SALT LAKE CITY — Shaun French could have turned himself in.
He could have admitted that he raped and abused a teenage girl during the time he stayed in her Salt Lake City home as a family friend.
If he’d done so, Baleigh Bagshaw would be getting ready to start her senior year at West High School, her mother, Shawna Bagshaw, said Tuesday in 3rd District Court. The girl might be experimenting with quirky hairstyles she’d show off in online classes and planning the military career she long dreamed of.
“I really miss being able to hold my daughter and talk to her, and I’ll never get to do that again,” Shawna Bagshaw said through tears.
But prosecutors said French, sentenced Tuesday in Baleigh’s death to a term of life in prison without the possibility of parole, had no plan to give up any power. They said he felt the need to control the 15-year-old at all costs.
Police said Baleigh was on the phone with her mother when she returned from school on May 7, 2018. French, who had broken into the home, was waiting inside and stabbed her several times, slitting her throat and nearly decapitating her, court documents say.
“Her mother Shawna was left on the open line, listening to her daughter die,” Pehrson said.
When French left the house, he tracked blood out the door, discarding the knife in Baleigh’s backyard and dumping his bloodied clothes and boots in a Wyoming landfill. Investigators later tracked down the boots and found Baleigh’s DNA on the soles and French’s DNA inside the shoes.
French had harassed the girl and threatened her life after she rejected his attempts to get her back. Because of her young age, their relationship was not consensual under Utah law.
After French sent explicit photos of the girl to her mother, Shawna Bagshaw confronted her daughter and the two made a plan to go to police. When Baleigh told French she intended to report him to law enforcers, he drove back from where he was staying in Ohio to kill her and prevent her from going to police, court documents say.
“Baleigh didn’t have time to provoke anything or even have time for self-defense,” said Richard Pehrson, assistant district attorney for Salt Lake County. “Without a single word, he grabbed her and started slashing.”
French, 27, pleaded guilty in July to aggravated murder, a first-degree felony and capital offense, as part of a plea bargain.
“Your honor, to be honest, it’s either this or the death penalty,” he said during that hearing.
In exchange, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty and instead recommended the life sentence without parole. Third District Paul Parker ordered French to serve the sentence Tuesday, telling Baleigh’s family he acknowledges that “I cannot make it better. I cannot ease your pain.”
Prosecutors said French celebrated his notoriety while in jail. They played a recording of a telephone call, wherein French is heard telling his brother Cody French that he “dwarfed” others charged with aggravated murder and that the FBI had worked to track him down.
Shaun French was arrested in southeast Colorado following a two-day manhunt.
He wore a yellow jail uniform, shaved head and a black face mask Tuesday, replying “no, sir,” when the judge asked whether he wished to say anything before being sentenced.
French admitted that he initiated a sexual relationship with Baleigh while living in her home — when he was 23 and she was 14 — even though he knew it was illegal because of her age. Baleigh’s family had allowed him to stay there as a favor because he was a family friend, according to prosecutors.
He controlled the girl, dictating when she could wake up or leave the house and the people she could spend time with, Pehrson said. And he bragged about their relationship to Baleigh’s older brother.
The relationship continued on and off for over a year until the girl broke up with him in March and began dating others her own age, court documents say.
Baleigh loved her two pet dogs and dreamed of someday training others for therapy work or to help with search-and-rescue efforts, her family members said. She also planned to serve in the U.S. military.
The teenager was excited to become an aunt to a baby niece and loved sharing clothes with her sister-in-law, Nichole Newman.
Newman recalled Baleigh Tuesday as a confident teenager with a beautiful singing voice who liked to experiment with different hairstyles and colors.
She described Baleigh as being “terrified” of French, but said the girl was about to “blossom,” moving away from the abuse she suffered at French’s hand and into a better stage of life.
“She would have done a lot of good in this world because she was determined to make others happy,” Newman said.