Rifle man sentenced in fratricide

Heath Johnston

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — A man who shot and killed his brother two years ago apologized to family members in court Wednesday.

“But I did what I did out of love,” Heath Johnston said before Judge Gail Nichols approved a 48-year prison sentence that Johnston and prosecutors agreed to under a plea deal. Johnston previously pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

Johnston, 21, killed his brother, Sam, 26, at their home in Rifle Dec. 15, 2008. He told police his brother was depressed and had asked to be killed.

Testimony during the sentencing hearing Wednesday revealed divisions in the brothers’ family over what level of punishment Heath Johnston’s actions warranted.

“I just pray to God that no other family ever has to go through this and be torn apart by this,” said the brothers’ mother, Kelly Ballesteros, who objected to Heath Johnston spending so much of his life in prison.

“It’s not that I’ve just lost one son, I’ve lost two sons,” she said.

The maternal grandmother of Sam Johnston’s three sons indicated in court she would have preferred a different sentence, noting the difficulty those sons have had coping with the loss of their father.

The oldest of those sons, Gage, told Nichols, “It’s been really tough. Whatever the outcome is, it’s never going to make up for what happened on Dec. 15, 2008.”

Gage Johnston was 11 and present in the home just before his father was shot. His father reportedly also had asked his son to shoot him, and earlier had made the same request of others.

Deputy public defender Steve McCrohan said Sam Johnston told others he wanted someone else to kill him because he feared he wouldn’t go to heaven if he took his own life.

However, Ninth Judicial District Attorney Martin Beeson said Sam Johnston wasn’t suicidal. He cared deeply about his sons and was making plans for his future with them, Beeson said.

Beeson said Sam Johnston had been drinking heavily the night of the shooting and Heath knew the request to be killed was “just the alcohol talking.”

Forty-eight years is the maximum sentence for second-degree murder, but Johnston could have faced life in prison if convicted of the original charge of first-degree murder. Beeson previously had ruled out seeking the death penalty in the case.

Nichols told Heath Johnston she hoped he would eventually stop rationalizing that he did the right thing because his brother wanted to die. She also urged family members to try to heal rifts created over the shooting.

“This is a further tragedy if the family breaks up over this,” she said.


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