A city mental health worker was attacked during her shift, on call with police, in April. Photo: Emilie Raguso (file photo)

The man charged with trying to kill a city mental health worker in the Gilman Street Whole Foods parking lot in April had reportedly hit himself in the head with a rock and was suicidal, according to court testimony Wednesday.

Eric Bruylant, 25, has been in custody without bail at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin since the attack. He appeared in court Wednesday, in a green-and-white-striped jumpsuit wearing his long dark hair in a skinny braid, for a hearing to determine whether his case would proceed to trial. After hearing the evidence, Judge C. Don Clay ruled that it would.

When Bruylant walked into the courtroom, he stopped before sitting down at a table with his attorney, turned toward the gallery, and gave a large smile and wave to seven supporters who attended the hearing on his behalf. For the rest of the brief hearing, which began at 10:40 a.m. and was done before noon, he showed no emotion or response while a Berkeley police officer and the victim in the case offered their testimony.

The mental health worker took the stand first, and described a struggle for her life after Bruylant got into her moving vehicle then choked and strangled her when she told him she wouldn’t give him a ride to see his friends. Bruylant commanded her twice to “submit,” as she did everything she could to pry his hands off her throat so she could breathe, she said.

“I just had to keep, keep, keep getting the hands off my neck,” she testified. Each time she succeeded, the man’s other hand would immediately clamp down. At one point, she felt two thumbs pressed hard into her throat. The struggle went on for nearly 3 minutes.

“That’s an absolute eternity,” said prosecutor Chris Cavagnaro, deputy district attorney with the Alameda County DA’s office, given the nature of the struggle. The woman said she nearly blacked out twice but eventually managed to escape and get out of her Prius. She then pleaded with a nearby bystander to call 911. Instead, the man turned to Bruylant, who was sitting in the Prius’s driver’s seat.

“Now’s your chance, man. I’m giving you a chance to get away,” the man told Bruylant, who then ran off as police were arriving.

Bruylant initially was charged with attempted murder, carjacking and assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury. Wednesday, the judge added a robbery charge to the case following testimony that Bruylant had the woman’s cellphone in his hand when Officer Ben Phelps ultimately stopped him, at gunpoint, following a brief chase not far from Whole Foods.

BPD initially was called to Farmburger, Ninth Street, on April 23 at 10:15 p.m. for a welfare check on a man who was reportedly suicidal. When Phelps arrived, the man was gone. He searched the area for 10 minutes but couldn’t find him. As part of the welfare check call, however, the Berkeley mental health worker on duty with the city was also dispatched. She said she parked across the street, in the well-lit Whole Foods parking lot, to wait to be told it was safe to join Phelps.

She said she chose the location because of the lighting, and because there were many cars and people still around, though the store had recently closed for the night. She said she waited about 5 minutes, then received word she could leave because police had been unable to find the man. She was finishing reading an article on her phone when she heard a knock at her passenger-side window.

A man she’d never seen before was leaning close to the window. She waved him away and began to reverse. But he opened the door and got inside. She said she thought her doors had been locked. But she was wrong. The man told her he needed a ride to meet up with friends.

“No,” she told him. “I’m calling the police.”

The woman tried to use her radio to summon aid, she said. (City mental health workers carry police radios during their shifts.)

“Before I could call for help, he started strangling me,” she said. What she did manage to broadcast was a garbled distress call that sent patrol officers on a determined hunt to find the woman. She attempted to give her location several times. “I was trying to call for help…. They couldn’t understand what I was saying because I couldn’t speak.”

One officer thought he heard the words “Whole Foods” in the radio traffic, and police followed his lead and were able to get to the scene within minutes to make the arrest.

But, in the meantime, the woman said she was on her own trying to fend off the man in her car. Initially, she said, he hooked his arm around her throat and began to choke and strangle her. Her police radio fell or was knocked out of her hand. She didn’t know if help was coming.

“My heart sank,” she said. “I’m looking down. I’m starting to lose consciousness. And that’s when I realized I needed to start fighting.”

On the stand, the woman described the stages of the struggle in detail: the moves the man made, and what she did to counter them. Eventually, she managed to free herself and get out of the car. In her pocket was her Prius key fob. Bruylant was in the driver’s seat, but the car wasn’t moving — because the woman was outside the car and the vehicle’s technology relies on the proximity of the key fob to function.

The woman said she pleaded with two strangers to call police for help, and struggled with Bruylant over the car door. She said she was doing what she could to keep him on scene until police got there. But he ran. The woman was able to get a bystander’s phone to give police her location. Officer Phelps testified that he chased down Bruylant nearby and took him into custody.

Phelps said, according to Farmburger employees, the man had told them earlier that he wanted to go to a psychiatric hospital because he was suicidal and had hit himself in the head with a rock.

The woman testified that she later asked to review the dispatch logs and found less than 2 minutes passed between the time she was told she could leave and when she called for help after Bruylant had gotten into her car.

The woman, who has worked for the city for 12 years, said she was in physical therapy for several months following the attack. She was bruised and in significant pain. Her neck muscles would not relax, which led to debilitating tension headaches. But the mental piece of it was even tougher.

“Quite honestly it’s the psychological injury that’s been worse,” she testified.

Bruylant’s private defense attorney, Elena Condes, tried to argue that mental health issues should be taken into account in the case, given what had been described at Farmburger, but Clay quickly shot her down. He said no evidence had been presented in court to prove that the scruffy man with long dark hair and a beard, wearing a bright orange sweatshirt, who told Farmburger employees he was suicidal was the same man who attacked the mental health worker minutes later.

The description of the man at Farmburger, who was drawing and writing there for a period of time before he decided to leave, matched Bruylant when he was picked up by police, according to testimony and a photograph presented in court. Condes said the description provided, including the orange sweatshirt, was exactly the same as Bruylant.

Clay said he wasn’t provided with evidence to conclude they were the same man, because there was no testimony on the subject.

“That’s a generic description,” he said. “It could be anybody in Berkeley. I can’t make that assumption on this record.”

Clay said he had been waiting for a witness from Farmburger to take the stand to make the link definitively. But it hadn’t come. He said, therefore, he would have to discount any mental health component at this stage of the case. But he said the subject could be introduced later.

Condes argued that a photograph taken of the victim the night of the attack showed only minor injuries, and said there was no intent to kill.

“It appears more of an effort to prevent a call on the radio than an attempt to kill,” Condes told the judge. She also said Bruylant never drove the car, so there was no carjacking, and that Bruylant didn’t try to go after the woman once she was out of the car.

The judge said it was clear to him from the woman’s testimony, however, that the attack had been an attempt on the woman’s life. He said strangulation can come in many forms, and doesn’t need to leave marks to be a serious injury.

“You don’t need bruises,” Clay said.

“She’s trying to fight for her life,” and the man is telling her, “You need to submit,” the judge said, reflecting on the testimony. He said Bruylant repeatedly changed his tactics to carry out the attack.

Clay held Bruylant to answer on the charges, and ordered him to return to court Nov. 15 for his next hearing. Clay said Bruylant should continue to be held without bail.

The city said Thursday that it looked closely at what happened to make changes to ensure the safety of its mental health workers who are on call with police. For one, going forward, they will each have GPS trackers in their vehicles.

“We’ll always know where they are,” said Paul Buddenhagen, director of Health, Housing & Community Services for the city.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...