SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah State Prison inmate pleaded guilty Thursday to killing a fellow prisoner in a case that drew scrutiny to how Utah corrections officials house members of opposing gangs.
Just after accepting his guilty plea to aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, 3rd District Judge Elizabeth Hruby-Mills sentenced Ramon Luis Rivera to life in prison without the possibility of parole, court records show.
The development comes about four years after the death of 24-year-old Jeffrey Ray Vigil, who succumbed to his injuries at a hospital after Rivera attacked him in a common area.
Prosecutors had been seeking the death penalty for Rivera, 34, but agreed to a term of life without parole in exchange for his guilty plea. They alleged Rivera stabbed Vigil in a common area on March 14, 2016, before putting him in a chokehold and stomping or kicking his head more than 70 times in the murder captured by surveillance video.
On Thursday, Rivera admitted that he intentionally caused Vigil’s death “without legal excuse,” court records show.
He is the second Utahn this week to avoid the death penalty by accepting the lifelong prison sentence. On Tuesday, Shaun French was sentenced after admitting to the same charge of aggravated murder in the death of 15-year-old Salt Lake City teenager Baleigh Bagshaw.
In a $20 million civil rights lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in 2016, Vigil’s widow, Chelsie Vigil, alleged the Department of Corrections put her husband in danger by moving him from maximum security into the Oquirrh unit just hours before his death. She noted he had raised concerns with prison officials that the area housed members of the rival Titanic Crip Society gang, and said prison records had documented that Vigil was a member of the Ogden Trece gang.
Chelsie Vigil eventually settled with the state, although court records don’t stipulate the terms of the agreement.
Public defenders in Salt Lake County said the prison failed to provide them certain records and copies of protocol that could shed light on how it handles housing for members of rival gangs, among other issues tied to the case, court records show. While the prison released certain documents to Rivera’s defense team, it said others were classified or simply didn’t exist.
As part of Rivera’s plea bargain, two remaining counts of possession of items prohibited in a correctional facility, a second-degree felony, were dismissed.
Rivera’s criminal history includes convictions for attempted aggravated murder in an August 2009 shooting in Clearfield and assault by a prisoner.
Another inmate charged in connection with Vigil’s death, Albert Collin Fernandez, 39, pleaded guilty in 2018 to aggravated assault, a first-degree felony, after prosecutors said he blocked Vigil from getting away and kicked him. He was sentenced to at least five years and up to life in the Utah State Prison.
At the time of his death, Vigil had been incarcerated since June 2, 2015, on a parole violation after he was convicted of theft by receiving stolen property, failing to stop at the command of a police officer and drug possession. He was facing new weapons charges in 2nd District Court.
An obituary for Vigil, a roofer from Ogden, said he “could walk into any room and it would light up with his smile, personality and heart of gold.” He loved spending time with his wife and five kids.