When Bethany Bernatsky strode into a horse arena, everything else but the steed melted away.
Those who witnessed the lifelong horsewoman in the saddle, guiding riders through lessons or training the animals, said she was a natural in connecting with human and beast — a true talent who worked with thousands of horses all over the country and world, including those bound for the Olympics and breeds known for their performance qualities. A California riding stable advertising the Brainerd area native's services in an online flyer described Bethany’s method as “a very gentle, almost ethereal approach to training that creates happy, relaxed horses and even happier, more relaxed riders.”
Bethany’s 26-year-old daughter Arielle Rutledge, living in New York attending her first year of law school at City University of New York School of Law, said that gentleness extended well beyond horses to nearly everyone her mother encountered. Bethany’s caring, nonjudgmental nature played a significant role in Rutledge’s own desire to make the world a better place, she said, and her mother’s adventurous, nomadic spirit made it easier for Rutledge to leave Brainerd and go on her own adventure in New York City.
“I remember taking a lot of road trips with her across the country. I feel like just those experiences of kind of not being afraid to go out and live life is just like a model that I have also kind of taken in myself,” she said. “ … At any time, any place, in any moment, she would always be willing to help anybody. In my pursuit of law school, it’s kind of why I’ve carried that on. I want to continue that narrative of just trying to make the world better.
"I’ve been thinking a lot about everything that’s happened and you know, ultimately, in the end, I think it would just make her really happy if I continued on that journey of just trying to make the world a better place for everybody, regardless of circumstances.”
Memories of Bethany’s selflessness, her contagious laugh, her poetic connection with horses and riders — they’re all Rutledge and other loved ones have left now.
Bethany, 46, died Oct. 7 after she was allegedly shot multiple times by 29-year-old Cameron Jay Moser in a cabin at Cozy Bay Resort on Lake Edward near Merrifield.
The Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office responded to a report of gunshots at 11:04 p.m. by another guest of the resort, who told the 911 dispatcher numerous gunshots were heard outside and inside the cabin where Bethany was ultimately found dead.
"At any time, any place, in any moment, she would always be willing to help anybody. In my pursuit of law school, it’s kind of why I’ve carried that on. I want to continue that narrative of just trying to make the world better."
— Arielle Rutledge
Responding law enforcement located Moser at 11:22 p.m. across the road from Cozy Bay Resort, near Lake Mollie RV Parcels. Moser was carrying a rifle and also was in possession of a handgun. Officers talked with Moser for the next 90 minutes, during which time he held both firearms — an AR-style rifle and a silver revolver.
At 12:50 a.m., deputies arrested Moser without incident and secured the weapons. He’s since been charged with felony second-degree murder with intent but not premeditation.
Capt. Adam Kronstedt of the sheriff’s office said Friday, Oct. 15, Moser did not appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time, but mental health issues were likely involved. Kronstedt said the homicide remains under investigation and they are actively searching for a potential link between Moser and Bethany. At this time, no link has been established, but the possibility remains an important aspect of the investigation.
It was learned, however, that Moser was familiar with the location, having been previously in a relationship with the daughter of the former owners of Cozy Bay Resort, who now own the RV park across the street. Moser visited the RV park a week before the shooting in search of his ex, according to the criminal complaint.
Bethany Bernatsky’s brother Ben Bernatsky and his wife Michelle Bernatsky, both of Brainerd, believe Bethany’s murder was a case of mistaken identity and Moser’s intended target was actually his ex-girlfriend.
“She (the ex-girlfriend) looks so much like Bethany,” Michelle Bernatsky said. “The timeline says that when he was shooting, I think Bethany had come home at that time … and I think he might have seen her and her car and followed her to her room.”
Although the Bernatskys do not believe Bethany was the intended target, Michelle Bernatsky said it was in her nature to be a helper and she may have tried to talk Moser down or intervene in some way.
“If (the ex-girlfriend) had been there, Beth would have stepped in between and given her life anyhow,” Michelle Bernatsky said. “So it’s kind of hard to imagine that it seems like a waste but she was that type of person.”
“Yeah, I can see her getting involved, trying to stand in between,” Ben Bernatsky added.
“She would be happy to know that she saved someone’s life. And everybody that knew her knew that,” Michelle Bernatsky said.
Bethany was back in the area for just a short time before her life came to its tragic end — healing from a recent surgery she had to treat cancer, the diagnosis of which she’d recently learned. She looked forward to returning to the world of horses after a hiatus, and the weekend before the shooting attended a horse event in Hinckley with close friend Melissa Korby along with another close friend and her husband, Char and Dan Radtke.
