In 1999, Brent Springford came to Boulder searching for something — he was majoring in religious studies at Naropa University, but what he truly sought was far more profound than structured education. Brent, fascinated with Buddhism, sought spiritual guidance, someone to lead him on a transcendental journey, to show him the path to his purest self — to help him achieve self-actualization.
Some may argue that Brent found what he was looking for — a spiritual guide that steered this bright, altruistic young man down a new path —but the journey ultimately led him not to the mystical heights of human consciousness, but to the depths of psychological madness and, ultimately, to murder.
In a case that made national headlines nearly a decade ago, Brent Springford brutally murdered his affluent and doting parents, Winston “Brent” Sr. and Charlotte Springford, at their home in Montgomery, Alabama, on Thanksgiving Day in 2004. Just two weeks later, Brent — who was living in Windsor, Colorado, at the time — was arrested in Louisville at Centennial Peaks Hospital where he had admitted himself for psychiatric evaluation. The 28-year-old Brent confessed then, in painstaking detail, to parricide, first to hospital staff and then to law officers. After defense attorneys spent four years arguing that a documented history of treatment for bipolar disorder should spare the young man from a death sentence, Brent was ultimately sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2008. But tragedy knows no bounds in this story: Brent consumed a lethal dose of Tylenol and overdosed in October of 2013 in Donaldson Correctional Facility near Bessemer, Alabama. He was 37 years old when he died.
For years, the case seemed like nothing more than an open and shut bit of macabre history with a tie to Boulder County. But that was before journalist and author Mark Pinsky walked into our office a few weeks ago.
Pinsky has studied the Springford case for a number of years, and is in the process of writing a book — Murder & Madness in Montgomery — about Brent’s decent into madness, and the murder that madness begat. But as Pinsky has delved deeper and deeper into accounts of Brent’s life, he’s seen ample evidence of far more than a spoiled rich kid who lost his mind. He says Brent was an intelligent, inquisitive, open-minded and nurturing young man — a young man still remembered fondly by those who knew him in the Boulder community. A young man who helped build roads in Latin America, and who traveled to dozens of Buddhist and Hindu monasteries and retreats in search of some form of personal enlightenment. Brent was the kind of young man who sat by the side of a friend’s sick father, praying and singing, even sleeping on the floor, because it was simply where he wanted to be.
Brent grew into the kind of man that gave everything he had to those he loved, particularly his wife, Carolyn Scoutt, and her three children by a previous marriage — even after he was sentenced to life in prison.
Ultimately, Pinsky has found more questions than answers about Brent’s life in the final years leading up to the bloody murders in Montgomery — questions he believes could be answered with the help of those closest to Brent at the time — friends of the family, former classmates, his widow Scoutt, who has seemingly vanished, and her now grown children.
It is the search for such persons that brought Pinsky to Boulder Weekly in hopes that sharing Brent’s story might help him find Brent’s missing family and others who may have interacted with Brent during the critical years before he killed his parents. Pinsky hopes that by interviewing those who knew Brent, he will finally be able to paint the full picture of a young man whose life took a terrible and unpredictable turn for reasons the author believes are still not fully known.
A SISTER’S REQUEST
Pinsky was introduced to the fatal tale of the Springford family by his sister-in-law, Susan Wardell, a social worker and attorney who worked to save Brent from death row.
At the time, Pinsky was still finishing up his first nonfiction murder book, Met Her on the Mountain, a tireless investigation into the 40-year cold-case murder of Nancy Morgan in Madison County, North Carolina.
While Met Her on the Mountain may have been Pinsky’s first foray into authoring a nonfiction murder book, it was far from his first rodeo — the veteran journalist carved a niche for himself in the ’70s reporting on racial justice and capital punishment in the South, from Joan Little to the Wilmington 10, and in high-profile trials like that of Ted Bundy and Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald.
So when Pinsky’s sister-in-law shared the Springford family story, he became transfixed on the affluent clan, who, in Pinsky’s estimation, tried their best to do the right thing as their son slipped away into madness before ultimately killing them.
“As the father of two now grown children, it was very resonant to me because this young man looked like he had everything in front of him,” Pinsky says.
And indeed, Brent Springford seemed to be born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth: his parents, Winston “Brent” Sr. and Charlotte, both held master’s degrees and together operated the Pepsi Cola bottling plant in Luverne, Alabama. As owners of a large local employer, the Springfords were well known in the community, not only for their business but also for their philanthropy and progressive views; the couple even befriended Morris Dees, one of the founders of the Southern Poverty Law Center in the 1970s — a risky endeavor considering the times and their social position.
They raised their children (Brent and his sister Robin) in a restored home from the 1920s located in Montgomery’s historic Garden District — an area filled with Late Victorian and Bungalow architecture — the type of neighborhood that almost necessitates a big rocking chair on an even bigger porch.
