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Inmate seeks 'life as a normal person' after killing mother 40 years ago

A guard tower at the Utah State Prison on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020.

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)



UTAH STATE PRISON — Bret Lee Etterlein is 62 years old. He has spent two-thirds of his life in prison.

At one point, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole voted that Etterlein should serve out the rest of his life sentence in the Utah State Prison for murdering his mother.

But after being in prison since 1981, and not having a single disciplinary write-up in the past 24 years, the board recently agreed to give him another hearing to reconsider whether he should be paroled.

"I'm 62 years old, I'm not a child. I've grown up, I'm a man now. I'm not a person who has to be watched over his shoulder, you know, to do right to do what's correct. I do that myself. And that's what I'm supposed to do," he told the board in a recording of his hearing on April 27.

Etterlein, of Ogden, said he grew up in a house with an abusive father and a mother who had an incestuous relationship with him for a few years starting when he was 11.

"I was terrified of him, plain and simple," he said of his father. "It's where I learned to be violent."

Etterlein ran away from home when he was 13. By 18, he was sent to prison for the first time for an aggravated robbery conviction.

"I was just an out-of-control youth. I didn't have any way of supporting myself and I was basically an uncaring individual. I just did what I wanted to do. I grew up in a way where I was treated, so that's how I acted. It's not an excuse, that's just how it was," he said.

He called his first prison sentence "rough," and noted that in those days, inmates had to stand up for themselves or face violent consequences from other inmates. Etterlein said he spent his days just waiting to get out and not bettering himself.

"I just learned to be more violent," he recalled.

In May 1981 he was released from prison. But with nowhere else to go, he moved back in with his mother and stepfather.

It wasn't long before the problems from his past arose again.

On June 22, 1981, Etterlein was again arguing with his mother, 45-year-old Nyla Earl, after he said he resisted her advances. She threatened to call her son's parole officer and claim he attempted to rape her if he refused, and even ripped her own nightgown to make it look like an assault, Etterlien said. He refused and said, "Fine. I don't care. I'm done."

Earl then used a belt to hit her son in the face, according to Etterlien. At that point, he said he "hit my limit."

"So I got slapped across the face with a belt. And that's fine for a 14-year-old or a 12-year-old, but that doesn't work for someone who is 21, 22, has been in prison. I learned to respond to violence with violence. Like I said, all those years, the rage just popped out," Etterlien said.

Ettterlein went to his stepfather's pickup truck, grabbed a gun and shot his mother twice in the head, killing her. He then drove off to Wyoming and Colorado before returning to Ogden in hopes that he would be killed in an officer-involved shooting.

"I was so ashamed of what I done … intensely embarrassing and shameful," an emotional Etterlien told the board. "I couldn't do that again. I just couldn't believe what I did when I did it."

In 1991, Etterlein had a parole hearing and was told to come before the parole board again in five years. In 1996 he had another parole hearing, but the board decided at that time to let Etterlein serve his entire life sentence.

But since that time, Etterlien said he has obtained an education, learned skills such as working on computer systems, and has stayed out of trouble.

"I've been trying to live my life like I'm supposed to … it's just a habit now. I'm not going to do anything different out there than I'm doing in here," he said.

Etterlein believes he would not re-offend if released, noting that the killing that day was due to unique circumstances and something he doesn't think he could do again.

"This situation could never happen again. I've never felt that way before or since. Doesn't seem to matter how long, it hurts. It's just a zero possibility," he said while becoming emotional. "I wanna just go back and be a normal person. That's it. I don't want anything else. I don't need much. I would just like to finish my life as a normal person."

The full five-member board will now vote to decide whether to grant Etterlien parole.

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