BANGOR, Maine — The South Dakota man charged with slaying and setting ablaze a local homeless man camping along the Kenduskeag Stream six years ago was sentenced Friday at the Penobscot Judicial Center to 15 years with all but seven years suspended for manslaughter.
Kenneth John Bruning, 26, of Rapid City, S.D., also was sentenced to four years of probation in the death of Trevor Sprague, 34, who was homeless at the time of his death.
In exchange for pleading guilty to manslaughter, the murder charge against Bruning was dismissed.
Bangor police confirmed last year that Bruning also was a member of Bangor’s transient population when Sprague was killed.
Information about how Sprague died was made public for the first time during Friday’s 45-minute hearing before Superior Court Justice William Anderson.
The Lubec native died of strangulation and then was set on fire, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson said. The prosecutor said that DNA obtained from blood found on one of Sprague’s shoes matched a sample of DNA taken from Bruning. DNA from droplets found in a trail of blood that led from the scene toward the Intown Plaza at the intersection of Kenduskeag Avenue and Harlow Street also matched Bruning’s DNA.
Although Benson said that Bruning’s DNA was matched to DNA from blood found at the crime scene in 2010, it appears that Bruning’s DNA was not entered into a national FBI database until after he was convicted of a felony in South Dakota.
He was serving a two-year sentence for burglary and possession of methamphetamine in South Dakota when he was interviewed by Bangor police in summer 2010. He admitted knowing Sprague but denied harming him, Benson said.
Bruning was indicted in November 2010 by the Penobscot County grand jury for murder. He was returned to Maine the following June and pleaded not guilty to the charge.
On Friday, Bruning waived indictment, pleaded guilty to what is called an information and entered an Alford plea, named for the U.S. Supreme Court case North Carolina v. Alford decided in 1970. It is “a guilty plea that a defendant enters as part of a plea bargain, without actually admitting guilt,” according to Black’s Law Dictionary.
The defendant did not address the judge but the victim’s younger sister, Terry Sprague Taylor of Westbrook, did. Struggling to control her emotions, Taylor cried as she read a statement she said was the result of many drafts.
In one, she criticized the defendant “because he does not have the courage to take responsibility for my brother’s death and plead guilty to murder. But I decided that the amount of time he serves will not bring my brother back.
“I hope he understands what he did wrong and regrets the pain he has caused me, my family and his own,” she said. “I hope the defendant makes changes in his life and takes advantage of this tremendous opportunity he’s been granted and turns his life around.”
By pleading guilty to the lesser charge, Bruning admitted that with the evidence the state had, a jury could find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of manslaughter. He did not, however, admit that he killed Sprague or set him on fire.
Sprague’s body was found face down and on fire under the Harlow Street Bridge on March 7, 2006. The Lubec native and Bangor transient was known to camp along the Kenduskeag Stream.
Bruning’s trial on the murder charge had been scheduled to begin July 30 at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor.
Both Benson and defense attorney Jeffrey Silverstein of Bangor told Anderson that they worked out the plea agreement to avoid going to trial and risking a verdict in the other side’s favor. The judge accepted the plea agreement and imposed the recommended sentence but called Sprague’s death “a horrendous and horrible crime.”
If convicted of murder, Bruning would have faced a sentence of between 25 years and life. The maximum sentence for a manslaughter conviction is 30 years.
In October 2009 in Bangor District Court, Bruning was convicted of a misdemeanor assault that occurred at what is now the Hope House, a homeless shelter near the University of Maine at Augusta, Bangor campus. The assault took place two weeks after Sprague’s death, according to previously published reports.
In addition to the murder charge, Bruning faced a local charge of failure to pay the fine for the assault.
Anderson said he would have to pay those fines while on probation for the manslaughter charge.
He has been held without bail at the Penobscot County Jail since being returned to Maine from South Dakota nearly a year ago. That time is expected to be credited to his manslaughter sentence.