KIRKLAND — It took a long time before she made the decision. Mayume Varnell Carelli wasn’t going to be consumed with thoughts of her father’s killer. Instead, she would pour love into her family.
They lost Dan Varnell on May 11, 1996, when he stopped to help someone who appeared stranded on a rural road near Granite Falls. He was murdered while being carjacked. He was 48, the age his daughter will turn on her next birthday.
The killer, Gail Brashear, was 15. She was sentenced to 51 years in prison. That was supposed to be the last word on the case.
In May 2016, Carelli received a letter from the state Department of Corrections. The laws had changed. Brashear, now 36, had a chance at parole.
After weeks of waiting, Carelli learned Tuesday that Brashear’s request was denied. She won’t be getting out for at least another five years.
Carelli is among dozens in Washington who now face the prospect of the people who hurt them walking free once again.
‘A big hugger’
Varnell met his wife while serving with the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam. He was forced to leave the country after his tour of duty. He was able to return and get her and their first child, Carelli, to the U.S. only after raising a ruckus and confronting a colonel.
They lived in the Silver Lake neighborhood in south Everett. Carelli and her two brothers grew up playing kick-the-can, building forts and shooting basketballs.
Varnell worked multiple jobs to get them by. He took care of everything for his wife, whose English faltered, even setting her alarm clock. In his spare time, he liked to work on old cars, to hunt and fish, and to tell corny jokes.
“His motto was ‘Hug your kid three times a day,’ ” Carelli said. “He was a big hugger. He told us he loved us constantly.”
Dan Varnell’s family created this video in his memory.
When her father died, she was 26 and living in California. At first, she felt waves of shock and anger and wondering: Why? She quit her job and moved back home to help take care of her mom and “slowly put pieces back together,” she said.
Later, she married and had three daughters.
Carelli wants to believe that Brashear is getting better. She knows the state may decide that is true someday. Still, her family was told the teen killer wouldn’t be released until she had become an old woman, unlikely to hurt anyone else.
“It hasn’t been long enough,” Carelli said. “She took that life. She’s still young enough that she can have a life of her own.”
Changes in court
The meaning of justice must evolve along with society, the U.S. Supreme Court has found.
In 2012, the court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that life without the possibility of parole is cruel and unusual punishment for inmates who were younger than 18 during their crimes.
Washington later passed laws to reflect the court’s ruling. The state took it further. The new law applies to dozens of prisoners here.
Those considered eligible for a parole hearing must have been teens who received lengthy sentences in adult court. They must have served at least 20 years. Their cases come before the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, which works closely with state corrections. The board must determine whether the inmate is “more likely than not to commit a new crime.”
So far, 32 inmates have had hearings. Of those, 15 were deemed eligible for release with a transition plan, and 16 were denied, including Brashear. One is awaiting a decision. Thirteen others are scheduled to make their cases in the months ahead.
Inmates who can petition the board under the new rules must not have committed a crime in prison after their 18th birthday, have no recent discipline history, and not have been convicted of aggravated murder, among other requirements. In exchange for Brashear’s guilty plea to first-degree murder, prosecutors dropped allegations of aggravating circumstances.
Her case is different from those of about 29 other prisoners in Washington who are serving time for aggravated murder convictions from when they were minors. They are subject to another process for seeking release. Their cases are to be heard before a judge in the county of their conviction, and the judge may reduce their sentence. The rules vary depending on their age at the time of the offense. Some may be eligible for review by the board at a later date.
Snohomish County already has seen at least two teen killers resentenced. Michael Skay was 16 when he committed aggravated murder by beating, robbing and drowning a man near Monroe in 1995. Last year, a judge removed his life sentence but declined to set him free. Skay now can petition the board in about a decade.
In 2015, a man who participated in a drug-related robbery and murder in Lynnwood in 1994 successfully sought approval for parole. Niguel Derome Jones was released in February.
When Carelli got the letter about Brashear’s petition, she let the state know she would be responding. She put the document in a drawer for weeks, until she was ready to think about what it meant.
The board invites survivors and victims’ families to provide input before parole decisions. Carelli, her husband and one of her brothers traveled to its offices near Olympia in March. Together, they spoke for nearly an hour.
