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Killer mutters, gestures in video following arson murder

SALT LAKE CITY — As a judge prepares to consider a life prison sentence for the man who killed his prominent husband by trapping him in a burning home, witnesses testified of the killer's declining mental state.

Prosecutors pointed to Craig Crawford's steady and heavy methamphetamine use as the driver behind his bizarre behavior.

But attorneys representing Crawford say the drugs were a way to quiet bouts of psychosis, which had been made worse by an undiagnosed brain injury years earlier.

Crawford, 48, is in the middle of a three-day sentencing hearing for murdering his estranged husband, well-known restaurateur John Williams. Crawford pleaded guilty in June to aggravated murder and aggravated arson, first-degree felonies, in a deal that took the death penalty off the table.

After attorneys on both sides present evidence about Crawford and the crime he committed, 3rd District Judge James Blanch must weigh whether the man should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, or 25 years to life with the possibility of parole.

The judge has said he won't hand down the sentence this week, but will take the matter under advisement and announce his decision on Sept. 21.

During Tuesday's hearing, video was presented of Crawford locked in a police interview room in the hours after the fire that killed Williams. A camera recorded as Crawford constantly fidgeted, gestured and muttered to himself during the hour and 40 minutes he was in the room.

As they watched, Marcos Garaycochea, who at the time was an officer with the Salt Lake City Police Department, said police thought they heard Crawford say, "Not exactly where you want to look for your next husband, but you never know."

In another moment, Crawford said, "My street cred just went up."

And in another, he appears to say, "I could have saved him."

Garaycochea said he took particular note of Crawford's behavior, wondering how it fit into the arson investigation he was undertaking.

On cross-examination, one of Crawford's attorneys, Mark Moffat, suggested Crawford's actions indicated he was experiencing psychosis at the time.

Williams was the president of Gastronomy, which operates the popular Market Street Grill, Market Street Oyster Bar and the New Yorker restaurants. He founded the Downtown Alliance and championed the local arts, Salt Lake City's Olympic bid and other community organizations.

Early on May 22, 2016, Crawford intentionally set fire to the Capitol Hill house he had shared with Williams, 72, who had filed for divorce earlier in the month.

Crawford started the fire in the foyer on the second floor of the four-story house at 574 N. East Capitol St., police said. The blaze rendered the stairway to the upper levels unusable, trapping Williams in the fourth level bedroom where firefighters found him dead on the floor.

An autopsy determined Williams died of smoke inhalation.

Additional video shown in court, captured by a surveillance camera installed above Williams' kitchen door, showed Williams arriving at his home on the night that he died, bags of food from the New Yorker in his hand.

About an hour later, Crawford is seen hurrying into the house as well.

The video recorded as Crawford came and went from the home, including appearing without his shirt and shoes. A glowing light appears, shining out of the house, as Crawford continues to go in and out of the building, returning at one point with what Garaycochea said was a can of oil that firefighters found inside the house.

At another time, Crawford fetches what looks to be a box of papers, spilling some of the contents as he heads up the steps into the house and returning later to pick them up.

All the while, the flickering glow coming from inside the house appears to grow.

Garaycochea noted that the fire, on the second floor near the kitchen, consumed the only set of stairs Williams would have been able to use to escape the upper floors.

A search warrant affidavit unsealed in June 2016 said a frightened Williams installed that camera and changed locks and alarms on the home "to keep Craig Crawford out of the house." Additionally, court documents obtained by the Deseret News indicate that nearly three weeks before Williams died, he sought a restraining order claiming Crawford was becoming dangerous.

The order was not completed, possibly because judges were attending a judicial conference and a power outage was affecting the courthouse when Williams made his request, according to conversations in the hearing Tuesday.

From the bench, Blanch took a moment Tuesday to tell the courtroom that, if Williams had been turned away for those reasons, it would have been contrary to the court's policy.

On the witness stand, Melanie Semlacher, a close friend of Crawford's since fall 2014, testified that in the time she's known Crawford, she's seen a drastic change in his personality and behavior.

When she learned of Williams' death, Semlacher said she prepared a timeline of Crawford's deterioration to provide to police.

"I knew that Craig was psychotic, I knew that he was delusional, I knew he didn't know what he was doing," Semlacher said of her motivation for assembling the timeline.

Semlacher testified that throughout their friendship, she spent a great deal of time with Crawford, seeing him change from the kind and intelligent man she'd met into a violent and delusional stranger.

Semlacher said Crawford spoke openly with her about the delusions he experienced, including telling her that gremlins were stealing or destroying his possessions, explaining that "tree people" both lived in and were part of the trees around them, and insisting he could hear messages in music and see footprints of strangers on the ground.

Crawford grew increasingly paranoid, agitated and violent, to the point that Semlacher realized she was unsafe with him. She connected Crawford with a doctor, she said, but his mental state continued to slip, until he became deeply angry when she called 911 during one of his episodes. Crawford cut off communication with her, Semlacher said, and was deported from Canada in February 2016.

As Crawford returned to the United States, Semlacher said, "I was devastated because I knew how sick he was and there was nothing I could do to help."

On cross-examination, Semlacher acknowledged she was aware throughout their friendship of Crawford's struggle with methamphetamine, insisting his unsuccessful attempts at rehab were nonetheless evidence he was trying to change.

In light of the volume of material to be considered and the gravity of his decision, Blanch said Monday that he won't announce the sentence as the hearings conclude this week, but will take the issue under advisement and announce it Sept. 21.

Free and confidential help and support for victims and survivors of domestic violence is available 24/7 at 800-897-LINK (5465) or visiting udvc.org.