They were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the kind of family that had black tie gatherings each Christmas.
Brent, a strikingly handsome lad with a strong jaw line and ice blue eyes, attended a private school in Montgomery. (“A former seg academy,” Pinsky says, noting that Brown v. Board of Education did not prevent private schools from practicing segregation. “We don’t get to choose what part of history we come into.”) Brent was well liked by his teachers in high school, and after graduating he attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
He was interested in service trips, traveling to Latin America to build roads and becoming fluent in Spanish along the way. But by about age 20, toward the end of his sophomore year, Brent began to change. He started reading more about Eastern religion and taking corresponding courses at school, actions that seemed to either create or foster an existential crisis in Brent’s psyche.
“For his parents it was difficult because they didn’t’ know whether this change in him was a normal [result of the] separation of a young man from his parents in the early 20s — that often happens — what was part of his sincere spiritual quest … or, and Brent didn’t know this but his mother did, there was a family history of bipolar disorder,” Pinsky says. “So they couldn’t separate those three strands — what was normal, what was a spiritual quest and what was incipient bipolar disorder.”
So his parents humored his desire to embark on a more spiritual quest, and Brent dropped out of Vanderbilt. The next year he spent time at more than a dozen monasteries and retreats all across the country and into Mexico — all on his parent’s dime. They had hoped the time would allow their son to decompress and make his way back to Vanderbilt, but that wasn’t to be the case. During his travels he met people who had attended Oberlin College in Ohio and spoke highly of its Buddhist studies. Brent decided he wanted to go there and his parents acquiesced.
That experiment lasted only a week.
Brent was back on the road, traveling to more monasteries, his expeditions still funded by his parents. And while they financially supported their son’s travels, the elder Springfords longed for Brent to settle down, get back into school and find a more traditional path for his life. So when their nomadic child said he wanted to attend Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, Brent Sr. and Charlotte quickly agreed.
It seemed, at last, like Brent had found a place to hang his hat. He declared a major in religious studies with a focus on Buddhism. He liked his classes and quickly found a roommate with which he built a strong friendship, so much so that she introduced him to her parents.
Through a recent interview with the former roommate in Boulder, who wishes to remain anonymous, Pinsky found that Brent was an exceedingly altruistic young man.
“[His roommate’s] father was dying, unfortunately, and it was putting a lot of stress on the mother and the daughter. And Brent took to the father and began visiting with him, letting the mother and the daughter have some respite,” Pinsky says. “Brent would sing to him, pray with him, sometimes he would sleep in the floor next to his bed. And for this, the mother and the daughter were extremely grateful. Brent wouldn’t take any money in the beginning for it — they had hired help, but the hired help just didn’t work out and Brent just did it because he wanted to do it.”
On a trip to Colorado, Charlotte Springford got the opportunity to see the way her son interacted with his roommate’s father, and it lifted her hope that perhaps Brent had found his calling caring for others.
But that was not to be the case. And, in retrospect, it seems that it was one simple encounter that irrevocably changed Brent’s course forever — he met Carolyn Scoutt.
SPIRITUAL GUIDE AND SOMETHING MORE
In Brent Springford’s quest for spiritual awakening, his encounter with Carolyn Scoutt was no trivial matter. From his interview with Brent’s former roommate, Pinsky found that Scoutt was counseling various members of the roommate’s family, providing breathing sessions (a conscious form of breathing, often used to help people feel more present and calm) at the time Brent was spending significant time with the family.
Interviews with Scoutt’s friends and family members, collected by defense team members after the murder, helped piece together a portrait of Scoutt: She claimed to be the orphaned child of one of the last Apache medicine women, raised by her grandmother; she was a practicing shaman who looked the part — her dark hair was often adorned with feathers. As she did with the roommate’s family, Scoutt gave breathing sessions to others around Boulder. Her presence clearly captivated Brent from the moment he met her at his roommate’s home in Boulder. Pinsky corroborated these details with interviews of his own in Colorado.
“He had this yearning for a personal spiritual experience,” Pinsky says. “He was reading all of these books and many talked about how spirits came to people or had this transformational experience, but it hadn’t happened to him and he wanted it to happen to him. And he thought, well, maybe this person will take me on that journey or bring me to that personal experience.”
In letters and emails written by Charlotte Springford and recovered by defense team investigators, Brent finished his first semester at Naropa — spring of 1999 — then accepted Scoutt’s invitation to spend the summer at her place in Newcastle, Wyoming — what Pinsky describes as a small spread with a mobile home on it. The deal was Brent would do chores and Scoutt would teach him about Native American culture and traditions. Even then, the 24-year-old Brent had to ask his parent’s permission as they were still footing the bill for all of his exploits.
And as always, they said yes.
