East Grand Forks mom gets more than 12 years in murder-suicide attempt
CROOKSTON -- An East Grand Forks mother who tried to poison her two young daughters and herself with vehicle exhaust took responsibility for her crimes at her sentencing hearing Monday.
Breezetta Etienne, who pleaded guilty in June to two counts of second-degree attempted murder, said her bipolar disorder and depression weren't an excuse for what she did.
"Mental illness or not, it was my hands or my actions that put my children in danger," she said.
Judge Jeffrey Remick of state District Court ordered 32-year-old Etienne to serve a prison sentence of more than 12 years.
"You as the mother of these two girls are the last line of protection for their lives," Remick said. "You chose to breach that duty and for that there has to be justice."
Etienne's court-appointed attorney, Eric Gudmundson, had asked the judge to let Etienne, in lieu of jail, serve her sentence with a Twin Cities-based organization that provides the mentally ill with housing and jobs.
But Assistant Polk County Attorney Scott Buhler told the judge she belongs in prison, arguing that her crimes were made worse because her victims were so vulnerable. "She clearly abused a position of trust and authority when she committed these crimes," he said.
On the evening of June 22, 2008, East Grand Forks officers Seth Merkens and Mark Whalen went to Etienne's home to check on her welfare after her husband reported receiving troubling text messages from her. Through a window, Merkens saw a sport-utility vehicle running inside the garage, so Whalen kicked in a door, and they removed Etienne and her daughters, ages 3 and 4, from the vehicle, according to a criminal complaint. A hose ran from the tailpipe to the vehicle's interior, and a suicide note rested on the console, police said.
Merkens and Whalen sat in the back row of the courtroom Monday, and Buhler pointed them out to the judge. "They saved the children, not the defendant. She had done everything in her power to end their lives," Buhler said.
Gudmundson saw Etienne's actions differently. "This was a cry for help from somebody who is suffering from a serious mental illness," he said.
Buhler said none of the three psychologists who evaluated Etienne found that she has a "severe and persistent mental illness," one that would have allowed her to make an insanity defense.
Buhler asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence on both counts: 183 months on the first, 207 on the second. Instead, Remick sentenced Etienne to the low-end of the state's guidelines: 130½ months on one count and 147½ months on the other. She'll serve the two sentences concurrently, and under Minnesota law, she must serve two-thirds of the sentence in prison and the remaining third on supervised release.
Etienne also is accused of illegally selling thousands of prescription weight-loss pills. She's pleaded not guilty to 19 fifth-degree counts of selling a controlled substance.
In court Monday, Buhler said Etienne, a former physician assistant at Grand Forks Air Force Base, was under the influence of such pills and alcohol when she attempted to kill her kids.
Etienne is the sister of Moe Gibbs, who was convicted in 2007 of murdering Mindy Morgenstern, a student at Valley City (N.D.) State University. Buhler said Gibbs wrote a letter to Judge Remick, concerning his sister's case.
Etienne and her husband are in the process of getting a divorce. He lives out of state and has custody of the girls. She told the judge she keeps in touch with her children by writing letters.
"Without question, I love my two girls," she said.