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Guns, domestic violence, self-defense tell story of Utah’s 2019 homicides

Heather Tuttle, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In 2019, 80 people became victims of homicide in Utah.

The number is similar to 2018’s total of 78 homicides and there were also 80 homicides in the state during 2017, according to statistics kept by the Deseret News. There were 90 in 2016, the state’s all-time high.

Link: A glimpse at each of the 80 Utah homicide victims of 2019

Homicide is defined as the killing of one human being at the hands of another. The 2019 number of homicides could go up if several unsolved deaths are later determined to be the result of another person’s actions. The Deseret News does not count automobile homicides, which often stem from drunken drivers, in its statistics.

The number of fatal officer-involved shootings was down in 2019 from Utah’s record-setting 18 during 2018. There were 12 incidents when officers shot and killed someone, including two during the final 10 days of the year.

About two-thirds of the year’s homicide victims were shot — 52 of the 80. Fourteen victims died from being assaulted or abused, and 11 victims were stabbed.

Sixteen of the 80 homicides occurred in Salt Lake City, according to Deseret News statistics, including two fatal officer-involved shootings. Although the total is more than Salt Lake City had last year — and tops the list for the most homicides for any city in Utah in 2019 — Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking said there were no trends that raised red flags.

The city’s killings could be traced to several factors, including drugs, domestic violence, gangs and mental illness. But in many cases, motives are simply unknown. Wilking said there isn’t one common denominator or trend that explains all of the city’s homicides during 2019.

Likewise, homicides statewide seemed to be fueled by a combination of domestic violence, drugs and mental illness, in addition to anger in general. In 2019, there were fistfights that resulted in death, an increased number of people using deadly force in self-defense, and killings that were seemingly committed at random.

The killing of University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck shocked both Utah and the nation, becoming one of the highest-profile cases of the year.

Ayoola Adisa Ajayi, accused of murdering University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck and setting fire to her body, appears in court in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019.
Ayoola Adisa Ajayi, accused of murdering University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck and setting fire to her body, appears in court in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Lueck, 23, met up with Ayoola Adisa Ajayi early on the morning of June 17 at Hatch Park in North Salt Lake, police say, and from there, the two went to Ajayi’s house in Salt Lake City. At some point, police believe Ajayi killed Lueck by beating her, then burned her body before taking the remains to a remote location in Logan Canyon where they weren’t found until July 3.

Since his arrest, Ajayi has been charged with sexual assault against another woman. In both cases, dating apps are believed to have played a key role. While a possible motive has not been released in Lueck’s death, she and Ajayi were acquainted prior to her death.

Domestic violence

As has been the case for most years, domestic violence-related incidents accounted for many of the homicides in 2019. Nearly a quarter of the year’s deaths were the result of domestic violence.

Like the Lueck case, there were some homicides in 2019 in which the accused killers and victims knew each other, but detectives may never know a motive.

  • In January, Travis Geddes killed his wife, Sarah Hawley, 27, in their Sugar House home, before fatally shooting himself. Hawley graduated from the University of California, San Francisco Medical School, and had recently begun a residency at the University of Utah.
Alex Whipple appears in 1st District Court for his sentencing hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019, in Logan. Whipple was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for murdering niece Elizabeth “Lizzy” Shelley.
Alex Whipple appears in 1st District Court for his sentencing hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019, in Logan. Whipple was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for murdering niece Elizabeth “Lizzy” Shelley.
Eli Lucero
  • Elizabeth “Lizzy” Shelley, 5, was kidnapped, raped and killed by her 21-year-old uncle, Alex Whipple. Whipple agreed to show police where his niece’s body was hidden after four days of searching in exchange for prosecutors not seeking the death penalty. Her remains were found just 12 block from her home.

Elizabeth was one of eight children under the age of 8 who died in 2019 as a result of child abuse homicide. The youngest murder victim last year was just 6 weeks old. The oldest homicide victim in 2019 was 76.

