On Nov. 7, 1978 — just two days after he transferred from the UHP's field office in Moab to his hometown of Panguitch — trooper Ray Lynn Pierson, 29, pulled over a pickup truck on state Route 20 for a minor traffic violation. What he didn't know was that the truck was stolen out of Montana, that the driver was a fugitive from Illinois, and the truck had just left a Texaco in Cove Fort without paying for gas.
Just as Pierson approached the truck, Stack shot him in the chest without warning. Pierson was able to fire off six rounds as the truck sped off. Pierson, who was found by a citizen still lying in the road, died as a result of his injuries.
Stack was arrested following a chase and after he hit a police car set up as part of a blockade. Despite 87 holes law enforcers later counted in the stolen truck from bullets officers had fired in an attempt to stop Stack, including 11 in the windshield, he suffered only a minor injury, according to the UHP.
Stack, who had turned 18 just a few weeks earlier, eventually pleaded guilty to aggravated murder — avoiding a possible death penalty — and was sentenced to life in prison. At the time, life in prison without the possibility of parole was not an option for Utah judges.
Over the years, Stack has filed motions in court challenging his sentence as well as prior decisions made by the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole.
In 1996, he was one of six Utah inmates who escaped from a private prison facility in Texas. Utah had contracted with a Texas company to send 100 inmates to that state to help alleviate overcrowding problems at the Utah State Prison. Stack was recaptured about two weeks later.
Stack, now 59, is once again seeking parole.
I’m no longer the 18-year-old kid whose thoughtless and selfish actions brought so much pain into so many people’s lives. It saddens me to say its taken so many years to become the man before you.
–Brian Keith Stack
But Pierson's son, Clint Pierson, who followed in his father and his grandfather's footsteps to become a law enforcer himself, wants his father's killer to serve his full sentence.
"We have been sentenced to life without my father now for 40 years because of choices that Mr. Stack made on Nov. 7, 1978,” he said at Stack's recent parole hearing. "My sisters have no memory of my father. My brother has very few memories of my father, and I don't have as many as I could have because of Mr. Stack’s decision.
"He chose the most violent option. He could have chose to run. He could have chose to give up. He could have chose a lot of other things. He chose to point a gun at my father and pull the trigger,” Pierson continued.
Even after four decades, he said the shooting is still "raw" for his family.
"Every time this comes up, it’s a fresh wound. It tears it open as it was yesterday,” he said.
Pierson pointed to the judge's original sentencing order in which the judge crossed out the word "indeterminate" when sentencing Stack to up to life in prison.
"I believe that the order was clear, that he should remain in prison for the remainder of his natural life. And that he made that deal in order to avoid the death penalty, which could have been imposed in the case because of the circumstances,” Pierson said. "He needs to remain here. He’s been incarcerated so long now, I don’t believe he could operate in a regular society."
Stack responded by first reading a prepared statement in which he apologized to the Pierson family. He then noted for the board that "life without parole" was not a sentencing option back then, and that he believed he could survive in the outside world.
Stack then told board member Denise Porter, who conducted his hearing, that he experienced a big change during his last parole hearing in 1996 in which one of Pierson's daughters spoke. Because of her words, Stack said he "began to have the physical effects of a broken heart and a contrite spirit," and that he finally "fully understood the amount of pain and loss I’ve caused this family."
Because of that hearing, he said he vowed to strive to be a better person, even when his possibility of being released from prison seemed "hopeless."
He earned his high school diploma, an associate degree, and has been a team leader at many prison jobs.
"I’ve worked very hard over the years to become a better person than the one that entered prison 40 years ago,” he said.
Porter, however, noted that according to prison records, Stack has had streaks of being a model inmate, and periods where he has gotten in trouble, including testing positive for drugs and being caught with alcohol within the last five years.
Stack claimed he was making "alcohol" in his cell to sell to other inmates for extra money and that he hasn't had a dirty urinalysis test for four years.
He also asked for a new psychological evaluation so the board would have updated information to consider when making a determination of whether to grant parole.
Porter agreed, as did the full five member board, who recently ordered that Stack receive a new psychological evaluation and an updated risk/needs assessment. Once that information is collected, a new parole hearing will be held in about four months, according to the board.