The debate over the death penalty couldn't be more personal for the mother of Brendan Johnson.
In June 2014, Johnson and his then-girlfriend, Cassie Rieb, were arrested and charged in the murders of his grandfather and grandmother, Charles and Shirley Severance, in the eastern Colorado community of Sterling. A few months later, prosecutors announced they would be seeking the death penalty against the pair — a prospect that distresses his mom, even though Charles and Shirley were her parents. Hence, the creation of Saving My Son — Death Penalty, a Facebook page on which she shares anti-death-penalty posts as a way of fighting against the punishment that could eventually end Brendan's life.
There's no denying that reports about the Severances' deaths, drawn from arrest affidavits, are horrendous — and may disturb some readers.
A photo of Cassie Rieb from her Facebook page, which is still online at this writing.
As we noted last year, Johnson contacted police May 29 on a supposed medical call for his grandfather. Charles was dead upon the cops' arrival, and the fact that he had been killed a week-plus earlier goes a long way toward explaining why an autopsy didn't find immediate signs of trauma to his body.
In a subsequent interview, Johnson reportedly maintained that Charles had given him a couple of checks adding up to $4,500, as well as permission to drive his 2009 Chevy truck. He's said to have used the money and vehicle to attend a concert in Denver during the days leading up to the body's discovery.
Shirley, for her part, was missing, and in a separate interview with investigators, Rieb allegedly denied knowledge of her whereabouts — although the affidavit quotes her as admitting that Johnson actually wrote and signed the checks supposedly given to him by Charles.
Armed with this information, the cops went back to Johnson. The affidavit says he and Reib subsequently confessed to killing the Severances, and their explanations about the botched process are chilling.
A family photo of Shirley Severance shared after her death.
The murder plot reportedly came together in early May, with the goal focusing on Johnson collecting his inheritance early.
On May 20, the affidavit says, Johnson and Rieb entered the Severances' place, with him assigned to smother Charles and her tasked with doing the same to Shirley. But things didn't go as planned.
The document says Charles struggled so much that Johnson eventually had to choke him to death — although the seventy-year-old may have suffered a fatal heart attack while fighting for his life. And Shirley was even less cooperative. She apparently tried to run away, and when she couldn't escape, she pleaded with the teens not to kill her and even offered them money to go away.
They didn't. Johnson reportedly allowed her to get some water — but while she was drinking, he tried to cut her throat. Instead, he slashed her jaw, prompting Shirley to try fleeing again. She failed to get free, however, and Johnson is accused of repeatedly stabbing her as she pleaded for her life.
Some of Shirley's remains were found near Prewitt Reservoir, not far from Sterling.
Finally, Johnson strangled Shirley with a string, the affidavit says. Investigators believe that's what finally killed her.
The teens took the couple's bodies to a bedroom and left them there until the next day, police say. After the cleanup at the murder site was complete, they used the truck to transport Shirley's body to Prewitt Reservoir, a short drive from Sterling. There, they're accused of dousing it with gas and setting it ablaze — and while it burned, they tried to hack off an arm and a leg.
The body was initially buried in a reservoir fire pit. But they apparently didn't feel it was secure enough there, so they returned on May 28, dug it up and took it to a remote location in Nebraska before returning home. Johnson alerted the cops to Charles's death the next day.
We can only imagine the heartbreak Johnson's mother has suffered as a result of these incidents and those that followed. Then, in November, she launched the Saving My Son Facebook page with the following message:
Another Facebook photo of Brendan Johnson.
New Chapter — Saving My Som
Most of you have been FB friends with me since June 2nd, when our lives took a drastic, sorrow filled turn. Some of you are new friends that are unaware of my family's story or perhaps only know of it from newspaper/television articles. To summarize, my son (and his then-girlfriend) confessed to murdering my parents. In early September, the DA announced that she was going to seek the death penalty for my son, Brendan, and his then-girlfriend.
Although I will never understand, condone or accept what has happened, I have now come out of my fog and realized that if I don't start trying to do something, I may lose my son and I'm doing nothing about it.
All during this, I have tried to post things to my FB page to live out loud, as some friends and family have called it. I still plan to do that. However, I have decided to create a separate FB page for it to allow others to post to it if they have articles, feelings, websites to share.
If you are interested or would like to be a part. Please like the page.
Thanks again to all of you for your prayers, support, friendship and love. It has helped to bring us along and keep going!!
My love and BIG hugs to all of you!!!!
During the intervening months, Brendan's mother has regularly posted stories about the death penalty, including one from Westword about Bob Autobee, who opposed the execution of his son's killer. She's also shared a pledge from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and most recently praised Pennsylvania for its decision to halt capital punishment there.
For the most part, she has avoided commenting on Brendan's situation. The closest thing to an exception was a January post featuring the following photo:
A photo from the Saving My Son — Death Penalty Facebook page.
The caption on the pic reads: "Brendan with his little brother September 2003. He has always been so protective of his little brother."
And she is protective of him, despite the awful acts to which he's admitted.
Here's a 7News report about the arrests of Johnson and Rieb that was broadcast last June.
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