WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Brandon Wright’s back is etched with a relic of an abandoned way of life.
Beneath his Department of Corrections-issued, button-down khaki shirt and plain white tee there is a tattoo — a partially completed image of a Viking ship passing through a canyon — across his back.
It was inspired by white supremacy ideals he later rejected.
Wright said his friend had been raped by a black man, so at the time he hated all black people. But while serving time for a variety of offenses — DUIs, drug offenses, assaults and robbery, among other crimes — he was surrounded by white male criminals.
“Was I supposed to hate all white men?” he asked during a prison interview Monday.
His second ex-wife is Japanese, and his two young sons are half-Japanese. He said he finally saw the error of his ways.
The unfinished tattoo is a physical reminder that Wright is not the man he once was. If he could go back, Wright, now 45, wouldn’t get any of his tattoos again.
And if he could, he’d bring Robert Bushey back to life.
In August 1994, Wright killed Bushey, a 45-year-old Kelso man, in a panic after Bushey came home from work to find Wright had broken into his trailer in search of food. The case was unsolved until Wright walked into a Salt Lake County jail on Easter Sunday last year and confessed to the crime.
Wright had never been a suspect in the murder.
“I’ll take responsibility for it. I’ll do the time. I’ve ran for too long,” Wright told a Utah police officer the day he confessed.
Wright spoke to The Daily News recently for the first time since he pleaded guilty to and was sentenced to 17 years for second-degree murder in September. In the interview, he described life in prison, the events leading up to the murder and how it tormented him until he confessed.
Wright grew up in Utah, where he later became a skilled computer programmer. His parents loved him as a kid and gave him a normal childhood. His dad took him to the mountains to fish and hunt rabbits. He was an average kid of average intelligence who played soccer.
He married twice and divorced twice. He has three children — a 25-year-old daughter by his first wife (Wright was 19 when she was born) and 8- and 3-year-old sons by his second wife.
Before he started drinking again prior to his second marriage ending, he was by his own account living the American dream: A nice house, a nice job, a nice truck and a family he loved.
But he also had a long criminal rap sheet that began in the early 1990s. Over the years, he became addicted to meth, heroin, alcohol and painkillers. He was charged with aggravated assault with a weapons violation in 2010 and at least six alcohol- or drug-related charges spanning from 2010 to 2016.
Wright is a modest, quiet man by all appearances and an introvert by his own description. Among the visiting fiancées, wives and children in the family visiting room at the Walla Walla prison, Wright’s is the quietest voice.
He folds one tattooed arm across his body, props his elbow on his hand and strokes a wiry, light brown beard with the other. Both of his arms, too, are sleeved in black tattoos from his wrists to his shoulders. A fat spider near his wrist and a ghoulish eyeball near the crook of his elbow stare ominously back at onlookers.
He said his rebellious streak began at age 13, the year his parents divorced. He had started smoking weed and drinking occasionally, but his parents’ divorce hit him hard.
He began breaking into houses and spent much of his youth in a detention center, where he lost touch with his younger sister. (She’s now married and a teacher in Florida.)
By August 1994, Wright was on the run from the law. A friend had relatives in Kelso, so he made his way there and stayed at a friend’s house for a short while before he said he got paranoid and fled. He was in Kelso two weeks before he murdered Bushey (pronounced boo-SHAY).
Wright said he was living in the woods and surviving off wild berries before he came across Bushey’s shop. He did meth four days earlier, cocaine the day before. He was starving and broke into the Bushey’s shop and found Bushey’s freezer. He took meat and cheese out of the freezer and began to thaw it.
But Wright needed more food, so he decided to break into the travel trailer where Bushey, a self-taught welder and pipefitter for JH Kelly, had been living.
The trailer was parked next to the shop. Bushey had planned to start a family-run welding business on his land in the 400 block of Douglas Street, his family said. His trailer was jam-packed with his belongings.
Wright broke the window of Bushey’s trailer, crawled in and began to eat granola bars. But Bushey arrived home that afternoon while Wright was still in the trailer.
Wright said he hit Bushey in the head with a hammer, intending only to knock him out. But Bushey, a tall and strong man, was still conscious. Wright said Bushey charged and bear-hugged him and the two fought until Wright grabbed a multi-purpose tool from inside the trailer and stabbed Bushey 53 times from his neck to his abdomen with the blade portion of the tool. An autopsy revealed that Bushey bled to death from his wounds, including one that cut the carotid artery in his neck.
