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Police seek ex-inmate for questioning in death of Murray woman

MURRAY — Ann Poulson befriended convicted killer James William Tolbert through church work that often took her and her husband to the Utah State Prison.

Now Poulson is dead. And Tolbert is wanted for questioning in the slaying of Poulson, a part-time accountant for the Deseret Morning News.

"He is a person of interest wanted for questioning in the homicide of Ann Poulson," Murray police officer Jeff Maglish said Wednesday. "We are very interested in speaking with him."

Family and friends said Poulson, 68, befriended Tolbert while working as a volunteer with her husband for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the prison in the 1990s.

"His only contact with reality has been Ann," said Dan Maxwell, Poulson's brother.

Tolbert, 41, was paroled in 2006 after serving time for the May 1987 murder of his wife, Janie Heller-Tolbert. Deseret Morning News accounts from the time said he testified at his trial that he strangled his wife during a fight at their home.

"I lost control! I didn't want to kill her!" he exclaimed.

The couple was divorcing, and Tolbert testified his wife had said he would never see their young son again. Heller-Tolbert's body was found in some debris near the Jordan River.

Poulson's body was found Tuesday night at her home after concerned neighbors called police, saying she hadn't been seen in a couple of days.

Officers went to Poulson's house, near 800 East and 5200 South, about 4 p.m. Tuesday. When no one answered the door, officers forced their way inside and found her body.

"There was evidence within the house that led us to believe this is a homicide," Maglish said, declining to elaborate.

Tolbert became a familiar figure in Poulson's life through letters and after he was released from prison.

"She initially invited him over to dinner. He came, and then came again," Maxwell said. "It just got to be more and more. She did loan him some money not too long after he got out."

Poulson's husband, Bill, is in a care center suffering from Alzheimer's disease. She would visit him several times a week, but Maxwell said he often would not recognize her. As for telling him about his wife's death, "this may not even connect with him," Maxwell said.

Residents in Poulson's quiet Murray neighborhood were in shock Wednesday. Many had been friends with her for more than 40 years.

Some neighbors recalled seeing Tolbert at Poulson's house several times, especially during the early evening hours.

One neighbor recalled how she took dinner to Poulson one night when she was recovering from surgery and Tolbert was visiting. The neighbor asked Tolbert if he'd had dinner. When he said, "No," she made a plate for him, too. Tolbert hugged the neighbor, thanking her, the neighbor reported.

But many neighbors said they never felt comfortable about Tolbert being at Poulson's house. Those neighbors, many of whom spoke to Poulson frequently, agreed to talk to the Deseret Morning News as long as their names were withheld. They said they were afraid of possible retaliation by Tolbert.

Neighbors said Poulson talked about Tolbert frequently. While he was in prison, he would send her money to put into savings for him so he would have cash when he was paroled, according to a neighbor. Several neighbors said she became very attached to Tolbert and even talked about him in church.

"She said, 'I feel like I have another son.' She really liked James. She really thought a lot of him," the neighbor said. "For some reason, James just tugged at her heartstrings. She really cared for him."

But in recent weeks, neighbors said, Poulson told them Tolbert had lost his job and was depressed. He asked Poulson if he could move in with her. She said no. Tolbert then constantly asked her for money, according to neighbors.

"She said, 'I don't dare loan him any money, he needs to learn to stand on his own two feet,"' a neighbor reported Poulson as saying.

Neighbors said even though Poulson still cared about Tolbert, she was very disappointed that he was unemployed again and not doing more with his life.

Poulson never said she was afraid of Tolbert, according to neighbors. Several even tried to discourage her from being so friendly with him, telling her that inviting him to her house was not a good idea. But, they said, she never said a bad word about Tolbert.

"I asked her, 'Don't you worry?' She said, 'Oh, no,"' a neighbor reported. "She was just trying to help him by befriending him."

However, once police announced her death was a homicide, at least four residents said they almost simultaneously gave James Tolbert's name to police. One neighbor told police that either Friday or Saturday she heard Poulson's garage open or close about 10:30 p.m., an unusual occurrence because Poulson never went out late.

Her brother encouraged Tolbert to attend church, attempting to involve him in the "Genesis Group" for black members of the LDS Church. "It was always some excuse," Maxwell said.

He said his sister had invited Tolbert to her home to watch LDS general conference last weekend.

Poulson, who worked in the Deseret Morning News accounting department for eight years, was last at work Oct. 3. When the dependable Poulson didn't show up for work as scheduled Tuesday, colleagues were concerned.

So were neighbors, who called police.

Police initially requested help in locating Poulson's car, a white Honda Accord. On Wednesday morning, Salt Lake City police found the car abandoned in Sugarhouse Park.

The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole issued a warrant for Tolbert's arrest late Tuesday night. It stems from an Oct. 6 fight at a Woods Cross house.

"He is alleged to have hit a probationer in the head with a crowbar-type object," parole board spokesman Jim Hatch said.

The Utah Department of Corrections put Tolbert on its Most Wanted list. Maxwell said he believes Tolbert is headed to Detroit, where he has family.

Poulson was remembered Wednesday by family and friends as someone who was never angry and went to great lengths to help others.

"She willingly and gladly helped out anyone in any way she could," said Teresa Shackleford, a co-worker whose desk is next to Poulson's.

Poulson's LDS bishop, Thomas E. Curtis, said she helped anyone in need. "She would pick up a lady who is confined in a wheelchair and drive her to church every Sunday," he recalled. "Ann was just a peach of a person."

Others recalled how she liked to brag about her grandchildren. She was also known to have a Pepsi and chocolate addiction as well as a knock-knock joke handy to ease an otherwise stressful day.

"Ann was the sweetest, nicest, most genuine person who always had a smile for you, even when you were making her job difficult," said Jeff Haney, an editor at the newspaper.

Deseret Morning News Chief Financial Officer Mike Todd's voice was heavy with emotion as he reflected on his colleague and the news that a convicted killer was wanted for questioning in connection with her death.

"Ann's the type of person who looks past those things and gives people a second chance," he said. "She's just a nice person."

Poulson's two sons and daughter were en route to Utah Wednesday night. Funeral services are pending, her brother said.