Brent Sr. and Charlotte went to visit their son that summer in Newcastle, and attended a Native American festival in the Black Hills town of Sundance, where Carolyn Scoutt was leading a number of sessions. It was here they witnessed Brent have what appeared to be his first mental breakdown.
“He was acting weird — so weird that the elders asked, ‘What’s this guy about?’” Pinsky says. “He was interrupting people and … just kind of drawing attention to himself. His parents were upset because this was the first time they’d seen him acting in a really weird way.”
But it wouldn’t be the last time.
That December, Brent traveled home to Montgomery for his parent’s annual black-tie holiday gathering — his head freshly shaven, clad in a monklike robe, speaking to his parent’s contemporaries as well as his own peers in a strange manner. His parents were mortified.
Brent Sr. and Charlotte began to wonder if Scoutt could be a caretaker of sorts for Brent and convince him to seek psychiatric help. Emails and letters recovered during Brent’s trial show that he had spoken highly of Scoutt, and that Charlotte — who was particularly attuned toward spirituality and metaphysics — was impressed with Scoutt’s Native American presentation. These facts coupled with the Springford’s increasing desperation to help their son may have influenced their decision to ask Scoutt to help care for Brent.
“They began writing fairly large checks, ostensibly for support with sort of instructional letters at the same time, to this woman,” Pinsky says. Phone communications with Brent had broken down. He would often fax letters to his parents if he corresponded with them at all. His mother pushed hard for psychiatric evaluation in her communications with Scoutt.
“What [Brent’s mother] didn’t know was that [Scoutt and Brent] had secretly married in Deadwood, [South Dakota]” Pinsky says. During their trip to Newcastle, Wyoming, in the summer of 1999, Brent and Scoutt appeared to have a platonic relationship (in fact, Brent had assured his parents this was the case), as they slept in separate rooms — but, according to letters and emails recovered by Brent’s defense team, Charlotte Springford had suspected the two were married for some time. Brent’s mother wouldn’t know for certain that her son had married Scoutt until November 2004, when she finally searched South Dakota records for a marriage license.
“Apparently, Charlotte had checked in Colorado for the license and also checked in Newcastle [Wyoming],” Pinsky says. “But someone told her to check in Deadwood — it was the week before the murder, she checked in South Dakota and found the marriage license.”
Pinsky’s interviews with Brent’s former Naropa roommate, as well as interviews conducted by defense team investigators confirm that Scoutt’s influence over Brent was strong — so strong that despite his refusal to see his psychiatrist, he finally relented at the threat of her leaving if he didn’t in September 2000.
In Rapid City, South Dakota — the closest large city to Newcastle — Brent was diagnosed for the first time with bipolar disorder and placed on a standard menu of medications for the time. He had decided by this point that he wasn’t returning to Naropa, and for a time his mental illness made holding down a job difficult, so, as always, his parents took care of Brent’s needs, sending him an allowance between $800 and $900 a month, according to later testimonies from Brent’s sister, Robin Springford Crouch.
Unbeknownst to his parents, Brent had eventually found a roustabout job, first in Newcastle and then in Gillette — but hadn’t told his parents, lest his monthly allowance be taken away.
Brent’s sister, Robin, testified that at this time their parents were supporting Brent in a manner far beyond his yearly salary of $30,000 — paying for his home, two cars, credit card bill and supplying his monthly allowance.
His parents still had no clue Brent was working. His mother was suggesting therapeutic projects for Brent, like artwork, to fill what she thought were empty hours across empty days, and she expressed displeasure with his psychiatric care in Rapid City. Eventually, Charlotte suggested that she and Brent Sr. purchase their son, Scoutt and her children a home along the Front Range in Colorado, where Brent could be closer to what she perceived as better psychiatric care in Boulder.
According to a Greeley Tribune article from 2004, Brent and Scoutt moved into a home in Windsor, Colorado in 2001. Brent’s parents bought the ranch-style property, situated on 7 acres of land, and at the time of their death it was valued at nearly $400,000.
However, defense team interviews show Brent continued to live in Wyoming, working the oilrigs and sleeping in his truck during the biting cold Wyoming winter nights. He was still sending every dime to Scoutt and her children.
His parents continued to funnel money into improvements for a home they thought their son was living in. They were sending birthday gifts to Scoutt’s children, and even providing tuition for the older kids to attend community college, all because they believed Scoutt was acting as their son’s caretaker. In the meantime, their son was actually sleeping in a car on winter nights and was no longer on his medications.
“He was increasingly screwing up at work,” Pinsky says. “He had a number of car crashes in Wyoming because he was so tired he would fall asleep at the wheel driving between the work site and going back to her spread in Newcastle to take care of the animals. He was working all week on the rigs and at her place and then driving to Windsor on the weekends to visit.”