Wright said he thought he stabbed Bushey about 10 times. He didn’t find out the actual number until he confessed last year.
“You’re killing me,” Bushey told Wright before he fell, the only thing said during the entire fight.
Wright covered Bushey’s body with blankets and clothes, stole Bushey’s wallet, red Ford Thunderbird, a welder and other tools and drove to Portland, where he got a flat tire and abandoned the car behind the Portland Meadows racetrack.
Wright bought heroin after he sold Bushey’s tools. Trying to kill himself because of the guilt, Wright shot himself with a gram of heroin in a Burnside bar and waited to die. Instead, he was revived with a shot of Narcan, taken to a hospital and later booked for his parole violation. He was shipped back to Utah.
Wright never told anyone about the murder and said he tried to commit suicide a few more times, but they were less serious attempts than the first.
Eventually, Wright said he buried the murder deep in his mind and went on living.
Wright isn’t a religious man. He said he confessed because he was inspired by good people in his life — his mother, daughter and coworkers, in particular.
“I didn’t deserve to keep living the way I was,” he said.
In March 2016, Wright wrote a confession note he had intended to send to Kelso police before he walked into the Salt Lake County jail.
“It is with the help of many who have a higher moral standard than me that I have come to the point where I can finally face the fear of an atrocious crime I committed in August of 1994,” he wrote.
Though he expected to be given less time because of a previous plea discussion, Wright said he didn’t think he should fight the prosecutor’s recommendation of 17 years. He also never intended to go to trial. If he had insisted on a trial, Wright said he might as well have never confessed.
Wright said he’s done being rebellious.
He now spends six hours a day in his private cell in the Fox unit of the Washington State Penitentiary studying trigonometry, Spanish and Japanese, writing letters to his children and drawing pictures for his sons: a penguin for Christmas or a dragon rising from a genie bottle. He said his ex-wife cut off contact with him once she found out he would be spending 17 years in prison, so he is saving the drawings until he sees his sons again.
He speaks with his mother once a week by phone and writes letters and talks to his daughter by phone. His daughter is sick and needs a liver transplant, his mother said.
His mother is a great conversationalist, Wright said, so the two make a good pair: the quiet son and his chatty mother.
“It works out well,” he said.
A mother’s love
Wright’s mother, a house cleaner from Utah named Anita West, likes to tell a story about her son.
Several years ago, Wright’s sister, Chelsea, came out from Florida for a camping trip with West, Wright and more family.
A fat, fuzzy green caterpillar inched its way across a nearby dirt road. The family crowded around and peered at it.
Wright gingerly picked it up and placed it on a nearby leaf.
“I said ‘Why’d you do that?’ He said, ‘I didn’t want it to get run over,’” West said. “That’s who he is.”
Though strained, tested and pushed to the limit through the years by Wright’s drug and alcohol addictions, her love for Wright has stayed strong.
To West, he’s her bright, sweet little boy. He’s a clever and brilliant man. He was a good dad to his little boys — especially little Kazu, the nickname for his 8-year-old son Brandon.
But West says she’s never shied away from telling Wright how it is. She kicked him out of her house after he became drunk on Sept. 1, 2015, his birthday — something he would do every year, West said, because it was around the anniversary of Bushey’s murder.
“Fifth, after fifth, after fifth of hard liquor” he drank, she said. “I said, ‘You’re not going to do this.’”
West couldn’t understand why her son was never happy and couldn’t stay clean.
“I said ‘Why can’t you be happy? You just got these degrees. You have a wife,’” West said.
Wright never told her about the murder and didn’t warn her he was going to confess. He told her he needed to deal with something but never gave details.
“I said, ‘You need to stand up and take responsibility for what you’ve done.’ I said, ‘Our family is a decent, honest people.’”
West found out about his confession through her daughter, who heard it on the news. West watched the story unfold on the local 10 p.m. news. She screamed and cried.
“It’s about as hard as you can get. When that happened, I fell to pieces,” West said.
But the murder doesn’t make her love her son any less.
“I don’t want anybody to think he’s a monster. He’s not a monster,” she said. “I adore my son. I just have two kids. You just don’t stop loving them.”