Guns and teens

Firearms, in particular, were prominent in the deaths of several teenagers and young adults — including two strangely similar cases where teens recklessly pointed loaded guns and fired them after gathering with friends to smoke in bedrooms of homes in Kearns and West Valley City.

  • Marquez Grajeda, 15, was shot and killed by a 14-year-old boy in West Valley City. The boys were inside a house during a lunch break from school when the younger teen picked up a gun in a bedroom and waved it around before pointing it at Grajeda and firing. He told police he thought the safety was on.
  • Jerrad Jacobsen, 16, was fatally shot in Kearns by his 15-year-old stepbrother. The stepbrother originally told police Jerrad had accidentally shot himself, but later said he had grabbed the gun, pointed it at Jacobsen’s head and pulled the trigger, believing it was unloaded.

Both teens were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to secure juvenile facilities. Youth parole authorities will determine how long they remain locked up.

  • Emilio Madrigal-Rios, 19, and his 17-year-old brother, Cesar Madrigal-Rios, got into an argument over a gun belonging to the younger brother. Emilio Madrigal-Rios told police his brother had demanded he give him his gun back when they began fighting over it. During the struggle, the gun went off and Cesar Madrigal-Rios was shot in the head, police said. His brother is charged with manslaughter.
  • Neko Jardine, 19, was at a house party in West Valley City with friends when an uninvited group pulled up looking for a person who wasn’t there. Witnesses say Jardine tried to play peacekeeper between the two groups, but the uninvited group fired 10 to 12 shots, striking and killing Jardine, who played for the Kearns High School football team. Three people were arrested for investigation of murder in connection with the shooting.

Fistfights, self-defense

Some fistfights turned into homicides as tempers flared.

Ross Alan Letham
Ross Alan Letham
Davis County Jail
  • Tilman Bitsoie, 45, was at a Woods Cross motel when he asked Ross Alan Letham, 31, in the hallway on a phone to “keep it down.” Police say Letham responded by punching Bitsoie. Later, the two again confronted each other and Letham punched Bitsoie again. This time, Bitsoie fell, hit his head on the ground and he later died. Lethan was sentenced to zero to five years in prison.
  • In April, a 16-year-old girl told her 17-year-old brother that a man had sexually assaulted her on the bus. The boy tracked down Michael Fife, 62, as he exited the bus and assaulted him, causing him to hit his head on the sidewalk. Fife died four days later. But police reviewed video surveillance and said that no sexual assault had occurred. The 17-year-old was sentenced to 30 days in juvenile detention.
  • Brandon Stufflebean, 39, died after he was punched by a gas station owner in Clearfield after the two were fighting over the price of a drink. No charges were filed against the owner.

In addition to the Clearfield case, there were several other homicides (besides police shootings) that prosecutors determined were in self-defense, including:

  • Andrew Wayne Miller, 32, of Riverton, was shot and killed after breaking into 69-year-old Danny Petty’s home.
  • In Provo, Jeremy Sorensen, 26, was shot and killed by a neighbor who saw Sorensen fighting with a woman in the driveway of the apartment complex and warned him to stop or he would shoot.
  • Dylan Tyson Millan, 23, of Logan, was shot and killed during a confrontation with his ex-girlfriend’s current boyfriend.
  • Likewise, Blaine Reed, 35, an Idaho Falls police officer, was shot and killed after bursting into a Layton home and confronting the homeowner about an alleged relationship.

Prosecutors also declined to file charges against employees and bystanders at Ace Hardware in Salt Lake City after they stopped a suspected shoplifter, Mischa Ryan Cox, 30. A struggle ensued as he walked out of the store and Cox was taken to the ground and restrained. But by the time police arrived, he had no pulse and was not breathing. Cox was pronounced dead four days later. Salt Lake police say the death was recorded as a homicide, but no charges were filed because there was no intent.

When including officer-involved shootings, about 21% of the year’s homicides were committed in self-defense, according to Deseret News statistics.

