Life term for hammer killer; 'nothing can excuse,' says judge

Oct 4, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

Florin Brandon Wyatt was sentenced to life imprisonment Tuesday afternoon for what prosecutor Ember Oakley called a "man-made, senseless tragedy."

Wyatt beat 56-year-old Keith Stephenson of Riverton to death with a claw hammer in March.

At the time of the murder, Wyatt had been staying in the basement of Stephenson's house.

"My family was already small, but (Wyatt) has made it smaller," said Devonne Blake, Stephenson's daughter. "I have never hated anyone before. I only used the word 'hate' to describe a food I didn't like. And that's what he is: a nasty taste in everyone's mouth."

When Stephenson decided he wanted Wyatt to move out, the killer waited outside Stephenson's bedroom door in order to kill him.

"When he would wake up to meet the day, instead, he would meet Mr. Wyatt's hammer," Oakley said.

When Stephenson emerged from the bedroom, Wyatt struck him 17 times in the head with the claw hammer.

Stephenson's sister, Carol Stephenson, said at the sentencing that it's unlikely that her family could ever forgive Wyatt, who, she said instead, needs to worry about the forgiveness "of God and the little girl he selfishly abandoned."

"He won't be able to watch (his daughter) grow up and raise her own family," she said.

Carol Stephenson described Wyatt as "pure evil" and a "monster."

She said her brother allowed Wyatt to stay at his home because "he always helped those that were down and out."

Wyatt originally had told investigators that the killing came after an argument over the Denver Broncos, of whom Wyatt was not a fan.

"It's ironic that Wyatt may have to wear orange the rest of his life," Carol Stephenson chided him at the sentencing. "Maybe that's God's sense of humor. We're all wondering if his new roommate will be a Broncos fan."

After Stephenson was killed, Wyatt dragged the body out into the garage and covered it with towels and blankets. He then went back into the house, loaded a 0.22 caliber pistol, returned to the garage, and shot Stephenson once in the back.

Oakley said that Wyatt "continued to demonstrate his callousness after the murder."

Once Stephenson was dead, Wyatt took the man's debit card and Jeep, fleeing east on Interstate 80, where he was later arrested by Pine Bluffs police near a rest stop close to the Nebraska border.

During his escape, he also stopped to buy a sports jersey using Stephenson's debit card, and he visited a bar.

Two days before the killing, Wyatt sent a friend a message on Facebook, saying "Well, it looks like Keith is going to be gone for a while."

Wyatt's attorney, Valerie Schoneberger, said Wyatt now "feels terrible remorse" for the killing.

"He did care deeply about Keith Stephenson," she said.

While she said there was "no way for me to rationally explain what happened here," the killing was the culmination of Wyatt's "emotionally difficulties" and the "many behavioral issues he's had throughout his life."

As a child, Wyatt resided for a time at Jackson Hole's C-V Ranch, a residential school for students who require a higher level of care to manage their emotions and behavior than can be provided in their home school districts.

Schoneberger said Wyatt has severe "abandonment issues" and was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder when he was 6 years old.

She said his brain was permanently affected by his abandonment at birth by his mother. For the next 15 months, he was in an orphanage, "essentially tied to a crib with virtually no human interaction."

By age 2, he demonstrated behavioral issues and began banging his head against concrete.

The abandonment issues have persisted throughout his life, Schoneberger said.

When Stephenson told him to leave the house, Schoneberger said "the strong feelings of sadness, jealousy and fear came about again."

Judge Norman Young said that in his tenure on the bench, he's learned "there's always a story" that helps make sense of a criminal's actions.

"But nothing can excuse this and nothing can explain this," he said.

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