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October 06, 2011 9:48 am

Berry Bryant remembered

Written by Ilene Olson

Berry Bryant would be 33 years old now. She likely would have a career and a family.

But her life, and her promising future, were cut short 15 years ago on Oct. 5, 1996, when Berry, then an 18-year-old freshman at Northwest College, was brutally raped and murdered north of Powell by another NWC student, Levi Collen of Ten Sleep.

Bryant had attended a dance at the college, and later was seen leaving a party with Collen. Collen later admitted to police that he drove her 16 miles out of town, where he raped her.

He was convicted late in November of the same year and now is serving three consecutive life terms — a sentence placed on him by retired Judge Hunter Patrick.

During the sentencing, Patrick noted that Collen previously had raped another woman in the Ten Sleep area — a fact that did not surface until after the murder. Patrick said the murder was one of the most violent crimes he had ever heard of.

Berry’s mother, Sharon Bryant of Riverton, recalled on Monday the person Berry was when she left for her first year of college.

“She liked doing social things,” Bryant said in a telephone interview. “She really enjoyed people. We’re talking 4-H, band, running sports, track, music and junior leadership.

“She was the oil on the waters when (her brother) Ryan and I would get in each other’s hair. She had a way of defusing (arguments), and at school, too.”

Bryant said one person told her, “‘Berry was never out front leading the charge. She was walking alongside and pushing along, her arm around people’s shoulder.’ And I saw that.”

Bryant vividly remembers the day she got the call with the horrific news of Barry’s murder.

“Within the first few hours, I sat there and waited for the people in white coats,” she said in a telephone interview Monday. “I was sure I would go insane ... But it didn’t happen.

“I gave myself a few hours for the hole to open up, but ... at some point, I made the conscious decision that Berry’s life was over, but I wasn’t going to let him destroy mine, too. It would have been totally out of character to have rolled over and died, and it would have been a real dishonor to my daughter to have done so, too.”

Far from that, Sharon Bryant became a strong advocate for women and for the prevention of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

Her message: “To help women understand their own role in their safety protection, but also (to help) young men understand that they don’t have a right to force women to do things against their will.”

Along the way, Bryant has added other facets to her message as well, such as acknowledging and condemning the violence women sometimes perpetrate on men, and appealing for an end of bullying in schools — some of which is so severe that it prompts families to file protection orders, she said.

While she feels her message has made a positive impact, she also has times of discouragement.

“In some ways, you kind of feel you fail whenever you hear of another victim across the country,” she said.

Early on, Bryant said, she also realized that Berry’s murder had profound effects on other people as well.

“I learned the first day that she wasn’t mine (alone),” she said. “People in law enforcement finally coerced me to call (former police chief) John Cox. They said he wanted to talk to me. I thought, ‘Why?’

“The man was so choked up, he could hardly talk,” she said. “He was identifying with her as if it was his daughter. And that’s kind of how things went from that point.”

Cox, now director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation, said Monday that, indeed, Berry’s murder was very personal for him.

“For me ... having to get to know Sharon Bryant over the phone through this while it was still in the immediate aftermath was a terrifically difficult time,” he said. “I remember it was one of the hardest cases I’d ever been involved in because of the brutality involved.

“Even today, my heart goes out to Sharon Bryant, and I pray for her and hope she’s doing well. I’m not sure how any parent makes it through something like that.”

Cox said things were so hectic at the time that he didn’t realize how dramatically Berry’s murder had affected him or his staff.

“I’m gratified to say I’ve been through a healing process of my own, so it doesn’t hit me as hard as it used to,” he said.

Cox said other changes for the positive have occurred, too, and many of them are far-reaching.

“I would say that the importance of student safety and monitoring student activities at an appropriate level and getting students to think about making wise choices took on a real added weight in everyone’s mind after that event in Powell.”

“Also, I think Wyoming culture has evolved considerably. It’s been my impression that underage drinking education and enforcement is a lot bigger part of the culture now than back then, when it might have been a real uphill battle to get everybody to acknowledge the need for it.”

Cox said the murder resulted in a better working relationship between the college and the Powell Police Department.

“I remember how it had a long-term relationship building benefit between the department and the college,” he said. “It seems sometimes people grow closer through incredibly difficult circumstances.”

Berry’s murder also had a tremendous effect on the NWC campus, on students, faculty and staff alike, Bryant said. Some she had known through 4-H, track and band activities in high school; others, she had met in her month at Northwest College.

“It was amazing how many people she had gotten to know in 30 days,” Bryant said.

Some of her friends used rocks to create a memorial to her on Polecat Bench, near the area where she was murdered, later that school year. It said, “Berry, we miss you.”

Just last spring, a new group of students and residence hall leaders went up to rearrange rocks that had slipped out of place and paint the rocks white again to renew their remembrance.

“Dee Havig (NWC residence and campus life director) quietly told me that some of the students had gone up and painted rocks on the hillside, and you don’t know how that just lit up my whole day,” Bryant said. “To know that, even though it’s a negative thing, that there still are people in the community and students who choose to keep it alive for the good that it does.”

Havig said Berry’s story is retold each year during student residence hall presentations about sexual health and responsibility.

Jenny Skinner, residence life specialist at Northwest College, recently contacted Bryant and asked her to speak during alcohol awareness week later this month.

“It would be easy to say no,” Bryant said, “But if you say no, you’ve deep-sixed that interest.”

If someone thinks using her voice would add to the message and help reduce underage drinking, she’s willing to do it, she said.

“I guess that’s my way of letting Berry be heard. Her voice was silenced permanently, and if my voice needs to be hers, I’ll do so.”

Looking back at the last 15 years, “It’s been a growth experience, I can tell you. I’m not the same person I was,” Bryant said. “While the experience was horrific, traumatic, whatever, in some way, we have all grown because we have been forced to reprioritize our life and extend a hand out to people, to see life from the point of view of other folks. You become more global than you think, and you’re less apt to sit around and think, ‘Poor me.’”

And, though she misses her daughter deeply and mourns her loss — achingly so at this time, each year — Bryant said said she takes comfort in knowing that her daughter lived her life well and to the fullest.

“My daughter enjoyed being social,” Sharon Bryant said. “To put her in a cage would have been hell for her ... She was very happy to be at the college.

“She lived more in 18 years than some people live in a lifetime ... and she achieved a maturity that some people never achieve. And that’s what I have to put out there. It was short, but it was sweet.”

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