Carelli’s statement read in part, “Do you realize how painful it is to know that his murderer can go out and have a full life of her own? When she writes about how excited she is? It’s like a blow to the gut.”
Carelli reminded the board that while in jail awaiting trial, Brashear wrote letters calling herself “The Angel of Death.” Back then, Brashear complained that it took so long for Varnell to die.
Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe also wrote a letter in April opposing release. He said the murder was “one of the most brutal and intensely personal killings in our county’s history” and it was too soon to consider clemency.
Twenty years is “simply nowhere near adequate punishment for the off-the-charts horror of the crime she committed, or the almost gleeful way she seemed to carry it out on a good Samaritan,” Roe wrote.
‘He handed me the gun’
Brashear also had a chance to speak with the parole board.
On April 12, she was told to describe her actions in 1996 and her reasons for seeking release. The newspaper obtained an audio tape of the hearing through a public records request.
Brashear has been behind bars her entire adult life. She has never worked a job outside the prison, legally driven a car or owned a smartphone.
In the time leading up to the killing, she was getting into trouble at school. She had stabbed a young man during a burglary, weeks before she crossed paths with Varnell.
Varnell met his killer while heading home from his favorite fishing hole along the Pilchuck River. Brashear was camping in the woods near Menzel Lake Road with her older boyfriend, who was on the run, and some friends. She said their ride never showed, and the group decided to steal a car. She joined her boyfriend heading toward the road.
“Then he handed me the gun,” she said. “It was the first time I ever held a handgun. I remember how heavy it was.”
The boyfriend hid in the brush, so it would appear a teen girl was alone in the woods.
“In my head, I guess I promised that I was going to shoot somebody,” she said.
She hid the gun in her jacket. Varnell pulled over and asked if she needed help. She got in the truck. She fired the gun twice, her only bullets. Then she pulled a knife and repeatedly stabbed him. After the group moved the body out of sight, she stabbed Varnell again. They took his watch and wallet.
Something was wrong with the truck, so the group hitched another ride to town. They were arrested hours later.
Board members on April 12 noted that Brashear had stabbed two people in a short span. Brashear alleged that both times, her former boyfriend told her to do it. He will be in prison until at least 2026.
She said she regretted that she never could apologize to Varnell’s family, because of court orders banning contact. She was asked by the board what she would say. She said she would stay in prison forever if it would bring him back.
“I’m not this horrible person even though I did a lot of horrible things,” she said. “I want to be part of a community. I want to be with my family. I feel like it’s selfish to even ask that. They don’t even have their dad, but I have grown up and I have changed and I have worked really hard to figure out where things went wrong.”
Five more years
In her first decade in prison, Brashear was constantly in trouble. By 2008, she had racked up 97 serious infractions.
She was sent to another state with a prison better equipped to handle what Washington deemed “extreme acting out.”
When she got back, she had no further discipline. She was in her mid-20s and had spent months in solitary confinement, she said. She shifted her focus from being miserable to fixing herself. “I was a mess for half of my life in here, but I figured it out,” she said.
That happened long before the court ruling that gave Brashear and others like her hope of getting out.
Her family, friends from prison, and college instructors who teach behind bars wrote letters in support of her release. They say she deserves a second chance. She says she wants to become a lawyer, though it might not be possible.
Carelli sees it differently: Brashear has served less than a decade as an easy going inmate, after years of being a menace. Carelli’s family decided not to tell Varnell’s wife, now 72, about the parole hearing. The widow still struggles with her loss. Carelli’s own daughters aren’t mature enough for many of the details, though the oldest isn’t much younger than Brashear was in 1996.
The board’s seven-page decision says Brashear has gained some insight into her crimes. She has benefited from therapy and education. However, she continues to attribute her actions to others. Carelli remembers testimony that some in the group thought the carjacking plan didn’t involve murder. One said Brashear grabbed the gun when others hesitated.
The teen killer can petition again in 2022. Without early release, and with credit accrued for good behavior, she isn’t looking at freedom until 2041. She’ll be about 60.
Varnell’s family knows they might have to go through the uncertainty of parole again, years from now.
Carelli is determined to live in love, not fear.