Her friends and relatives said Friday that Julia Bullinger’s kindnesses extended from lost kittens and injured horses to her closest loved ones and even to the homeless people she met in the park and invited into her own family’s picnics.
A couple of years ago, they said, she met and opened her heart to a tow truck driver who told her he didn’t have any friends. They dated, and he moved into her Rio Linda home, and when their relationship didn’t work out, he had nowhere to go, so Bullinger let him stay in the extra bedroom.
Stephen Ross Brainard wanted back into hers, and when it became clear to him during an argument last year it wasn’t going to happen, he got his .40-caliber handgun and forced her onto her bed.
“Are you going to shoot me?” Bullinger asked.
She also asked if she could call her mother first, to say goodbye.
“No,” Brainard told her, according to his probation report. “You’re not saying goodbye to anybody.”
Bullinger fought for her life. In their April 30, 2013, struggle, his gun went off and a bullet hit her in the leg.
“Well, this is it,” she told him, according to Brainard’s statement to Sacramento sheriff’s detectives, just before he shot her to death.
Brainard called 911 at 5:30 a.m. the next day to report the death. He refused to surrender, though, when deputies arrived at Bullinger’s house in the 400 block of Lilac Lane in Rio Linda, authorities said. He stayed holed up in her house for four hours while the sheriff’s SWAT team swarmed outside. He told detectives he was unable to follow through on his plan to shoot himself, too. He surrendered at 9:50 a.m., exactly 24 hours to the minute after the coroner estimated that he killed Julia, who was 51.
A Sacramento Superior Court jury on April 8 convicted Brainard, who is now 58, of second-degree murder. On Friday, Judge Eugene L. Balonon sentenced him to 40 years to life in prison.
“There was no provocation here, where this victim deserved to be shot in this way,” Balonon told the courtroom that contained about 20 of Julia Bullinger’s friends and family. “She was defenseless and pleaded for her life. Mr. Brainard took her life and shattered the lives of her family and friends.”
Saying he was “incredibly ashamed” and “remorseful and regretful for what I’ve done,” Brainard apologized to Julie’s family for murdering her.
“It’s very difficult to look in the mirror in the morning,” he told them. “I abandoned the principles I’ve lived by all my life.”
Brainard said – and Deputy District Attorney Bruce Chang confirmed – that he was a man who had no criminal record before he committed the murder.
“I’m a failure as a human being,” Brainard said.
He blamed Bullinger’s killing on his own “lust, jealousy and deceit.” He said his emotions “had control of me.”
“In anguish and permanent torment, I am here to say I am truly sorry for Julie and her family and friends and my family for this gamut of emotions,” Brainard said, reading a written statement.
Bullinger’s family told the court how even after Brainard killed her, they packed up and stored his belongings and notified his children about what had happened. They said they had taken him into their lives and tried to make him feel connected, even after his relationship with Bullinger faltered, through gestures such as wishing him a happy birthday on Facebook.
“You could not accept that Julie did not want to be your girlfriend,” Julia’s mother, Catherine Bullinger, 85, told Brainard. “She cared about you and wanted to be your friend. Instead, you could not accept anything that was not on your terms.”
Her friends and family said Julia graduated in 1979 from Bella Vista High School and stayed in touch with the alumni through the annual fish fry and other parties. They said she suffered from fibromyalgia but that she fought through the chronic muscular and skeletal pain associated with the disorder to lead a life of fun and laughs and meaning. She worked as a medical aesthetician, offering facials as a skin care specialist.
“She had a kind heart, a gentle spirit,” said Debbie Collins, a high school friend who attended Friday’s sentencing. “I will always remember her laughter.”
Julia’s brother John Bullinger described his sister as “a very kind person. She was always there for everybody. She didn’t deserve this.”
John Bullinger said his sister met Brainard when she let a friend of her mother’s store some boats behind her house on Lilac Lane. Brainard was the man who towed the vehicles onto the lot out back.
“She met him and started dating him and he moved in shortly after that,” John Bullinger said.
His sister also battled depression, John Bullinger said, and had begun to overcome it before she died.
“She started to get treatment, cognitive therapy, and she became very strong,” he said. “Then she decided she wasn’t happy in that relationship. She was also the kind of person where she would allow him to stay knowing he had nowhere to go. He became a roommate. He had different thoughts. It resulted in him murdering her.”
Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.