Drugs

Drugs were another contributor in several homicides in 2019. A few examples:

  • Mason Hunt, 26, a U.S. Marine, was shot and killed in January after confronting several people, including a 16- and 17-year-old, who had broken into his house to steal marijuana from his roommate.
  • South Jordan real estate agent David Stokoe, 40, was shot and his body hidden in a crawl space by tenants whom he was trying to remove from one of his rental properties due to suspected drug use, according to police.
  • Kameron Johnson, 18, of Ogden, was killed and his brother, Eric Johnson Jr., 20, critically injured after both were shot by two men allegedly trying to steal drugs.
Elbert John Paule, 19, of Orem, is charged with murdering Dominique Barnett, 26, after Barnett knocked on the door of his Orem apartment near Utah Valley University on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019.
Orem Police Department
  • Dominique Barnett, 26, of Orem, went to an apartment complex to confront Elbert John Paule, 19, about an ongoing dispute over a drug deal, police said. After opening the door, Paule allegedly shot Barnett point-blank in the torso with a 12-gauge shotgun. Paule is charged with murder.

Police shootings

Harold Vincent Robinson
Salt Lake County Jail

Of the 12 fatal officer-involved shootings during 2019, perhaps the most dramatic occurred in April when Harold Vincent Robinson, 37, of West Valley City, was killed following a high-speed chase that ended with a hail of bullets on a busy portion of State Street after Robinson crashed into the front of a business.

Cellphone video recorded by witnesses shows more than 20 officers converging on the truck after 15 to 20 seconds of continuous gunfire — during which dozens upon dozens of shots were fired.

Robinson had been indiscriminately firing at people as he drove around Salt Lake City. Police say he was also leaning out his window and firing a rifle at officers as they chased after him. Amazingly, no one else was seriously injured.

One police officer was killed in the line of duty during 2019. Provo police officer Joseph Shinners, 29, was the first homicide of 2019. He was shot and killed while attempting to take a wanted fugitive into custody. Matt Frank Hoover, 40, is charged with aggravated murder, a capital offense.

Pallbearers load the casket of slain Provo police officer Joseph Shinners into a hearse outside the UCCU Center following Shinners’ funeral in Orem on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019.
Pallbearers load the casket of slain Provo police officer Joseph Shinners into a hearse outside the UCCU Center following Shinners’ funeral in Orem on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Unsolved, unexplained

Several homicides in 2019 remained unsolved by year’s end, and some appeared to be committed at random with no plausible explanation. Some examples:

  • In May, Dennis Gwyther, 50, of Salt Lake City, was driving on I-84 from Utah to Boise when police say another driver, Jonathan Mendoza Llana, 45, of Los Angeles, shot at Gwyther for no apparent reason. Gwyther was killed and his passenger was injured. Llana was found in Idaho two days later after an extensive manhunt. He is charged with aggravated murder.
  • In Sandy, police were called late at night to a home at 916 E. 11190 South after an alarm was triggered. They found a husband and wife with gunshot wounds and rushed them to a hospital, but Maureen Fiore-Webster, 36, died on the way. The husband survived. No arrests have been made and police have not released a possible motive.
  • Skyler Armstrong, 18, of St. George, was lying on the floor in a home at 252 N. 2700 East with friends when police say Nicanor Mendoza, 32, shot him in the head without warning or provocation.
  • Payson may have had the most unusual homicide of the year. In July, Nakylee Marvin, 24, was camping at the Maple Bench Campground with Ethan Timoko, 27, her ex-boyfriend, and others. The two argued during the outing, and at some point Timoko got into his car, allegedly to commit suicide. Police say Timoko shot himself in the head, but the bullet continued its trajectory and also struck Marvin, who was standing outside the vehicle. Marvin was critically injured and died on scene.

Help for people in abusive relationships can be found by contacting the YWCA’s Women in Jeopardy program at 801-537-8600, or the confidential statewide Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-897-LINK (5465). Resources are also available online at udvc.org.