With his hands cuffed to inmates on either side of him, Bret Maness appeared in court Friday to accept a plea bargain. The 54-year-old bear spray assault suspect known for being vocal in court was quiet.

His alleged victims were not. 

In an unusual move, the judge rejected the proposed plea deal based on concerns raised during their victim impact statements.   

'I thought I was going to die' 

The irony of what happened to nearly a dozen people gathered at the Church of Love in Spenard in April 2018, is not lost on those who experienced it firsthand. 

"We were having a non-violent training when this act of violence occurred," Soren Wuerth said Friday, during a victim impact statement.  

Several members of a left-leaning political group were training to participate in non-violent demonstrations when they say Maness arrived and assaulted them. 

"The door swung open and someone started spraying — all I could see was orange spray coming right at my face," alliance organizer Joni Bruner said at the time. 

Bear spray assault victim Joni Bruner gives a victim impact statement on August 9, 2019. (Rachel McPherron / KTVA)

The initial symptoms have faded, but the memories of the day are still burned into her mind. 

"I choked when I was sprayed right in the face. I could not catch my breath. I thought I was going to die. I did not think that I was going to make it out of that building," Bruner said in court Friday. "And while I’m really grateful that that was not a gun, it still affected an entire year of my life trying to get my life back into order from the illnesses that this caused." 

A third victim, appearing in court via telephone, said, "Later I was wondering what a massacre it would have been if he had an assault rifle, which I found out the next day he has used in the past — to kill a neighbor who was a black man that he did not care for." 

A concerning past 

The Southern Poverty Law Center previously described Maness as "a longtime white supremacist with neo-Nazi ties," quoting a roommate who said Maness would sit in his living room and point a BB gun at black neighbors.

In November of 1997, Maness was arrested on murder charges in the Spenard shooting of neighbor Delbert White after residents said racial slurs led up to a confrontation between the men. Police found 20 weapons — as well as a marijuana grow — in Maness' home, but he was acquitted of murder at trial and convicted only of controlled-substances charges.

According to the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, Alaska State Troopers had visited Maness' home on June 28, 2001, to serve an order committing him to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. Maness, who had a bolt-action rifle, threatened to kill troopers then led them on a chase to Eklutna, where he was shot in the shoulder by an APD officer before being arrested. He ultimately received a 10-year sentence on federal weapons charges in the incident. 

Bret Maness, 53, smiles at a KTVA news crew from the back of an Anchorage police cruiser after his arrest in an April 21, 2018 bear-spray attack on a Spenard protest group. (Credit: Daniella Rivera/KTVA)

"That's why we wanted the public to know he could possibly be armed and dangerous, based on our dealings with him in the past," APD Communications Director MJ Thim said at the time.

Once Maness was identified as a suspect in the bear spraying, police searched for him with caution. APD was able to take him into custody without incident a few days later.   

Maness' defense 

Initially, Maness balked at being represented by a public defender, electing to remain pro se. Friday, he was represented by defense attorney Regan Williams, who explained to the judge what Maness said happened inside the Church of Love. 

Maness claims he was headed to the event to interview participants, and after being beaten up for asking difficult questions in the past, he carried bear spray for his own protection.

Anchorage police released these images of a man who bear-sprayed a group of Alaska Grassroots Alliance members near the Church of Love at 3502 Spenard Rd. on Saturday, April 21, 2018. (Credit: From APD)

He says the group was role playing with a line of protesters and others challenging them. 

"They’re practicing cussing, moving, like violent act. [...] When he went in he followed someone and the next thing he knows he felt he was being attacked, didn’t realize there was a reenactment happening, he was knocked to the ground, bear spray went off," Williams explained.

Maness claims he ran out of the building in fear.    

Surveillance video shows him running out, jumping into his truck and driving away.  

No deal, for now 

Maness was originally charged with burglary, terroristic threatening, reckless endangerment and 11 counts of fourth-degree assault. The deal he struck with the state would allow him to plead guilty to a single felony assault charge in exchange for a sentence of four years with two suspended, leaving two years of active time. 

With credit for time served, he would be out of jail in a matter of months.  

"I really feel very strongly that, knowing his history, this man should not ever get out without some kind of mental health help," Bruner told the judge. "He deserves it, he needs it and the community demands it." 

Judge Patrick McKay was filling in for Judge Catherine Easter, who has been presiding over the case. McKay questioned attorneys about why there was no mental health assessment or treatment included in the plea deal. 

Judge Patrick McKay rejected Bret Maness' plea agreement with the state, rescheduling the hearing in front of Judge Catherine Easter. (Rachel McPherron / KTVA)

"He doesn't have a mental diagnosis that we're aware of," Williams said.

McKay replied, "Well yeah, I guess that’s what I’m concerned about is he doesn’t have a diagnoses, apparently." 

The judge rejected the deal, saying he would reschedule the hearing in front of Judge Easter, who is more familiar with the case. 

"I can tell you I am not going to go through with a change of plea today that doesn’t involve some type of mental health assessment and treatment if so approved," he said.  

Maness' change of plea hearing has been rescheduled for August 27.

Correction: This story has been edited to correct the timeline of the Southern Poverty Law Center's description of Maness.

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