Leigha Ackerson murder trial: Day 4 testimony details grisly crime scene
Using police photos, prosecutors on Thursday led the jury through parts of murder victim's home
EAGLE — The fourth day of Leigha Ackerson’s first-degree murder trial for her alleged role in the Jan. 24, 2018 killing of Catherine Kelley was mostly a day of evidentiary photos — some mundane, some horrific.
With the police photos, prosecutors on Thursday led the jury through parts of Kelley’s home in the gated Pilgrim Downs community near Edwards. That’s where prosecutors allege that Ackerson, 27, and her husband, Jacob White, 26, murdered Kelley, 74, after hiding out in a back guest room in Kelley’s home for two days without her knowledge.
Prosecutors started with a photo of a broken, rectangular window in a guest bedroom bathroom in Kelley’s home. The window is at ground level outside, but 6 to 7 feet above the shower floor inside, police said.
“We believe this was the entry point to the residence,” Gianni Robinson told the jury. Robinson, a former Eagle County detective and the lead detective for the Kelley murder, is now a criminal investigator for the neighboring 9th Judicial District.
Other photos presented to the jury showed glass shards that fell across much of the bathroom when the window was broken and a series of hard surfaces where detectives and crime scene technicians with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation attempted to lift fingerprints.
In the guest bedroom, police photos showed one bed that was neatly made and another that was rumpled.
“It appears someone slept in it or had not made the bed,” Robinson told the jury, adding that the unmade bed had a distinct odor of campfire smoke.
Other photos displayed for the jury showed a bottle of Formula 409 cleaner left out in the guest bedroom — which Robinson said struck him as being out of place at the time — and black fuzz or lint found on the guest bedroom’s floor and throughout parts of Kelley’s home.
The crime scene
Police photos showed to the jury Thursday also documented Kelley’s master bathroom, and the crime scene police found inside.
According to Robinson and other deputies, authorities found Kelley laying on her back in a walk-in shower in the master bathroom, under blankets and robes with only one foot sticking out. A large knife was found laying on top of the pile. Photos also showed a blood smear and blood splatters on one of the shower’s tile walls, and blood around the shower drain.
Police removed a black and green wool blanket covering Kelley, and photos showed the jury how they found her with “paracord” — a thin, brown nylon rope — still tightly wrapped twice around her neck with hand loops tied into each end. A knife was plunged to the handle into Kelley’s right eye, and she had a deep cut on one of her wrists and two stab wounds to her neck.
Dr. Kelly Lear, a forensic pathologist and Arapahoe County Coroner, told the jury about her examination of Kelley’s body for investigators. Lear determined the cause of Kelley’s death to be strangulation with the rope left wrapped around her neck.
The knife in Kelley’s eye went to the back of her skull. The two stab wounds to her neck were about 1.5 inches and 1.75 inches deep. The cut to the palm side of her wrist went nearly to the bone. None of those four wounds had significant bleeding associated with them, indicating they were made after Kelley had already died, Lear said.
On the back of Kelley’s head, Lear found a 5.5-inch complex skull fracture, indicating blunt force trauma. Lear added that she could not tell if Kelley’s skull was struck with an object or if her skull struck an object. She characterized the fracture as a “perimortem wound” that could have occurred just before or just after Kelley died.
Meanwhile, in the rest of Kelley’s house, prosecutors showed the jury photos of plates, cups and butter knives left out on the kitchen counter, dishes left in the sink, and a rack of knives in the kitchen — all similar in style and similar to the knife found on top of Kelley in the shower and to the knife stabbed into her eye, Robinson told the jury.
In the living room, investigators found an oven tray, an open jar of salsa, a bowl, and a box of Kleenex, as well as dried biological material on some of the chairs. Photos showed a couple more knives found in the dishwasher, and a cabinet that Robinson said appeared to be missing one of its wire baskets.
Prosecutors also showed the jury photos of two marijuana containers, a bottle of Smartwater brand bottled water, an inside-out glove and a spray bottle found in the kitchen trash bin. Robinson told the jury that deputies found cases of Smartwater in a blue sedan police found parked at a nearby trailhead — the vehicle registered to Jacob White at a Denver address.
Police said they were also able to track down the marijuana containers to White. According to testimony Tuesday by Beverley Bookout, who works for the Marijuana Enforcement Divison at Colorado Department of Revenue, White made a series of marijuana purchases in and around Denver and Greeley the morning of Jan. 18, 2018. The purchases totaled more than four ounces of marijuana.
While most recreational marijuana customers only have to show identification to prove their age, White was reportedly a “preferred customer,” according to testimony. That got him a discount, but it also allowed investigators to track the purchases back to him.
White and Ackerson were both arrested in the early morning hours of Jan. 25, 2018, in the vicinity of Kelley’s home. Police have testified that they found a knife and several of Kelley’s credit cards in White’s pockets, and a knife and a cellphone in Ackerson’s pockets — a cellphone that prosecutors will argue was Catherine Kelley’s.
White pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary and was sentenced to 68 years in prison for his role in Kelley’s killing. Ackerson’s trial will continue Friday.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at email@example.com.
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