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'Brother' testifies against Harper

Defendant entered motel with actual shooter, witness says

Todd Rettenberger testifies in trial of Elliott Rashad Harper in killing of a motel clerk.
Todd Rettenberger testifies in trial of Elliott Rashad Harper in killing of a motel clerk.
Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News

The two were like brothers. Brothers in life, brothers in crime.

But that bond wasn't strong enough to keep one of the men from incriminating the other in a murder trial.

Todd Rettenberger testified against his former comrade, Elliott Rashad Harper, Tuesday in 2nd District Court. Harper is charged with first-degree felony murder in connection with the death of a Woods Cross motel clerk.

"We considered each other brothers," Rettenberger said. "We were really tight."

Harper is the last defendant to be prosecuted in the death of Matthew John Whicker, who was shot to death in a botched robbery on Oct. 29, 1996. Rettenberger said he couldn't hide the truth forever, because the guilt was eating at him every day.

Rettenberger said he, Harper and David Valken-Leduc devised a plan to rob a Motel 6 because all three were short on cash. While Rettenberger waited outside as a lookout man, Harper and Valken-Leduc went inside and confronted Matthew John Whicker, a University of Utah student who was working at the motel to pay for school and support his wife and two children.

Rettenberger said he saw Harper and Valken-Leduc jump over the motel's counter. There was a struggle and then Rettenberger saw Valken-Leduc hit Whicker in the face. Rettenberger said he didn't see anything after that, he just heard the sound of gunshots.

While speeding away from the scene, Rettenberger said he asked Harper and Valken-Leduc what went wrong. Valken-Leduc answered, "Just shut up and go," and later confessed to Rettenberger that he shot Whicker "because he didn't get what he wanted."

Valken-Leduc already has been convicted as the actual shooter and is currently in prison.

Harper's defense attorney, Richard Gallegos, questioned Rettenberger's credibility. He said Rettenberger's story changed only after accepting a deal that got him out of jail. Rettenberger served more than five years in the Davis County Jail for his connection with the murder until he pleaded guilty to manslaughter, a second-degree felony. He was released immediately in return for his testimony against Harper and Valken-Leduc.

Rettenberger said he originally tried to deflect the blame onto Harper and Valken-Leduc, and only admitted to planning the crime. But after years in jail, the guilt ate at him. He later told police he served as a lookout man and getaway driver.

"It starts to get to you after a while," Rettenberger said.

Gallegos maintains there is no evidence linking Harper to Whicker's murder. In opening statements, Gallegos said Rettenberger is someone with a motive for lying and implicating Harper.

Whicker, who was 30 at the time of his death, served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Michigan and was a Gulf War veteran.