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As murderer begs for life, remember 'so did my mother,' daughter of slain woman testifies

Jury hears testimony before choosing life or death for convicted killer

OGDEN — Greg Roberts had to learn to be a father without the help of his mother.

Roberts was studying in Virginia when his mother, Joyce Yost, was murdered in 1985 by a man trying to prevent her from testifying that he had violently kidnapped and raped her. Douglas Lovell, the man who killed her, didn't confess to the crime until seven years later, and Yost's body was never found.

In the days after the disappearance, Roberts recalled wanting to go home. But was Utah still home without his mother?

"When Lovell stole Joyce from us, I was lost for many years," Roberts said.

He said he didn't find purpose in his life again until he had children of his own, hoping to pay his mother back for raising him by being a good parent himself. His two daughters are grown now; his son is 8 years old. Together they have had happy years, been successful in school, developed unique talents in medicine, music and sports, and have celebrated a wedding.

"Joyce was the only thing missing," he said. "She could have taught them so much more."

Over time, his children have learned about their grandmother, a dignified and kind woman, through stories and a picture that hangs in their home. A lesson they have gained along the way, Roberts said, is that everyone faces challenges, but they must not let those difficulties destroy them.

"Our family has a cross to bear, but we're not going to let it stop us from making the best of our lives," Roberts told a jury hearing testimony about his mother's death Friday. "We're going to overcome, and we appreciate your help."

Roberts, along with his sister and two nieces, testified during a rare penalty phase hearing. The same jury that found Lovell guilty earlier this week will now consider two possible sentences for Lovell: death, or life with a chance of parole.

A life sentence without parole was not possible in 1985 when Yost was murdered, prosecutors noted Friday.

Roberts wept as he recalled the guilt he felt when his mother disappeared. For years he struggled with the fact that he had left his independent single mother alone, fearing he had failed to protect her. It wasn't until he reached the age she had been when she died — 39 years and 219 days — that he realized how truly young she had been, and how many years had been taken from her.

Lovell once pleaded guilty to the murder as part of plea deal in 1993. As part of that deal, he was told prosecutors wouldn't push for the death penalty if he revealed the location of Yost's body to allow her family closure and a funeral.

But the grave site, which Lovell told investigators was somewhere up Ogden Canyon, was never found. A judge determined Lovell hadn't met his end of the bargain and sentenced him to die by lethal injection. But after an appeal, the Utah Supreme Court allowed him to withdraw his guilty plea in 2010 and a new trial was ordered.

In the first day of the sentencing hearing Friday, prosecutors said Lovell's case is "a story of recidivism and escalation," a long string of crimes beginning with a stolen bicycle when he was 13 and culminating in Yost's cold and calculated murder.

"Capital murder is the worst thing you can do. I committed a first-degree felony to cover another felony. … It's the death penalty,” prosecutor Jeffrey Thomson read from Lovell's 1993 confession.

The conversation was secretly taped by Lovell's ex-wife, Rhonda Butters, in order to get immunity. Butters had driven Lovell to and from his trip to kill Yost — with her 4-year-old daughter along for the ride — and then helped as he burned and hid her clothing across two counties.

"He's a hunter," Thomson told the jury, describing the way Lovell had tried twice to pay others to kill Yost for him, then carefully scouted out a window at Yost's house that didn't lock properly so that he could sneak in and kill her himself.

Prosecutors will argue that Lovell was depraved and calculating as he planned and executed the crime, then sought to hide it. Yost was terrified and begged him for her life, they previously said, and he drugged her so she'd be too disoriented to call for help.

Lovell has never shown real remorse, focusing instead on what consequences he could personally face, and manipulating the justice system to avoid punishment, Thomson said.

Defense attorney Michael Bouwhuis, in turn, told the jury that the defense is not trying to justify or explain Lovell's actions, but to outline reasons why he should not die for the crime.

Lovell suffered several head injuries before he was 19 years old, Bouwhuis said, resulting in concussions with potential long-term effects. That was compounded by his mother's depression and his parents' divorce, which was "traumatic" for a young Lovell.

Lovell has been incarcerated since 1985 when he was found guilty of raping Yost. A jury convicted him months after Yost disappeared after prosecutors used transcripts of her testimony from previous hearings. He has been a model prisoner, Bouwhuis said, with no tattoos or gang involvement and no significant disciplinary problems. He is remorseful, Bouwhuis said, and unlikely to re-offend.

Defense witnesses will address how time, nature and native predators in Ogden Canyon could have made it nearly impossible for Yost's body to be found, Bouwhuis said.

Prosecutors, however, implied that Lovell misled investigators, telling them that Yost was buried near Snowbasin, despite the fact that he had told his ex-wife that the grave was by Causey Reservoir.

The sentencing hearing is scheduled to last through April 1.

Kim Salazar was 23 years old when her mother was murdered. The killing changed her "as a woman, a mother, a wife." She became empty, she said, and was so affected that she struggled as a mother to her own family.

But she left jurors with a message to remember during her testimony:

"As Mr. Lovell sits before you and begs for his life to be spared, so did my mother."

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero