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Utahn sent to prison for killing girlfriend in front of her 5-year-old son

Dawn Hickman poses with a picture of her late sister, Belinda Thomas, outside the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake Cityon Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Thomas' boyfriend, Darren Fitzgerald Byrd, 50, was sentenced to at least 15 years and up to life in p
Dawn Hickman poses with a picture of her late sister, Belinda Thomas, outside the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake Cityon Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Thomas' boyfriend, Darren Fitzgerald Byrd, 50, was sentenced to at least 15 years and up to life in prison Tuesday for stabbing her to death while her 5-year-old son was in the home.
Annie Knox, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Hardship was a central theme in Belinda Thomas' life.

She endured sexual abuse as a child and spent several years in California's foster care system, her family members recalled in a Salt Lake courtroom Tuesday. As an adult, she battled health issues and lost her husband to a drug overdose.

But in February, when she returned home from the hospital still sick with complications from diabetes, the 46-year-old Thomas became deeply unhappy, her sister Dawn Hickman recalled.

The trailer home she shared with her boyfriend in West Valley City was dirty and unkempt, even though she had urged him to do his part. Darren Fitzgerald Byrd had ignored Thomas' calls and would not bring her 5-year-old son to the hospital, Hickman said as she fought tears.

Thomas, who feared she might lose her job at a private probation agency, argued with an intoxicated Byrd over their finances on Feb. 9, setting in motion a chain of events that culminated in Byrd, 50, stabbing her several times and leaving her to die as her son watched, court documents show. Neighbors told police he had moved in about two months earlier.

A judge on Tuesday sentenced Byrd to at least 15 years and possibly up to life in the Utah State Prison for murder, a conclusion that followed at-times tearful statements from Thomas' family members.

"Belinda deserved to be happy after the hell she went through during her lifetime," Hickman said, but instead, she leaves behind a traumatized son who has her smile and dimples.

The boy "had to witness his mother be stabbed multiple times and hide in the closet wondering if he would be next," prosecutor Joshua Graves said. The child is in therapy and living with a relative, Graves said.

After the hearing, Graves said he believed Thomas was preparing to end her relationship with Byrd, a time experts say can be the most deadly for those in abusive relationships.

Her family members recalled Thomas as a resilient and loving mother who had once thought she couldn't have kids and was overjoyed when she gave birth to a son at 41 years old. Around the same time, she graduated with a degree from the University of Utah in psychology.

Police said they found Thomas' body on Feb. 9 in the West Valley trailer home she and Byrd shared, at 3292 W. Chester Park Drive. A 12-year-old neighbor boy who had gone to the home to invite her to a birthday party called 911.

That boy's older sister, Diana Moreno, said she continues to wonder how long Thomas' son had been there with his mother after Byrd left.

"He took away my peace of mind, my family’s peace of mind," she said. "I don’t believe he should ever be able to walk freely again."

Her little brother spotted Byrd near a car, who told him he had been in a fight with Thomas and police were coming, charges state. When the boy went to Thomas' trailer, her son answered the door and said he thought his mom was dead.

Police reported they found Byrd later that night sleeping in Thomas' car near 5400 West and 2350 South. Earlier in the day, Byrd had called a former employer and said he should "just take me to jail," according to the charges.

Byrd pleaded guilty in March to murder, a first-degree felony, and committing domestic violence in front of a child, a third-degree felony, as part of an agreement with prosecutors.

He admitted that he had been drinking heavily when he and Thomas began fighting on Feb. 9, and that he became angry that Thomas struck him in the ear before stabbing her multiple times with a knife. He believed her son was not in the room, but saw him afterward and left the home when Thomas was still alive but severely injured and bleeding on the floor, court documents show.

Byrd did not speak during the hearing but could be seen shaking as members of Thomas' family addressed the judge.

His attorney, Neal Hamilton, said his client is aware of the pain he has caused and "wishes there is something he could do to make up for this."

Before reading his sentence, 3rd District Judge James Blanch said Byrd also made Thomas' young son a victim when he took away the child's mother. However, instead of taking the case to a trial, Byrd admitted what he had done almost immediately, sparing Thomas' young son from having to testify, the judge said. He also noted Byrd has no violent crimes on his record.

"He knows what he did is wrong. He knows he took someone from the earth who did not deserve what she suffered," Blanch said. He sentenced Byrd to 15 years to life in the Utah State Prison on the murder count and up to five years for the child abuse charge, ordering the terms to run back to back.

In exchange for Byrd's guilty pleas, charges of unlawful weapon possession, a class A misdemeanor, and obstructing justice, a second-degree felony, were dismissed.

A confidential hotline and website offer help to Utah victims of domestic violence: 800-897-LINK (5465) and udvc.org.