SALT LAKE CITY — A young man who was convicted as a teen of luring a 12-year-old girl out of her house, raping and killing her, was set free for four hours last week as prosecutors scrambled to secure a new arrest warrant to have him re-booked into jail.
While there are still questions about how such a mistake could have happened, one culprit seems to be an outdated system and a disconnected fax machine.
The breakdown that let the admitted killer out into the public is now prompting conversations about how to prevent something similar from happening in the future.
On July 16, 2015, Jayden Sterzer, then 15, went to 12-year-old Kailey Vijil’s West Valley house and lured her away from her home by asking if she would help him find his lost cat. Kailey’s body was discovered by searchers about three hours later in a horse pasture near her home. She died from strangulation.
As part of a plea deal, Sterzer was convicted as an adult on charges of murder, a first-degree felony, and sexual abuse of a child, a second-degree felony. In juvenile court, he pleaded guilty to rape of a child.
He was then ordered to be held in secure care on the juvenile court charge until his 21st birthday, at which time he would go back before a judge to be formally sentenced on his adult convictions. When that day comes, he faces a sentence of 15 years to life in the Utah State Prison for Kailey’s murder.
But on Aug. 14, while at the at the Decker Lake Youth Center, Sterzer allegedly assaulted a staff member, when charging documents say “Sterzer swung at him, punched him, shoved him against a wall, put him in a headlock/chokehold and head-butted him.”
West Valley police were called to Decker Lake and informed of the situation. A decision was made to take Sterzer — now 19, 5 feet seven inches, and 240 pounds — to the Salt Lake County Jail.
According to court records, on Aug. 20, he was transferred from the youth detention facility to the Salt Lake County Jail.
But on Aug. 26, after no formal charges were filed, Sterzer was released to the custody of his mother.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Friday it was only after Sterzer was let out of jail that his office learned about what had happened. The new charge had never been screened with his office.
Gill said his office scrambled to write up a new $1 million arrest warrant on the assault charge to get Sterzer back into custody and make sure he could not get out.
Four hours later, Sterzer was rearrested on a charge of assault by a prisoner, a third-degree felony, and re-booked into jail.
Gill said he hasn’t had a lot of time to explore where the breakdown happened.
“For us, the urgency really became the release of a person we prosecuted for murder and the safety of the public,” he said.
But Gill said his understanding of Sterzer’s sentence was that Juvenile Justice Services was ordered to hold him until he was 21. If Decker Lake officials wanted to move him into the adult facility before that time, they should have done the paperwork and gone before a judge first to get an order, Gill said.
“The breakdown occurred when that person was transferred from juvy to county jail separate from that order,” he said. “He is still under a judicial order. You can’t circumvent that just because you don’t want him in your facility any more.”
But Juvenile Justice Director Brett Peterson said protocol was followed, and Decker Lake did the same thing it’s been doing for over 20 years.
Peterson said while he agrees in a general sense with Gill, in this case, Sterzer is accused of committing a new crime when he was 19.
“It’s a whole different, new criminal episode occurring in our facility. We’re not going to base our decision to call law enforcement on a plea agreement. We’re going to deal with that situation at hand,” he said.
According to Peterson, it’s not up to the staff at Decker Lake whether to transfer a person to jail. He said West Valley police were called and informed about what happened.
As Sterzer was being taken away, Peterson said the officers were told about Sterzer’s murder conviction.
But West Valley police spokeswoman Roxeanne Vainuku said the role of the officers in that scenario was to transfer the suspect to jail. It is not up to the transporting officers to give the jail a rundown of the criminal histories of every person they take there, she said.
Peterson said his office did send over Sterzer’s case history to jail administrators — by fax.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said it was only after Sterzer was released and rearrested, and questions were raised about what had happened, that her staff learned an outdated system was being used to notify the jail about juvenile offenders.
The fax machine that the information was sent to is no longer in service, Rivera said, and the system of faxing information over is one that was set up long before she became sheriff.
“We didn’t even know the fax machine number had been obsolete for a long time,” she said.
Because of that, jail administrators were unaware that Sterzer was still waiting to be sentenced for child murder and rape.
Furthermore, because Sterzer’s criminal history is in juvenile court and he has yet to be sentenced in the adult system, Rivera said there was no warrant history for jail staffers to look up.
“No one saw that document. We didn’t know his previous charges, so he was released on a failed to file,” Rivera said.
If jail administrators had seen that document, Rivera said they would have called West Valley police to let them know that Sterzer was about to be released so they would have an opportunity to file something to keep him in jail.
Now, because of the series of events that put Sterzer on the streets for four hours, “We have taken a look at our processes to make sure it doesn't happen again for someone who should never be let out of jail,” she said.
Rivera said background information about an inmate will now be emailed or someone will be called directly. And if a violent or high profile person is about to be released, Rivera said the arresting agency will be given a courtesy call to give them a chance to file something to hold the inmate longer if needed.
The sheriff said Sterzer “should have never been let out.” Rivera doesn't want a family like the Vijils to ever have to worry about something like that.
“We don’t want to cause Kailey Vijil’s family any kind of grief after what they’ve been through,” she said. “We don’t ever want this to happen again.”
A court hearing to review the status of Sterzer’s case and what direction the case should go next has been scheduled for Sept. 9.