Catherine Kelley’s murderer pleads guilty to killing Vail Valley woman, says he ‘hates’ what he did
EAGLE — Jacob White admitted he helped kill Catherine Kelley in her Pilgrim Downs home. He will spend 68 years in prison, although Kelley’s family argued passionately that it’s not enough.
“I did not act in self-defense or to protect Leigha when we killed Ms. Kelley,” White said during a sentencing hearing Friday, Sept. 21.
White pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary. Because they’re both crimes of violence, he must serve at least 75 percent of his sentence. That means he will not be eligible for parole for 51 years, until he’s one year older than Kelley was when he killed her.
His wife and accomplice, Leigha Ackerson, is scheduled to stand trial beginning Jan. 7, 2019.
White describes what they did
After members of Kelley’s family stood to object to the plea agreement — saying White’s death in prison should be guaranteed for what he did — White stood, raised his right hand and swore to District Court Judge Paul Dunkelman that he would tell the truth.
The 24-year-old then sat at the defendant’s table and read a graphic description of what he and Ackerson did, and how they did it.
White and Ackerson entered Kelley’s house while holding deadly weapons, paracords and knives. Ackerson used at least one of those knives to try to stab Kelley, according to the facts of the case recited during Friday’s hearing.
The couple were living in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and decided they wanted to live in the mountains, so they packed their car and headed west, settling on Colorado because that’s the state they knew the most about.
Once in Colorado, they stocked up on as much marijuana as they could. They hit eight LivWell dispensaries in the Greeley area, White said. The plan was to live off the land in the woods, White said.
That was Thursday, Jan. 18, and as they were approaching Edwards, they got a flat tire.
“I thought it was God telling me to exit,” White said.
They took a couple of lefts and wound up at the East Lake Creek trailhead.
A guy told them not to stay there, White said, so on Friday, Jan. 19, they made their way to the West Lake Creek trailhead, where they built a shelter and stayed three nights.
They expended their energy gathering wood and didn’t eat, White said.
“Leigha was complaining about the cold and our circumstances,” White said.
He said she continued complaining, eventually saying to him, “Why don’t you just kill yourself?”
“That devastated me,” White said.
Breaking into a house became a possibility.
The neighborhood gate was open, and the houses were secluded in the woods. One stood out, White said.
Ackerson and their dog, Rocky, stayed on the porch while White grabbed his hatchet and knocked out a first-floor bathroom window. He looked around for anyone home, or a security system, but found neither.
They looked around the house and decided on a back bedroom because it appeared to be the least used — two twin beds and nothing else.
They waited to see if someone would come home. Someone did. They waited until midnight for Kelley to leave. At 7 a.m., they heard her leave.
They looked around the house and found a frozen chicken. They planned to put it in the oven, eat and leave.
“We smoked a lot of our cannabis trying to calm down,” White said.
Kelley came home mid-afternoon.
“We decided Leigha would distract them and I would kill them,” White said.
He cut a length of paracord and tied loops on both ends to give him a better grip.
They started down the stairs, and Kelley, sitting on the couch, spotted them.
“What are you doing here?” Kelley asked them.
“Would you believe we were sent here by God?” White answered.
They chatted briefly, and Ackerson asked to make phone call.
Kelley offered to make them food.
“I don’t want anyone making food for my husband except me,” Ackerson answered.
White and Ackerson nodded at each other, and White pulled the cord out of his pocket and strangled Kelley.
It took her at least five minutes to die, he said.
They ate and started their laundry because their clothes were dirty from camping, White said.
When they finished and were preparing to leave, they filled metal bins with things from Kelley’s house they thought they’d need and loaded those bins and other things into Kelley’s car, which they were planning to steal and drive to New Mexico.
At 7 p.m., they were ready to leave when they saw car headlights coming up Kelley’s driveway.
“I knew someone had seen the light on, and it was only a matter of time before they realized that something was wrong,” White said.
He tried a dozen times but could not start Kelley’s car, he said.
He called an Uber, but they did not give themselves enough time to get ready. He sent that Uber away and later called for another one.
He carried their gear and several items stolen from Kelley’s house down to the Pilgrim Downs gate, where they would meet their Uber. As they left, they stole a couple of Kelley’s credit cards and all the cash they could find.
“By this time, there was a line of cars coming up the road. Police cars,” White said.
They ran and hid in some pine trees. It was there that the police found them, shivering in the single-digit temperatures of the January night.
Kelley’s family abhors the plea
White’s defense attorneys Erin Wilson and Terry O’Connor, brought the plea deal to prosecutors. Assistant District Attorney Heidi McCollum said they were ethically obligated to consider it.
Kelley’s family does not support the plea deal and said so.
Judge Donna Hollingsworth, Kelley’s niece, flew in from California, where she’s a California Superior Court Judge in Los Angeles County.
“I am here to object to this sentence,” Hollingsworth began.
For 14 years, Hollingsworth was a deputy district attorney in the gang unit, trying murders and attempted murders. Her aunt’s murder, she said, took her breath away.
“I thought of those last moments of my aunt’s life, when the hands of this defendant were around her neck. … We have the right to have a trial in this matter,” Hollingsworth said.
“This defendant has made choices … to go there, shatter her windows and go into a house that did not belong to them. They could have left when she came home, they could have walked out,” Hollingsworth said. “They chose to wrap a cord around her neck and end her life.”
Hollingsworth said she did not want Kelley’s children’s children to get a call telling them that White was free, or could be.
“I want the peace of mind knowing he will die behind bars for the life he took,” she said.
Denise Tavani, Kelley’s daughter, also asked Dunkelman to reject White’s second-degree murder plea and force him to stand trial.
“The evidence is overwhelming, and so is the depravity of his actions,” Tavani said. “It has been suggested that it is a good deal because will be easier for the family.”
It won’t, she said.
“If you go ahead, my children will be the ones who will keep track of this,” Tavani said.
Dunkelman struggled with the ruling.
“This is not an easy decision, but it comes with the job,” Dunkelman said. “The easy thing for me to do is not accept this plea. I will not be criticized for that.”
However, the 68-year sentence protects this community and other communities, Dunkelman said.
“It is with some hesitancy, and over the strong objection of the family, the court will accept this disposition,” Dunkelman said.
After a few seconds of silence, Dunkelman turned to White, seated between his attorneys.
“To second-degree murder, how do you plead?” Dunkelman asked.
“Guilty, your honor,” White answered.
“To burglary as a crime of violence, how do you plead?”
“Guilty, your honor.”
Standing at the podium in the middle of the courtroom, McCollum took several moments to compose herself before addressing Dunkelman.
“Words are inadequate to explain what happened. The defendant’s murder of Ms. Kelley was unnecessary. She would have given them food, money and probably not call the police,” McCollum said.
“Nothing will ever alleviate the suffering of Ms. Kelley’s family.”
White’s last words
“There is obviously nothing I can say that will change how you feel walking out of this courtroom. … This is a crime that has devastated a family, devastated a community,” Dunkelman said. “What is clear is that Ms. Kelley was a wonderful person, and this was a senseless act that has no explanation.”
As the hearing wound down, Dunkelman gave White one last opportunity to make a statement.
“I cannot imagine anything I say matters. But I hate what happened, what I did,” White said.
And with that, White was escorted to prison for much of the next seven decades.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.