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Life without parole ordered for man in arson murder of restaurateur

SALT LAKE CITY — The man who murdered his husband, prominent restaurateur John Williams, was ordered Thursday to spend life in prison without the possibility of parole for trapping Williams in his burning home and leaving him to die.

Third District Judge James Blanch said his decision was based on Craig Crawford's deliberate acts and apparent premeditation as he set fire to the stairs of his estranged husband's Capitol Hill home last year, leaving him with no escape.

"It's an extremely cruel way to kill a person," Blanch explained as he handed down the sentence.

According to testimony over three days this week, in the years before the May 2016 murder, Crawford had become paranoid, destructive, accusatory and violent, often speaking of people who didn't exist or seeing things that weren't there.

Experts debated the timing and repercussions of damage found in Crawford's brain, which his attorneys say was caused by a skiing accident. The brain injury, they argued, pushed Crawford to self-medicate through methamphetamine and drove him to psychosis.

But prosecutors insisted the drugs themselves were responsible for the brain damage and Crawford's hallucinations were made worse as he repeatedly dropped out of treatment programs in order to return to his addiction.

Speaking before the sentence was announced, an emotional Crawford, 48, made no requests to the judge regarding his sentence, but spoke instead of his deep love for Williams, 72, and his sorrow for the pain felt by family, friends and the Salt Lake community.

"I know that what I've done has hurt all who loved John and will hurt them for quite some time," Crawford said. "I know I took something wonderful from this world. I know it with my whole being."

Crawford said he still thinks of Williams daily and will carry the guilt of the murder for the rest of his life.

"I allowed my life to spin out of control and I am responsible for everything I did," he affirmed.

Crawford sat stiff and blank-faced as the judge explained he had carefully considered pleas from Crawford's attorneys and his mother, asking for a "sliver of hope" with a sentence that could eventually allow for his release.

Reading from three prepared statements — one for Williams' family, one for her son and one for the judge — Barbara Crawford said her son had always been a loving, intelligent and motivated person, until the skiing accident in 2012.

After a year of recovery for an injured leg, combined with pain medication and what his family believes was an undiagnosed closed head injury, Crawford began using methamphetamine, becoming quickly addicted.

"Why would a successful, happy young man in a loving relationship turn to drug use?" Barbara Crawford asked in her statement to Williams' family.

She told the judge that addiction and hallucination, fueled by the drug, took her son "to the pits of hell." Now, she said, he is sober and his gentle personality has been restored.

"The man who sits before you is not the same person who committed that terrible crime," she told the judge. "We humbly request that he be able to look forward to parole."

However, pointing to numerous aggravating factors, such as evidence that Crawford had made threats in the past and may have been seeking revenge after being cut from Williams' will, the judge maintained that the maximum sentence is justified.

Crawford pleaded guilty in June to aggravated murder and aggravated arson, both first-degree felonies, in a deal that took the death penalty off the table.

On the murder charge, Blanch was left with a decision to sentence Crawford to life in prison without the possibility of parole, or 25 years to life with the possibility of parole.

Each displaying a favorite photo of Williams as they spoke Thursday, three family members recounted the profound impact Williams had on all who knew him. They asked the judge to keep Crawford in prison for the rest of his life.

A brother and two of Williams' nieces spoke of the central role Williams played in their tight-knit family. Beyond that, they said, he had a powerful impact on the community around him, including innovating Salt Lake City as the president of Gastronomy, developing support in the LGBT community, founding the Downtown Alliance and championing the local arts.

"The list is endless of people who loved John and will mourn his loss for years to come," said Amy Zaharis, one of Williams' nieces.

The woman also described the pain of telling her young children that Crawford, who had often had dinner and played games in their home, had killed their uncle John. She pleaded with the judge to keep Crawford behind bars for the rest of his life in order to keep her family safe.

Those who tried to help Williams protect himself also testified Thursday of their fears for Williams in his final days.

Adamant on the witness stand, Williams' niece, Laura Forsgren, insisted she knew the situation was dangerous when attorneys managed to serve an eviction notice on her uncle's volatile husband, but hadn't secured a protective order. Fearful, she said she begged her uncle numerous times that weekend not to go home, but to come stay with her family instead.

"I knew, I knew it was going to happen," Forsgren explained, her voice raised.

Forsgren had been close to Williams all her life, even more so when her father and later her mother died, she said. They talked daily, she said, and when Williams began dating Crawford, she became close to him as well.

For years they were happy, Forsgren said, alleging that after the couple's 2009 marriage, Crawford became critical, cruel and intent in separating Williams from his friends and family in Salt Lake City. Forsgren speculated the change in Crawford was the result of a postnuptial agreement that limited the stake she thought Crawford was trying to establish in Williams' estate.

By the time Forsgren picked up her uncle at the airport on May 20, 2016, two days before he died, she believed Williams was in danger.

After years of escalating volatility by Crawford — including an assault on Williams and a frightening incident when Crawford wielded an ax at a dinner party in Canada — Williams had filed for divorce and was returning to Salt Lake City to request a restraining order and to evict Crawford.

Forsgren said she reassured her uncle that everything would work out, though inwardly she didn't believe it.

She said that's when Williams replied, "You know, you're right. My life is going to be fine, but what's going to happen to Craig's life? What about him?"

An attorney Williams hired to evict Crawford and help with the protective order, Matthew Anderson, also took the stand Thursday, describing the concerns he had for Williams' safety.

On the day Williams returned to Salt Lake City, Williams said they successfully secured the eviction notice and posted it at Williams' home. The protective order, however, wasn't completed.

As he prepared the request that day, a Friday, Anderson testified he spoke multiple times with a court clerk, who told him no judges were available to sign the order because they were all away at a judicial conference.

Hoping a judge may have returned, Anderson said he called again to check before the courthouse closed at the end of the day. The clerk told him no one was available, but she had arranged for Williams to go before a judge first thing on Monday.

Williams was killed early Sunday morning.

Crawford started the fire in the foyer on the second floor of the four-story house at 574 N. East Capitol St., in the early morning hours of May 22, 2016. 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.

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.