There are different accounts of what happened next, but the end result is that Brent lost his roustabout job in Wyoming. Finally, he joined his wife and the children at the home in Windsor and got a job with the same company in Fort Lupton.
He also began seeing a psychiatrist in Boulder, at Scoutt’s request, who got Brent back on the same menu of drugs as before. Sometimes Brent reported feeling better, sometimes not, but his actions remained erratic.
Pinsky says according to interviews Scoutt had with police that he has examined, Scoutt told investigators she and Brent never had a sexual relationship — this kind of vulgar behavior was antithetical to the state of higher consciousness that Brent wanted to achieve, and for which he saw Scoutt as his guide to. When police inspected the Windsor home after the murders, they found an 8-foot-by-8-foot monk-like cell that Brent had built for himself in the garage. Each of the three children living in the home had their own bedroom, as did Scoutt.
While his parents had finally realized Brent was working and ceased paying his monthly allowance, they were still providing support in nearly every way imaginable, according to Pinsky. Scoutt continued to carry out her sessions in Boulder, but the family’s economic stability was still largely the product of Brent’s parents.
Despite the family’s financial wellbeing resting almost solely on her husband’s shoulders (or, in many regards, those of his family), defense interviews, examined by Pinsky, with an unrelated individual living in the Windsor house, claimed that Scoutt constantly denigrated Brent. When speaking to his parents about Scoutt’s children, Brent would refer to them as his “kids” in order to drum up emotion that spawned more gift giving, but the children had little respect for him as they watched their mother berate him. Brent, consequently, had little if any self-image.
According to Pinsky, medical records obtained by Brent’s defense team indicate things were up and down between Brent and his Boulder psychiatrist. Brent had begun having regular episodes, banging his head on the floor or against the dashboard of a car. One such episode at his psychiatrist’s office forced the doctor to dismiss Brent as a patient. Later that day, Brent was arrested for shoplifting at a Wal-Mart. This combination of behavior led to Brent’s first stay in a mental facility. During his mandatory 72-hour detention, he was again diagnosed as bipolar.
It’s now 2004. Brent is 28 years old. He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder by professional psychiatrists in two separate states on three separate occasions and he has just begun seeing another psychiatrist. But letters Charlotte wrote to her friends show that Scoutt decided at this time Brent should also see a doctor in Fort Collins who specialized in nutrition and environmental medicine. This doctor suggested that Brent was not bipolar but had heavy metals in his brain, mercury and lead, which were causing his episodes.
Psychiatrists commonly report that people with mental illness stop taking their medication unilaterally, sometimes because of side effects, sometimes because the medication dulls sensations they’ve grown to enjoy, and this was apparently the case with Brent. Faced with a new option that didn’t require mood-altering psychotropic drugs, Brent jumped at the new doctor’s suggestion and began treatments.
The heavy metal treatments involved numerous supplements, which Pinsky claims the doctor was selling directly to Brent, as well as a series of procedures where Brent was hooked up to a machine that was said to pull the heavy metals out of his brain. Defense investigators later found that same doctor had previously treated Scoutt and one of her daughters.
The medical bills started piling up.
Brent’s father, who was, as usual, footing the bill for all of this, started to become suspicious. He couldn’t seem to get an itemized bill of what treatment his son was receiving from this new doctor, and when a $15,000 medical bill showed up, it pushed him over the edge.
Interviews conducted by defense investigators reveal that Brent Sr. told friends in Montgomery he was convinced that he and Charlotte were being conned. According to testimony from Brent’s sister, Brent Sr. told his son that they were going to significantly scale back their monetary support.
This news, along with the fact that the Windsor property was still in Brent’s parents’ name, must surely have terrified Brent and Scoutt. In a taped confession with police, Brent said his father had threatened to sell the home in Windsor.
To add to Brent’s panic, his parents forbid him to attend his sister’s wedding in October of 2004 because of his increasingly erratic behavior.
“So those feelings of displacement, the decision to cut them off financially, exactly what happened to motivate him … we don’t know,” Pinsky says.
What we do know, from bus station surveillance footage, is that on Tuesday, Nov. 23, Brent Springford boarded a bus in Fort Collins, rode to Denver where he boarded a bus to Nashville where he transferred onto a final bus that took him to Montgomery on Wednesday, Nov. 24 — Thanksgiving eve. The last surveillance camera caught Brent running from the Montgomery station, presumably toward his parent’s home.
When Brent arrived at his childhood home, his parents were nowhere to be found — they’d taken their Jaguar and driven to Birmingham to have lunch with Charlotte’s family. Brent no longer had a key to the house, but he would later tell investigators that he remembered one upstairs window that was not connected to the security system, so he crawled through it. And waited.
When Brent Sr. and Charlotte returned at 6 p.m., their son was waiting for them, an ax handle close by. He was doing exactly what he claimed an evil spirit had told him to do.
(to be continued …)