YAKIMA, Wash. — Despite declarations of innocence, two men convicted of killing a Selah woman 15 years ago were sentenced Friday to just over 20 years in prison, the maximum allowed under the law.
Michael O. Gorski, 62, and Frank Brugnone, 59, were convicted at trial last month in the slaying of Carolyn Clift, 56, who was found brutally stabbed to death in her Selah apartment on the night of Aug. 28, 1997. It was Selah’s first homicide in 10 years.
In a long, sometimes rambling statement to the court, Gorski professed empathy with the Clift family, who sat in the front row only a few feet from him, but repeatedly proclaimed his innocence, saying, “I’m not the guy.”
“They need closure,” he said. “But they’re not going to get closure with me, because I’m innocent. I didn’t do this. I’m innocent.”
In a much shorter statement, Brugnone said he implicated himself only because he was “scared to death” of one of the detectives.
“I was not there,” he said, adding, “I’m not guilty. That’s all I can say.”
Their protests fell on deaf ears, as Yakima County Superior Court Judge Ruth Reukauf informed the defendants she was going to give them the top of the sentencing range — 220 months plus 24 months for deadly weapon enhancements.
“This should not be surprising to either of you,” she told the defendants, calling Clift’s murder “a truly heinous crime.”
The trial was notable not only because it was a rare cold case built largely on DNA evidence against Gorski, but also because the defendants were tried jointly even though Gorski’s fate rested with a jury while Brugnone put his fate in the hands of Reukauf.
The investigation into Clift’s murder had lain dormant until 2011, when Selah police detectives Rich Brumley and Pauli Martin got the case from the sheriff’s office.
By then, new DNA testing on cigarette butts found at the scene of the murder had been matched to Gorski, a hard-drinking, twice-divorced furniture store salesman who was 46 in 1997 and living with Brugnone and his then-wife on Graber Road.
More DNA testing on a pair of eyeglasses and clippings of the victim’s fingernails further implicated him.
Also critical to the case was a witness who came forward shortly after reading a 2007 Yakima Herald-Republic story on the 10-year anniversary of Clift’s slaying.
The witness said he distinctly recalled seeing Gorski and Brugnone on the night of the murder “ducking down” in a vehicle in the parking lot of the Selah Square Apartments, where Clift lived by herself. Other testimony suggested the defendants knew Clift and had encountered her earlier that evening at the now-defunct Wagon Wheel nightclub.
As at trial, Gorski repeated his claim that he had only casually encountered Clift at a liquor store hours before her murder and that he initially lied about the encounter for fear of losing his job and then stuck with his story because he knew it would look bad to backtrack.
Looking over frequently at members of the Clift family, Gorski complained he spent his life savings on his defense, that the witness who placed him and Brugnone at the scene was probably the real killer and that his “touch” DNA was not indicative of a bloody struggle.
“I’m not trying in any way, shape or form to upset this family,” he told the court, “but I don’t know how to tell everybody you’ve got the wrong guy. It’s not me.”
Gorski’s habit of addressing the victim’s family earned a rebuke from Reukauf, who warned him, “If you look at that family one more time, we’re done talking.”
“I’m sorry,” Gorski responded.
In statements to the court, Clift’s adult children, Susie Svenssen and Chuck Wiley, urged Reukauf to give their mother’s killer a sentence at the top of the sentencing range.
“No other woman is going to have to be tortured by these criminals,” Svenssen, who lives in White Salmon, told the court, noting her mother’s spinal cord was severed in the attack.
Wiley, who lives nearby in Hood River, Ore., described his mother as a vulnerable woman who was taken advantage of by predators. “They killed her because she stood up to them,” he said.
Lastly, their uncle, Curtis Clift, complained that neither defendant ever showed any remorse for his sister’s murder.
Said Clift, “They are users. They are evil people.”
• Chris Bristol can be reached at 509-577-7748 or email@example.com.