OGDEN — The murder of Brian Racine was unlike most.
The 28-year-old father from California, who was staying at an Ogden homeless camp last summer, had been "minding his own business" before he was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head, 2nd District Judge Camille Neider said Monday.
She sentenced Dalton James Aiken, one of two men charged Racine's death, to what could amount to a lifetime in prison.
Such killings generally start with some type of conflict, Weber County prosecutor Dee Smith noted Monday in an Ogden courtroom. "But this is a case that appears that the two individuals wanted to kill somebody and picked a homeless guy, a person they had no prior contact with — no reason to take a life — and just for no reason went into the woods in the middle of the night and executed him."
At trial, the state argued Aiken told police that homeless people are "a problem" and don't contribute to society. Officers reported that he disclosed after his arrest that he and his friend Cory Michael Fitzwater, 36, were in the 21st Street pond area "to find and harass homeless people." Aiken's attorneys have disputed their client had targeted Racine for that reason.
Even after a jury found 28-year-old Aiken guilty of murder last month, his exact role in Racine's death has remained unclear because he has not provided a full picture, the judge said. His statements to police, jurors and others don't make sense, Neider continued.
"It's hard to separate the lies from any truth in any of those statements," she said. From the first time he saw blue lights of police cars in the hours after the shooting, "you had an opportunity to make things better" by telling investigators what happened, Neider said. "Time after time after time, you refused to take that opportunity."
Shackled and in an orange jail uniform, Aiken apologized.
"I didn't know anything like that was going to happen, but I understand I made mistakes. I lied to police and I didn't say the truth when I should've," he said. He showed little emotion as Neider ordered him to at least 16 years and up to life in the Utah State Prison.
Since the death of her son, Racine's mother, Christine Meyers, has started smoking and drinking again to ease her pain.
"I will never be the same or whole again," she said in a letter read aloud in court by a victim advocate. She recalled that when he was younger, her son would give money to the homeless and tell them he wished he could give more.
Brian Racine, who struggled with mental illness, had moved from California to Utah as part of his plan to become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she said. Meyers had called police after she lost contact with her son, she testified at trial, and they phoned her back to report he was dead.
His two daughters, now 6 and 7, won't know him, his brother Matthew Short wrote in another letter.
"I have long, sleepless nights thinking how two men could be so cruel, taking my brother's life for no reason," Short said.
Outside the courtroom, Dalton Aiken's father, Kelly Aiken, said the state has gone after the wrong person and his son plans to appeal. Dalton Aiken saw Fitzwater fire the gun and "was afraid and was semi-covering for a friend, but then his conscience got to him and he came clean," his father said. Aiken that night had planned to talk with Fitzwater, who he said is a military veteran who served in Afghanistan and has post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I believe this was a PTSD outburst," Kelly Aiken said.
Fitzwater has pleaded not guilty to charges including murder, a first-degree felony, and possession of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person, a third-degree felony. After a preliminary hearing last month, Neider found probable cause for him to stand trial.
Investigators discovered Racine's body Aug. 16 near 500 West and 21st Street with a wound from a .45-caliber bullet they later linked to the gun Aiken and Fitzwater had with them when they were pulled over on 17th street about 3 a.m. that day.
Aiken in a police interview said the gun was his and he had seen Fitzwater use it to shoot Racine in the head, according to charging documents. Fitzwater, for his part, told police he had been in the area at the time of the shooting but didn't see anyone or hear a gunshot.
Neider order Aiken to at least 15 years and up to life in prison for murder, plus an extra year for a dangerous weapon enhancement. He will also serve a concurrent prison term of up to five years for possessing a gun as a restricted person, a third-degree felony.
A seven-day trial for Fitzwater is scheduled to begin Nov. 6, with his next hearing set for Wednesday.