SAN DIEGO -- A Marine veteran was sentenced to 26 years in federal prison on Wednesday for killing and then dismembering his girlfriend in Panama in 2011.
Brian Brimager, 40, pleaded guilty in February to stabbing to death Yvonne Baldelli in an apartment they shared in Bocas Del Toro, an island off the Panamanian coast, almost five years ago.
In the months after the killing, Brimager went to extraordinary lengths to try to cover up the crime, destroying evidence and impersonating Baldelli in bogus emails he sent to her family to deflect their suspicion of him and concern for her.
The motive is unclear. The couple had what U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey Miller characterized as a tumultuous relationship, fueled by drugs and alcohol and marred by arguments and physical assaults by both.
The two expatriates were not married and had no community property. At the three-hour hearing Wednesday in a courtroom packed with friends and relatives of both Baldelli and Brimager, the victim's family wondered aloud why he killed her.
Brimager offered no answer. The hulking, 220-pound man apologized to the family and said the gruesome killing was "an act completely contrary to my nature."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Conover urged Miller to disregard that contrition.
"His words ring hollow today," the prosecutor said. "Too little, too late. His actions over the last four years speak louder than these contrived words."
Prosecutors sought 30 years in prison, while Brimager's lawyers pressed for 20 years. Miller ended up in between, giving some weight to Brimager's military service but faulting him for the brutal killing and its aftermath -- an attempted coverup that the judge said prolonged the Baldelli's family grief.
After the killing on the night of Nov. 26, 2011, or early-morning hours of Nov. 27, Brimager took numerous steps to concoct a cover story. He told acquaintances who knew the couple in Panama that she had run off with another man, then wrote fake emails on Baldelli's account to her family, pretending to be her and telling them she had gone to Costa Rica.
He drained her bank accounts, using the money to continue the party-heavy lifestyle he was leading in Panama. One witness said he often would buy a round of drinks, then offer a toast to the bar with a hearty, "Thanks, Vonnie!"
Brimager returned to the U.S at the end of 2011 and quickly got married to another woman with whom he had fathered a child. By early 2012, the FBI was investigating Baldelli's disappearance and interviewed Brimager at his Carlsbad home. He denied any involvement in her disappearance.
In August 2013, Baldelli's remains were discovered in the jungle. By then Brimager had been arrested on a charge of lying to federal agents and would soon face another charge of the foreign murder of a U.S. national.
His guilty plea came just weeks after an FBI analysis of a machete owned by Brimager identified the victim's DNA under the handle.
Court records, including Brimager's guilty plea, said that Brimager eventually admitted he stabbed Baldelli in the back. The victim had learned Brimager had a daughter from reading his emails and confronted him, triggering another fight.
Brimager dragged her into the bathroom and hacked off her legs, first using a machete and when that didn't work, finishing the job with a saw. He bundled the limbs in a garbage bag, then stuffed the limbs and the remaining body into two separate duffel bags, which he took and dumped into the thick tropical jungle.
Baldelli's family and many friends had long suspected Brimager had killed her, organizing search parties in Panama in the months after her disappearance.
Several spoke at the hearing about their anguish and loss. They described Baldelli as outgoing and vivacious.
"Our lives will never be the same without her," lifelong friend Adrienne Markes said.