Many of Bushey’s family members have forgiven Wright for the murder.
Stepbrothers Trevor and Terry Bushey and Rockey Brooks have forgiven Wright completely and want to follow his progress. The nature of the murder — that it was done in panic and by someone who was doing drugs at the time — and Wright’s remorse and successful life after the murder, made it easier for the stepbrothers to forgive Wright.
Terry Bushey, the only one of those stepbrothers who is Bushey’s biological son, is an ex-felon himself. In fact, he was a person of interest in his father’s death until his alibi cleared. For years, people accused him of the murder.
He forgives Wright in part because he knows what it’s like to be a criminal, to be addicted to drugs, to reform his life and to face the stigma of being an ex-felon.
“People ask, ‘How can you forgive someone like that?’ People don’t realize how much courage it took for Brandon Wright to turn himself in for a murder charge knowing that he could get 25, 30 years and never see his kids again,” said Terry Bushey, who recently started a tile restoration business in Oregon.
He said he wants to hire ex-felons as a way to help them reform. “I want people to know that people who make mistakes and do crimes can change their lives.”
Rockey Brooks, Robert Bushey’s stepson who lived with him until he was 16 years old, didn’t know that Bushey had been murdered until Trevor Bushey called him last year. The last time Brooks had contact with his stepdad was around 1992.
“I’m a Christian, so forgiveness is something we’re supposed to do. It’s not always easy. In his case, I felt that he was not who he once was,” Brooks said. “I felt bad for him having to do 17 years, having to do so long now that he has children. Nothing he can do now can bring Bob back. An extra 10 years can’t do anything for us.”
Trevor Bushey met Wright in the Cowlitz County Jail prior to his sentencing and spoke in person at his September sentencing. Wright’s remorse and regret were clear to him.
“It’s already a tragedy,” Trevor Bushey said. “It would make it more of a tragedy to not take advantage of this opportunity and turn his life around. The more successful he is, the more he’s able to make a positive impact on this world — that heals things and makes things better.”
Paying the price
Bushey’s daughter Trina Clark hasn’t forgiven Wright. Though Clark is Bushey’s biological daughter, the two had very little contact after Clark’s mother separated from Bushey. Clark was raised by another man. She returned to Kelso after Bushey was murdered and became the executor of his estate, something that caused a falling out between her and her stepbrothers, Trevor and Terry Bushey.
Clark didn’t know that Wright had confessed until she was interviewed by The Daily News last week.
Though she said she doesn’t hate Wright, she would have wanted him to get the maximum time in prison for the murder. The maximum of Wright’s standard sentencing range was about 21 years.
“There’s nothing he could say to me that would justify his actions. I hope he finds remorse. I hope he finds peace. I don’t hate. I think he should pay the price. He took another person’s life,” Clark said. “I’m glad he has a conscience. I’m glad he turned himself in. He has a lesson to learn and I’m glad it’s behind bars. I don’t think he could say anything to make it better.”
While serving a 10-year sentence in a Utah prison for robbery, Wright had an epiphany. As punishment for misbehaving (there were many infractions), Wright was locked in a strip cell. He was buck naked under the watch of a security camera. There was no furniture in the room, and Wright was shivering in the December cold.
He would do jumping jacks to warm up or curl up in the fetal position on the floor of his cell. Wright said he realized that with the way he lived his life, he didn’t deserve to be a father to his daughter.
He needed to shape up. And he did.
He took community college classes while he was incarcerated. He said he built a Linux operating system out of computer parts prisoners were tasked with disassembling. He later got scholarships to help pay for a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Utah State University, where he met his second wife.
Wright is a passionate computer programmer. Six months before he turned himself in, he said Amazon asked if he would consider a job. He turned the offer down, knowing he was about to confess.
When he gets out, Wright hopes he’ll be able to get a Ph.D. in computer science. But he worries no one will hire him because of his record.
If Wright serves his full sentence, his daughter will be 42 years old, and his sons will be 25 and 20 when he gets out. He’s held his 3-year-old son only once. Wright will be 62.
Wright said his biggest regrets are killing Robert Bushey and not being with his children.
At the end of his confession note to Kelso police, he wrote: “I am so sorry for all the pain I’ve caused. I wish I could put a pillow under your emotions and give you some long overdue peace.”