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Person of interest sought in Murray slaying seen days before

MURRAY — Police had an encounter with a paroled murderer just days before authorities discovered the body of a 68-year-old woman who had befriended him.

But James William Tolbert hasn't been seen since Sunday night when he walked out of a local hospital. Police want to talk to him as a "person of interest" in the slaying of Deseret Morning News employee Ann Poulson. They have not formally declared him a suspect.

More information is also coming to light about why the convicted killer was released from prison.

Salt Lake City police today declined to disclose details about officers' encounter with Tolbert, such as where they found him.

"We had some interaction with him," assistant Salt Lake City Police Chief Scott Atkinson told the Deseret Morning News.

He would not elaborate, citing the ongoing homicide investigation in Murray. Police have confirmed Tolbert was taken Sunday to a local medical facility for treatment of an undisclosed medical problem. He then walked out of the facility and hasn't been seen since.

Poulson's body wasn't discovered until Tuesday.

Murray police today said they were not necessarily concerned with any missed opportunities to question Tolbert.

"What's happened is in the past," Murray Police detective Jeff Maglish said. "We're aggressively looking for him."

The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole has issued a warrant for Tolbert's arrest, stemming from an Oct. 6 fight at a Woods Cross house. Corrections officials placed him at the top of their "Most Wanted" list when he left parole Tuesday, the same day that Poulson's body was found in her home near 800 East and 5200 South.

Since then, Maglish said police have been following up on a number of tips and possible sightings of Tolbert.

"We don't know if he's left the state or if he's still around. We're trying to track him down," he said.

Poulson's brother, Dan Maxwell, said Thursday that an autopsy had been completed but he did not know the results. Police only told him "she did not feel any pain. It was very quick," he said.

It was also unknown how long Poulson had been dead. She was last seen either Friday or Saturday by neighbors, who also claimed to have heard her garage door open or close about 10:30 p.m. They say it's unusual, because Poulson never went anywhere late.

When police found her body, Poulson's car was missing. Salt Lake City police discovered it Wednesday morning in Sugarhouse Park. Murray police took it to be processed for evidence.

"Evidence was picked out of there that made (Tolbert) someone we wanted to talk to," Maglish said, without elaborating.

Poulson, while doing volunteer work for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, met Tolbert while he was serving a prison sentence for the murder of his wife, Janie Heller-Tolbert.

Neighbors said Poulson, her husband and other church volunteers would hold "family home evening" at the prison. The two seemed to strike up a special friendship and corresponded through e-mails. After Tolbert was released, he kept in contact with Poulson and was even seen by neighbors at her house several times.

Tolbert, 41, was paroled in April 2006 after serving 18 years in prison for second-degree murder. According to Deseret Morning News archives, Tolbert strangled his 26-year-old wife, who was a popular teacher at West High School. At one time, Tolbert was her student, and they married years later. The couple had a son and were in the midst of a divorce when she was killed.

Janie Heller-Tolbert's body was found in May 1987 underneath some debris by the Jordan River.

Tolbert testified at his trial that he lost control but did not mean to kill her. He was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder and sentenced to 5 years to life in prison.

Tolbert had parole hearings in 1992, 1994 and 2003. The Deseret Morning News obtained a tape recording of Tolbert's last hearing, where he said he was "immature" and lacked the skills to keep a marriage together.

"I didn't have the tools needed at the time and I acted out violently against my wife, this leading to the taking of her life," Tolbert said at his hearing.

Janie Heller-Tolbert's sister, Paula, opposed his release.

"The son of James and my sister is 16, and we're concerned," she said. "He's of an age at this point he's just beginning to understand what happened, and it's been difficult because we're going through it all over again."

At his 2003 parole hearing were Tolbert's family and friends. In his file, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole has more than 50 letters of support.

Among those are three letters written by Poulson.

"They were basically in support of him," parole board spokesman Jim Hatch said Thursday.

Looking at the rationale sheet for why the convicted murderer was released, Hatch detailed the mitigating factors.

"The decision to parole was based largely on his acceptance of responsibility, his remorse and motivation to rehabilitate, the extensive programming he had done while in prison, the nature and stability of his release plans, and his level of meaningful support on the outside," Hatch said.

In the 2003 hearing, the parole hearing officer noted that Tolbert had a few disciplinary problems but was attending rehabilitation classes and had been in college courses.

The Utah Department of Corrections recommended an early release, which the parole board denied. The judge who sentenced him also recommended special consideration.

"The court recommends to the board every possible consideration because of remorse and good report and evaluation and any possible counseling program," 3rd District Court Judge Raymond S. Uno wrote in sentencing papers.

Family and friends said Poulson was always a friend and supporter of Tolbert and had even loaned him money when he was released from prison. When he asked to move in with her, neighbors said, Poulson refused.

A funeral for Poulson, a part-time employee at the News who worked for the past eight years in accounting, is scheduled for Monday.


E-mail: preavy@desnews.com; bwinslow@desnews.com