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Missing Utah girl's body recovered just 1/2 block from her home

Uncle charged with aggravated murder wanted to hurt his whole family, grandpa says

LOGAN — The uncle of a missing 5-year-old girl finally broke his silence Wednesday.

Hours after he was charged with capital murder, he agreed to tell his attorney where his niece's body was hidden in exchange for an agreement that prosecutors would not pursue a potential death sentence against him.

The remains of Elizabeth "Lizzy" Shelley, who had been missing since Saturday, were located just half a block away from her home behind a shed and covered by dirt, sticks and other debris.

Elizabeth Shelley, 5, of Logan, was last seen early Saturday morning, May 25, 2019. Alex Whipple, her 21-year-old uncle who is a suspect in her disappearance, has been arrested but is being uncooperative with police.
Elizabeth Shelley, 5, of Logan, was last seen early Saturday morning, May 25, 2019. Alex Whipple, her 21-year-old uncle who is a suspect in her disappearance, has been arrested but is being uncooperative with police.
Mary Whipple

The discovery ended a five-day search for the young girl and capped off an eventful day that saw Alexander William Whipple, 21, charged with aggravated murder even before the body had been found. Police and prosecutors said the totality of the evidence points to Whipple.

Whipple's grandfather believes he wanted to hurt the whole family and that was his grandson's motive for the killing.

"It’s just so hard to try to understand it," Bill Whipple said.

“This is like a sucker punch out of the back, right into the head. Because we never thought that he would be a murderer," he said. "We always knew he had trouble. We always knew he was a very troubled young man. … Life didn’t deal fairly to him from day one, really."

The site where Lizzy was found is an overgrown, heavily wooded area near where other evidence had been located earlier in the week.

"It's hard to believe that we'd been through that area and were unable to find her," Logan Police Chief Gary Jensen said. "We certainly would've wanted to bring Lizzy home, but this nevertheless is closure and it helps us be able to now deal with the investigation and help the family through their grief."

The remains have not yet been positively identified, but "we feel strongly that Lizzy has been found," the police chief said.

Jill Parker, a spokeswoman for Lizzy's family, shared a statement from the girl's mother Wednesday evening.

"There are not words to express the sadness and the heartbreak that we feel today. This did not end the way we wanted it to, but in the sadness, we are comforted that so many people put so much effort to help us find Lizzy. You made the difference, and we are so very thankful," the statement said.

"We have never seen so many people trying so hard and it was beautiful."

Through Parker, the family said they will remember Elizabeth as "such a caring and giving little girl. We hope that we can look to her as an example of how to live."

Alex Whipple was charged Wednesday with aggravated murder and child kidnapping, first-degree felonies; two counts of obstructing justice, a second-degree felony; and abuse or desecration of a body, a third-degree felony.

Jensen said police do not yet know how she died or what Whipple's motive was.

"There still is a lot of investigation down the road for us to really understand that," Jensen said, adding that investigators have "a lot of things to sift through."

There will be additional searches in the area for more evidence, Jensen added.

'Empty life'

Bill Whipple said even though the family knew Alex Whipple had problems, his alleged act of violence has left them dumbfounded.

He said his grandson's mother abandoned him at age 5 and disappeared for a number of years. She then reappeared and took him to live in another county.

"All I can tell you is he had an empty life. He had an empty home, an empty life. He was in and out of foster homes, he would run away from them, he wouldn’t stay in them at all. He was always on the run. And these are the things that, after a while, start to wear on you," Bill Whipple said.

He said the family repeatedly offered him help and urged him to go to therapy but he declined. Though Alex Whipple had a difficult life, his grandfather said that in no way justifies his alleged actions.

Bill Whipple said Lizzy's mother had a good relationship with her brother, Alex, and had helped him. She had "no clue" her brother could do such a thing, he said, adding that Jessica Whipple had done everything she could to protect her kids, and did everything she could to survive.

"Lizzy was her whole life," he said.

The police chief became emotional earlier Wednesday as he read the criminal charges during a press conference.

"To hear a charge of aggravated murder brings with it a notion of finality, and it's very difficult for their family, I can imagine,” he said.

Defense attorney Shannon Demler said he spoke with Alex Whipple for several hours at the Cache County Jail Wednesday before leading police to the location of Lizzy's body. He described his client as "very emotional," "very broken down" and "confused."

"He’s struggling as anyone would be in this situation," he said. "He understands it's a very serious thing he can’t take back. He understands the gravity of it."

Alex Whipple, 21, was booked into the Cache County Jail on Saturday.
Alex Whipple, 21, was booked into the Cache County Jail on Saturday.
Cache County Sheriff's Office

But Demler said Whipple wanted to make amends with his family — at least as much as he could.

"He wanted to make sure that the family could recover the body so they could have some closure," he said.

When asked about a potential motive, Demler said he didn't have an answer. But he believes "mental illness is more a contributing factor than substance abuse."

"Today is a difficult day," the Cache County Attorney's Office said in a statement. "Our thoughts continue to be with Lizzy's family. This tragic event has shaken our community."