"She would be happy to know that she saved someone’s life. And everybody that knew her knew that."
— Michelle Bernatsky
“She just couldn’t help it but to kind of step in and give a lesson, and she had this voice — it was almost hypnotizing when she gives lessons. It was like a meditation tape, almost,” said Korby, a former Brainerd resident who first met Bethany about a decade ago while seeking a trainer familiar with Andalusian horses. “ … You could just see her light up again when she was around that, doing what she loved. And that’s the last memory I have of her, and it was the last time I was with her.”
Bethany began working with horses at the age of 2 under the mentorship of her father George Bernatsky, a talented rider and trainer himself who operated a 500-acre ranch and stable 10 miles south of Brainerd.
“She was a bit of a riding prodigy in that she could connect with horses very well and did upper-level dressage and exhibition riding,” Ben Bernatsky said.
At a young age, Bethany moved to the Twin Cities to train under Wolfgang May, a highly influential dressage trainer. She competed in a multitude of competitions and performed with well-known groups including Royal Lipizzan Stallions and was a trainer and performer at Medieval Times in Buena Park, California. She wrote the foreword of a book cataloging the life and methods of May titled “Classical Dressage Foundations with Wolfgang May: A Workbook for Students and Trainers.”
“Wolfgang’s legacy will live forever within all of his students, and be passed along for generations to come,” Bethany wrote.
The same could now be said for Bethany herself. People from all over the country who learned under Bethany’s tutelage took to social media in the wake of her death to express their appreciation for her. But it wasn’t only in the wake of her death — a tribute video to Bethany created by a horse colleague in 2018 as she moved from California to Vermont made the rounds again in the past week.
“There’s only one Bethany,” Korby said. “I loved her because she thought outside of the box, and I hated her because she thought outside of the box. And then you try and talk (rationally) with her and it’s like, ‘No, come back here.’
“But at the same time, she was so open to everyone and everything, and she was just so pure. I think the horses — she just had a connection with them, and she did with people and animals. She was just so harmless. She was just so kind. And that’s why this whole thing is crazy, like she is just the last person you would ever think this would happen to.”
Char Radtke said she and Bethany considered one another sisters, and she was looking forward to spending time with her this winter as she lived in the lakes area and regrouped for her next adventure. Bethany stayed at the Radtkes’ home for two weeks before moving into the cabin at Cozy Bay, where she’d stayed a few times before.
"She was always a very generous person and everything she did, she was always giving people a lot of stuff. Things did not matter to her. She gave away a lot in her life but she always had what she valued."
— Char Radtke
Radtke described Bethany as the kindest person she’d ever met — always concerned about those less privileged, never concerned about material things or money.
“Everything I do, I think about her,” Radtke said. “ … I don’t know, how do you even explain it? It feels like I got my heart ripped out. It’s terrible. It was the closest — I’ve never lost anyone as close as her. … Everybody loves Bethany. That’s why I was in such shock when I heard she was killed like that. Who would kill Bethany? It’s unreal.”
Korby said at one of the stables at which Bethany worked, a fire broke out in the barn. Although Bethany’s possessions were in an upstairs apartment in the same building, instead of grabbing her own things, she went into the barn and rescued 16 mares and foals.
"She was just so harmless. She was just so kind. And that’s why this whole thing is crazy, like she is just the last person you would ever think this would happen to."
— Melissa Korby
“Nobody in their right mind would’ve went into that barn. Instead of getting her things and saving what she could have of her own, that’s the first thing she did was go in there,” she said. “She’s just very selfless.”
“She would give money to homeless people for their personal care items, she’d always talk to them and smile and give them food,” Radtke said. “She was always a very generous person and everything she did, she was always giving people a lot of stuff. Things did not matter to her. She gave away a lot in her life but she always had what she valued.”
Korby said among what she valued was her relationship with her parents and particularly her father, who died in 2001 of cancer and of whom she often spoke.
“I always told her, ‘Your dad would be so proud of you,’ she said. “ … I just think now, you know, they’re finally riding together, and he can tell her how proud he is of her.”
A memorial service for Bethany is set for 10 a.m. Oct. 30 at Black Diamond Equine Center, 30416 State Highway 6, Crosby.
Moser is set to appear via a remote Zoom hearing 2:45 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 20, for an initial appearance in Crow Wing County District Court before Judge Matthew Mallie. Moser was granted a public defender and his bail/bond was set at $1.5 million to be released without conditions or $1 million to be released with conditions.
Moser remained in custody in the Crow Wing County Jail Friday.