SALT LAKE CITY — Tony and Katherine Butterfield adored each other and doted on their three little children, working long hours at their landscaping business to save for the kids’ future.
But an acquaintance deprived the young family of a life together, shooting and killing the parents in April after first robbing them and later returning to their West Jordan home.
“They will never get to see their youngest daughter’s first birthday,” Katherine Butterfield’s sister, Emily Hurst, said in court Thursday. “Tony and Katherine will never be able to watch their children go on to graduate kindergarten or high school or college, or go on missions or get married.”
After listening to tearful statements from Hurst and other family members, 3rd District Judge James Blanch sentenced Albert Enoch Johnson, 31, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Johnson pleaded guilty during the same hearing to two counts of aggravated murder, a first degree felony, in the deaths of Katherine Butterfield, 30, and Tony Butterfield, 31.
Johnson’s guilty pleas came as part of an agreement with prosecutors that took the death penalty off the table. Salt Lake County deputy district attorney Anna Rossi said the deal was approved by Butterfield family members and will spare them from years of hearings and a trial.
A masked Johnson forced the couple from their bed at gunpoint early on the morning of April 18 and demanded money before eventually leaving with just $20 and a pair of cellphones.
But police said Johnson, 31, returned to the house without any material obscuring his face once he realized that he had accidentally left his car keys there. Johnson kicked in their back door and shot the couple who were wielding knives in self-defense.
Tony Butterfield stabbed Johnson in the arm in an attempt to fend him off and asked, “Why, Albert, why?” before Johnson fatally shot him in the head, Rossi said. He then shot Katherine Butterfield in the torso because he worried neighbors might hear her screaming in horror.
“That night, they experienced what is every parent’s — every person’s, to be honest — worst nightmare,” Rossi continued. “They were the mom and the dad to three little kids who now have to grow up knowing that their parents died doing absolutely everything they could to protect them in that house that night.”
A spokeswoman for the Butterfield family tearfully read letters from loved ones, calling Johnson’s actions “evil” and said they grieved not only for the couple but for Johnson’s own son and other family members. They urged him to change for the better while in prison.
A shackled Johnson, wearing an orange jail uniform and black face mask, sobbed and apologized.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he responded while Hurst described the loss as immeasurable.
Johnson later turned toward family members in the courtroom gallery, telling them he is reading the Book of Mormon and other scriptures as he tries to find closure.
The couple’s three young children — ages 4, 2, and 6 months at the time— were inside the home at the time of the murders but were uninjured.
Johnson told detectives he went to the home of the couple — who lived less than 1 1⁄2 miles away from him — “to get money” because he was concerned about his own finances and believed they were doing well, court documents state.
Rossi said relatives of Johnson worked for Tony Butterfield, and Johnson had sought to work for the company in the past.
Defense attorney Robin Ljungberg said the case reached such a swift resolution because of “the family’s mercy and my client’s willingness to accept responsibility.”
“Mr. Johnson was not himself that night,” Ljungberg said, noting his client had been drinking and was acting impulsively. “To this day, he has a hard time believing he has done this.”
Johnson’s wife, Sina Johnson, pleaded guilty in August to a reduced charge of attempting to obstruct justice, a third-degree felony. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to her immediate release from the Salt Lake County Jail.
Ljungberg said his client has cognitive and learning disabilities that prevent him from processing information quickly and had intended to give himself up but fled instead. Police found Johnson in Stockton, California, after receiving tips about where he was staying.
In addition to the aggravated murder charges, Johnson pleaded guilty to an unrelated charge of aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony, tied to an incident at a 7-Eleven in September 2019.
The judge sentenced him to at least five years and up to life, ordering that the prison terms run concurrently, or at the same time, as the others.
In exchange for Johnson’s guilty pleas, eight other charges were dismissed, including two counts of aggravated robbery, two counts of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated burglary, first degree felonies; plus obstruction of justice and two counts of possession of a firearm by a restricted person, second-degree felonies.