Leigha Ackerson takes the stand as first defense witness in her own murder trial
Jury gets a far different account compared to testimony of Heather Sellers
EAGLE — Prosecutors rested their case early Wednesday afternoon in the first-degree murder trial of Leigha Ackerson. In a surprise move, Ackerson herself took the stand as the defense’s first witness.
Facing life in prison and tearing up at numerous points, Ackerson described for the jury her recollection of events leading up to her husband Jacob White murdering Catherine Kelley on Jan. 24, 2018.
Questioned by her court-appointed attorney, Amber St. Clair, Ackerson quietly recounted for about two hours a string of events starkly at odds with what Heather Sellers, a convicted felon who was temporarily Ackerson’s cellmate in the Eagle County jail, told police and testified that Ackerson had confessed to her.
Ackerson’s testimony was cut short by the end of court for the day, and will continue Thursday. Ackerson voluntarily took the stand and will also be questioned by prosecutors.
Ackerson recalled talking to Heather Sellers in the county jail, describing her to the jury as someone who seemed “really nice, really sweet, a really good listener, I thought.”
Support Local Journalism
Sellers was rigorously questioned by Ackerson’s defense attorneys Wednesday morning.
According to that testimony, Sellers has been convicted of 15 felonies in Florida and Colorado, including possession of amphetamine, forgery, dealing in stolen property, organized fraud, burglary and grand theft.
Sellers discussed Ackerson’s alleged confession with police investigating Kelley’s murder the same day she finalized a plea bargain reached with Eagle County prosecutors. As part of that bargain, Sellers pleaded guilty to three felonies, and with 12 prior felony convictions, was sentenced to six years in prison. Sellers served 18 months and remains on parole in Colorado until 2023, according to testimony.
Ackerson’s second defense attorney, Jennifer Henslee, questioned Sellers’ credibility and motive. She also questioned how Sellers could lie to prosecutors while out on parole — by later telling prosecutors that she couldn’t remember any of the details Ackerson told her, and that she made it all up after learning she would be forced to testify in Ackerson’s murder trial.
The jury watched a video of Sellers discussing Ackerson’s alleged confession to former Eagle County detective Gianni Robinson, the lead investigator in Kelley’s murder.
“She talks about it with no remorse, with a smile on her face. She wants to be with her husband and she said she will never tell on him,” Sellers said about Ackerson at one point in the recording.
Yet tell on her husband — who has already pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary for his role in Kelley’s death — is exactly what Ackerson did on the stand Wednesday.
Ackerson’s version of events
Through a series of short questions and one-word answers, Ackerson acknowledged she was in Kelley’s house when White killed Kelley, but said she did not participate in the murder, help plan it, or tell White to kill Kelley. She also said that she did not have sex with White in Kelley’s house, as Sellers testified.
“Why did you go into that house with Jacob White?” St. Clair asked Ackerson.
“Because he told me he would kill me if I didn’t,” Ackerson said.
“Was that a common threat around that time?” St. Clair asked Ackerson. “Yes,” she replied.
Point by point, St. Clair and Ackerson attempted to refute Sellers’ testimony.
Ackerson told the story of how her husband had changed from a charismatic, outgoing, friendly and lovable choir boy, musician, barber and best friend — albeit one who had “a messed up childhood” and heard voices starting at age 7, which he never told anyone else about or agreed to get help for — into an erratic, controlling and abusive husband who would not let her wear makeup or jewelry, style her hair, wear certain types of clothes, or even talk to other people.
The changes started about a month after their marriage in Nov. 2013 and White, Ackerson said, drove her from her brother’s home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to the mountains near Edwards in mid-January so they could live off the land.
Ackerson said there was no plan she knew of, adding that she didn’t even really know where White was taking her. “He told me he believed it was necessary to live off the land and to separate from everything that man had built and made because it was the end times,” she said.
