Cellmate takes the stand in Leigha Ackerson’s murder trial
Heather Sellers tells jury what Ackerson told her about the murder of Catherine Kelley
EAGLE — Leigha Ackerson’s temporary cellmate in the Eagle County jail, Heather Sellers, took the stand Tuesday afternoon, describing what Ackerson allegedly told her about the murder of Catherine Kelley in January 2018.
Sellers is a convicted felon in Colorado and Florida who went to authorities after Ackerson allegedly told her about the murder. Her testimony will continue Wednesday.
“It was super serious, the details, the way she explained everything. It wasn’t right,” Sellers told the jury. “She got super into it, super excited when she was explaining about what they did after they killed her, to the body … Like her whole demeanor changed, she got chipper. She was fascinated by it, she was boasting more or less.”
Prosecutors argue Sellers reached out on her own and provided information about the murder that only someone familiar with the crime could have known — while also asking to be moved out of the shared cell with Ackerson.
Ackerson’s defense attorneys — who did not have time to question Sellers on Tuesday — have argued Sellers is an opportunist who told police what they wanted to hear about by Ackerson and her husband, Jacob White, hoping to get some benefit from prosecutors on the multiple felony charges she was facing at the time.
Sellers told the jury she and Ackerson shared a cell for less than a week in February 2018 and that Ackerson at first said she didn’t remember anything about Kelley’s murder.
“A few days later, she asked if I still wanted to know what happened,” Sellers said. “I said, yes, if you want to tell me. She had seen her husband’s face passing by. She said it brought back all the memories.”
‘It didn’t make a lot of sense’
According to Sellers, Ackerson described her and White’s “journey”: How they left Denver to go live off the land, how they had car trouble, how they stayed in the woods for a couple days, and how they were extremely cold and got in a fight.
According to Sellers, Ackerson told her that White spotted an empty house and told her they could find shelter, food and warmth. White broke into the home through a window and the two hid in a back bedroom whenever Kelley was home.
“She said they were not the quietest, like they’d have sex and everything, and the lady never came up,” Sellers told the jury.
Sellers said Ackerson told her she and White were planning on making a chicken one day and weren’t expecting the lady — Catherine Kelley — to come home. When they heard her car pull up, they took the chicken and ran to the back bedroom.
“They discussed what they were going to do, what they could do, what their options were. When they talked about killing her, they talked about either stabbing her or strangling her, but they didn’t want to make a mess, so they were trying to find out the easiest way to do it. She told him that if he loved her, then he would do it,” Sellers said.
According to Sellers, Ackerson told her they decided to kill Kelley with a “paracord” rope and strangle her. When the two of them crept out of the bedroom, Kelley was in the living room on a recliner listening to music. Ackerson reportedly asked to use Kelley’s phone, and then snatched a cellphone out of her hand after Kelley told her it didn’t work, and then grabbed the house phone.
According to Sellers, Kelley told Ackerson she was a woman of God who would help them and give them food. When Kelley went to the kitchen to look for food, White followed and strangled her.
“She said it seemed like it took 15 minutes, it was just taking her forever to stop twitching, to actually die,” Sellers told the jury. She added that White asked Ackerson to stab Kelley in the neck while he was strangling her.
“She said she attempted to but it wouldn’t penetrate the skin … she tried once or twice and couldn’t do it,” Sellers said.
According to Sellers, Ackerson said White dragged Kelley into the bathroom, but they didn’t think Kelley was dead, so White picked her head up to his shoulder and smashed it down three times.
“After that … they wanted to, I don’t remember if they slit her wrist first or her eye — they wanted to put a knife through her eye … to make sure it goes through the brain to make sure she stayed gone. It didn’t make a lot of sense,” Sellers said. “They went to the kitchen, got a knife off the magnetic kitchen block, brought it back to the bathroom and shoved it in her eye. She was explaining in detail all the stuff that came out of the lady’s eye. After that they decided to slit the lady’s wrist. She said they slit it to the bone and it looked like something on The Walking Dead.”
Ackerson also allegedly recounted to Sellers how White was singing while mopping and cleaning up the floor with a bottle of 409 “whatever had come out of the woman when she was being dragged to the bathroom.”
“She said she was super pissed because (the chicken) went bad and they never got to eat it … I believe they took showers first and then cooked something and ate. Quesadillas,” Sellers told the jury.
According to Sellers, Kelley’s phone then got a text message from someone saying they were coming over, and someone later knocked on the door and they didn’t answer. They reportedly planned to steal Kelley’s car, but couldn’t get it to start, and then called an Uber to try to get to New Mexico.
“She said they paid for it with a credit card that belonged to the lady,” Sellers told the jury.
According to Sellers, Ackerson told her that she never touched any of the murder weapons, and pushed White to kill Kelley and talked him into doing it.
“I don’t know who mentioned it first, but she definitely persuaded him to do it. She even said he was about to chicken out or have second thoughts and she was mad about it. She told him that if he loved her then he would do it, because he promised her survival, and that lady was in the way of her survival,” Sellers told the jury.
Sellers said she was serving time in Denver Women’s Correctional Facility and was moved to the Breckenridge jail as Ackerson’s trial was scheduled to start in January 2020. She said Assistant District Attorney Heidi McCollum and former Eagle County detective Gianni Robinson served her a subpoena to testify in Ackerson’s murder trial.
“I told them I did not remember anything, that I was not going to testify. Because I was super upset they moved me to that jail. I was supposed to be getting out of jail on parole, and they transferred me to Breckenridge and told me I had to wait there for trial,” Sellers told the jury, adding that she would have to return to Florida for a warrant because she had been on house arrest for probation there and violated that probation to come to Colorado.
Sellers also testified that she later wrote a letter to McCollum on the back of that subpoena, saying she had lied about Ackerson and had only given the information to law enforcement to get a benefit in her own case.
“I was trying to do anything I could or say anything I could to get out of testifying. I did not want to be called as a witness,” Sellers said about the letter.
Deputy District Attorney Joe Kirwan asked Sellers if what she wrote in that letter was true.
“Everything I said in that letter was false,” Sellers replied. According to Sellers’ testimony Tuesday, Florida courts also required her to testify in Ackerson’s first-degree murder trial.
Kirwan ended the day’s testimony by asking Sellers if Ackerson — who reportedly told Sellers that White hit her and gave her a black eye while they were camping — ever said anything about White threatening to kill her if she didn’t help him. “Not at all,” Sellers replied.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.