'Criminal things'

After Alex Whipple was arrested Saturday afternoon and taken to the police station, investigators noted that he "began licking his hands and trying to wipe his hands clean," charging documents state. At that point, officers put him back into handcuffs "to preserve any evidence that may be on his hands."

After lying several times about his whereabouts the night before, "Alexander would state that alcohol makes him 'black out' and sometimes he does 'criminal things' when he blacks out. Alexander would not elaborate on what these 'criminal things' were," investigators wrote in the charges.

Police noted "dark-colored stains" on Whipple's pants while interviewing him that appeared to be blood, the charges state. He also had "several cuts on his fingers."

Investigators also reported finding a knife near Bear River Charter School, 75 S. 400 West — across the street from Lizzy's house — that appeared to have blood on it.

"The knife was broken near the hilt," the charges state.

The knife is believed to have come from Lizzy's house, according to police. A PVC pipe that appeared to have blood on it and a partial palm print was also found near the knife.

About 50 yards from those items, investigators recovered what they believe was Lizzy's skirt "that appeared to have been hastily buried under some dirt and bark," the charges state. "Near the skirt was a small concrete block with blood on it."

The blood found on the knife, Whipple's watch and Whipple's sweatshirt all matched Lizzy's DNA, according to the charges. The palm print was also determined to be Whipple's, according to investigators, and a discarded beer can found near those items was determined to have Whipple's DNA on it.

The Elizabeth Shelley's great-grandfather by marriage makes a phone call while police search for the 5-year-old in the backyards of nearby homes in Logan on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. She was last seen about 2 a.m. Saturday, May 25, 2019.
The great grandfather, by marriage, of missing Elizabeth Shelley, 5, makes a phone call while police search for Shelley in the backyards of nearby homes in Logan, on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. Shelley was last seen on Saturday morning, May 25, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Earlier in the day, about 20 officers concentrated on the city landfill in Logan. Jensen said it was part of the department's "no stone left unturned" approach to the search.

"Those men and women are down there doing the best that they can to make sure we don’t miss an opprotunity to bring Lizzy home,” he said.

To show what extent investigators have gone to try and find the child, Jensen talked about police pulling over two semitrailers headed to Arizona that were loaded with mulch. Officers searched the trucks because some mulch had been found on Whipple's clothing.

"We’ve gone to every length to exhaust the numerous tips that have come into our office," Jensen said.

Open front door

Jessica Whipple told police she invited her brother Alex to her house Friday night and he arrived between 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. after Lizzy was put to bed. The mother said Alex Whipple drank beer and rum with her and her boyfriend and she eventually told her brother he could sleep on the couch when she went into her bedroom about midnight.

Police previously said Lizzy had last been seen inside her house about 2 a.m. on Saturday. Detrich Black said he last saw Lizzy in her bed shortly after midnight when he retired for the night.

Jessica Whipple woke up at 9:30 a.m. Saturday to discover that the front door was wide open and both Elizabeth and the girl's uncle were gone, according to court documents.

By 3 p.m., Whipple was found by police walking about 10 miles away.

Mariah Hartman, with her children, Zoe and Revee, asks Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Cade Brenchley what's going on as police search in her neighbors' yards for Elizabeth Shelley, 5, in Logan on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. The 5-year-old was last seen about 2 a.m
Mariah Hartman, with her children Zoe and Revee, asks Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Cade Brenchley what's going on as police search in her neighbors' yards for Elizabeth Shelley, 5, in Logan, on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. Shelley was last seen on Saturday morning, May 25, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

"The defendant had a full-sized baseball bat, alcohol and drug paraphernalia on his person," according to a report filed Wednesday by Adult Probation and Parole. "During the interview about his missing niece, the defendant was uncooperative and made false statements about his whereabouts the night before."

Charging documents say Whipple initially denied being at his sister's house the night before, then later admitted he had been there but said he left for a walk when his sister and her boyfriend had gone to bed just before sunrise.

As police interviewed Whipple, a detective kept confronting him about the disappearance of his niece and accused him of being responsible. "Alexander did not admit he was responsible but he also never denied he was responsible," Logan police detective Matt Woods wrote in the charges.

"Throughout the interview, Alexander would (allude) to how evil the world we live in is. Alexander would talk about his struggles as a child and how his family has treated him horribly throughout his life."

On Tuesday, Whipple was charged with six misdemeanors stemming from his Saturday arrest and a judge agreed to hold Whipple without bail. Also Tuesday, Adult Probation and Parole filed an arrest warrant against Whipple for violating the terms of his probation from his 2018 convictions of theft and DUI for leading troopers on a 40-mile chase in a stolen car while he was drunk.

In surveillance video that police released Tuesday, Alex Whipple can be seen walking alone about 6:45 a.m. Saturday just a few blocks from his sister's home. A business owner in the area said a worker spotted a man running through an empty lot across the street from the business, behind an old train car, and then jumping over debris and plywood.

About 15 minutes later, while the worker was pulling out of the parking lot, the same man walked in front of his pickup truck, according to the business owner. The man's pants appeared to be wet below the knees. The driver of the truck immediately thought it was suspicious and called for co-workers to keep an eye on him.

Contributing: Ashley Moser, Sean Moody