Living off the land didn’t work. Ackerson said she didn’t have gloves or a hat and they slept in White’s car with a flat tire at the West Lake Creek trailhead the first night, on Jan. 18. The next day, White pulled a couple backpacks out of the trunk Ackerson said she’d never seen before. They hiked a couple miles up the trail, when White told her to build a shelter while he collected and cut sticks for it. The shelter amounted to no more than a few sticks stacked against each other, “a sparse frame of a structure,” but they spent about four days in the woods.
Ackerson said White treated her “like a pet” while they were in the woods and that she didn’t eat anything except a boiled potato in that time.
“I wasn’t allowed to move more than 15 feet away from him, not even to get snow to melt to drink. He wouldn’t let me drink the Smartwater because he was the one moving around so he needed the electrolytes,” she said.
Ackerson also testified that she was abused during the outing, mostly shoves and slaps, but “the night before we left the woods he launched himself from 10 feet away at a running start, tackled me, then punched me in the face and hit me on the chin,” she said.
“Did you do something?” St. Clair asked. “I told him I was cold,” Ackerson answered.
Ackerson recounted walking back to the trail in waist-deep snow after a storm, and how White led her to Kelley’s house, where he went around back and then opened a door with a hatchet in his hand to let her in. “He said you better get in the house or I’ll kill you. He said it like he was going to eat lunch. Coldly. I believed him.”
Kelley was not home and Ackerson said White led her to a back guest bedroom where they would hide with their dog, Rocky, who had also only eaten a single potato, Ackerson said.
Ackerson said she showered in the master bedroom bathroom and they both put on white robes found in a closet. White had found a chicken and started preparing it to eat, and then later said someone was coming home. Ackerson said he went and grabbed the chicken out of the oven and took it and Ackerson back to the bedroom where they spent the night.
The next morning, White told her they would just go out and tell the woman they were really hungry and sorry and everything will be OK.
“He said I should go first because a woman would be less threatening … I saw her sitting on the end of a long couch and she was listening to a really pretty song, really loudly. She got up slowly and before I could say anything, Jacob stepped up next to me, reached out and said in a Scottish accent, ‘Hi, I’m Llewyn,’” Ackerson told the jury.
“She was very friendly, she seemed surprised but Jacob said God invited us to your house, and she said ‘I believe in god and I pray,’ and before she could say anything else, Jacob interrupted and said ‘We’re awfully hungry,’ still speaking in a Scottish accent,” Ackerson said.
“Her demeanor was really nice. We were surprising somebody in the middle of the day, she was so nice, so friendly, and offered us whatever food she had,” Ackerson said.
Kelley got up, went to the refrigerator, and “turned her back just a little bit to Jacob” as she opened the door, when White took out a brown paracord tied into small circles on both ends, wrapped it around the front of Kelley’s neck, and pulled back.
Ackerson said she had never seen White get the rope. “I was just completely shocked,” she said.
Fighting tears at numerous points, Ackerson described how White dragged Kelley to the master bathroom, and started screaming for Ackerson to get in there. She said she entered right as White — who had taken up body building — was lifting Kelley up to his shoulders “like it was nothing” and slammed her head into the wall of the shower two or three times.
White told Ackerson to wait there, she said, and came back with knives from the kitchen. He then tried to stab Kelley’s chest and neck.
“He didn’t think she was dying fast enough. And he needed to make sure she was gone because he’d seen ‘The Walking Dead’ and didn’t want her to come back as a zombie. He tried to stab her twice and said it ‘hit like lead.’ He took the same knife and he … drove it into her eye. … He said he didn’t want her to come back as a zombie. He kept saying that.”
Ackerson said White also took a bigger knife from the kitchen and just started sawing into Kelley’s wrist. She said she had collapsed onto the tub in the bathroom. White left and came back with a small blanket, put it on top of Kelley, then told Ackerson to remove her robe, which he also put on Kelley along with the one he was wearing.
Ackerson also recalled White making jokes while cleaning a trail of urine left behind when he dragged Kelley into the bathroom. “He was laughing and making jokes and saying how because he was a custodial worker in Denver he knew 409 cleaner was good on stone. He was making jokes like nothing happened,” she said.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.