Judge rules out alternate suspect request by Blagg
His attorney plans to appeal; Montana convict publicly ID'd
GOLDEN — A Jefferson County District Court judge Thursday turned down a request from Michael Blagg to allow a theory of an alternate suspect to be presented in his upcoming murder retrial, but his attorney indicated she intends to appeal that decision.
Blagg is the Grand Junction man convicted of his wife’s murder in 2004 and sentenced to life in prison. The body of his daughter Abby, who was 6 years old at the time of her disappearance, has never been found, and no criminal charges have ever been filed in her presumed death. Blagg was granted a new trial in January 2016 after juror misconduct came to light.
Last month, Jefferson County District Court Judge Tamara Russell heard two days of arguments from Blagg’s public defender, Tina Fang of Glenwood Springs, that an alternate suspect may have committed the 2001 murder of Jennifer Blagg and abducted Abby Blagg with the intent of sexually assaulting and killing her.
Russell on Thursday publicly identified the alternate suspect: Phillip Kevin James Bruinsma of Whitefish, Montana. Bruinsma was sentenced last month to two 100-year prison terms for distribution of child pornography and sexual assault of several children.
In her ruling today, Russell called the evidence that Bruinsma committed the murder of Jennifer Blagg and abducted Abby Blagg “unduly prejudicial” and that the defense did not make a strong enough connection between that evidence and the Blagg homicide and abduction.
The FBI raided Bruinsma’s home, vehicles and a storage locker in 2015, discovering two yellow sticky notes that listed eight missing girls and other details, including their birth dates and dates of abduction. Abby and Jennifer Blagg’s names were both listed on those sticky notes, along with their dates of birth, physical descriptions and the date they went missing.
Perhaps the strongest evidence raised by Blagg’s defense to tie Bruinsma to the case was a Gucci watch owned by Jennifer Blagg that lawyers said Bruinsma gave to his now ex-wife in late 2002 or 2003. When shown a picture of the watch, the woman apparently recognized it as a gift Bruinsma had given her but later retrieved when they split in 2007.
Regarding the watch, Russell noted that Michael Blagg submitted an insurance claim for jewelry missing at the time of his wife’s murder, and that the watch was not on the list, nor was there any evidence that Jennifer Blagg still had it when the family moved to their Pine Terrace Court home in Grand Junction 10 months before the murder.
The defense presented other evidence attempting to tie Bruinsma to the crime, such as a red and black tent allegedly owned by Bruinsma that was similar to the tent that Jennifer Blagg’s body was wrapped in when it was found in a Grand Junction landfill. Russell noted conflicting family testimony about whether Bruinsma owned such a tent.
The defense also pointed to the sticky note list, stating that it showed Bruinsma picked certain types, such as young girls with blonde hair and blue eyes.
But Russell noted that only one other child on the list fit that description, and that other people have been convicted of the crimes committed against some of the children on the list.
“The list isn’t a list of prior acts,” Russell said, calling Bruinsma a “pathological liar.”
Less convincing to Russell was the defense claim that Bruinsma had been in Grand Junction in November 2001, with the judge pointing out there was no direct evidence that Bruinsma had been in Grand Junction at that time, based on interviews with family members.
“I don’t see any similar characteristics or details” of Bruinsma’s crimes with the Blagg case, Russell said.
She called much of the assertions by the defense “pure speculation,” including a claim that Bruinsma had stalked Abby Blagg in the days before her abduction.
Russell also criticized the defense for presenting two motives for the crime: the first, that Bruinsma abducted Abby Blagg in order to sexually assault and murder her, and the second that Bruinsma committed the murder and abduction in the commission of a robbery, taking jewelry from the home.
Russell called the motives a “huge leap,” adding, “I just can’t make that leap.”
The watch, the tent and shell casings from a gun similar to the one that killed Jennifer Blagg are all interesting but require a lot of speculation, Russell concluded.
She also noted that the “sensational and shocking” information on Bruinsma, who allegedly possessed hundreds of young girls’ panties, child pornography images, vaginal molds he made from some of his victims, and emails in which he solicited others to assault the children in those images, could easily mislead a jury.
Fang indicated after the judge’s ruling that she intends to appeal the decision.
The next hearing on the case is scheduled for Dec. 4 in Jefferson County with a trial date set for Feb. 20.
Blagg will be returned to the Mesa County Jail in the meantime.
Gail Johnson, an attorney representing Blagg’s brother, John Dorman Blagg III, and sister, Claire Blagg Peterson, said after the hearing that the family was “shocked and deeply disappointed” by the ruling.
“My clients have always known their brother is innocent,” Johnson said.
Michael Blagg is “an upstanding citizen, loving father and husband” with no priors, she added. “Bruinsma is a serial child rapist and murderer. How can a jury not hear this?”