Leigha Ackerson’s defense attorneys rest their case in murder trial
Trial resumes Monday with prosecution rebuttals, closing arguments
EAGLE — Leigha Ackerson’s defense attorneys rested their case Friday in her first-degree murder trial, ending its second week with a series of witnesses who continued to testify about her troubled upbringing and how her husband, Jacob White, isolated and abused her.
Joel Ackerson said his younger sister Leigha Ackerson and White stayed at his apartment in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 2017 and left without a word in January 2018. A couple weeks later, they were both arrested for the murder of Catherine Kelley, found in the vicinity of her home near Edwards.
Joel Ackerson described White as being “off.” White was very protective of Leigha Ackerson, did most things for her, and was always watching her, he said, adding White showed him numerous conspiracy theory videos and tried to prove to him that the end of the world was approaching.
“I kind of told him I didn’t see things that way … The friendliness and politeness faded off quickly from there,” Joel Ackerson told the jury.
Joel Ackerson recalled seeing his previously outgoing sister now reserved and quiet and looking to White before answering any questions. A couple months after they arrived, Leigha Ackerson’s hair got cut, “shaved almost all the way off.”
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Joel Ackerson said White told him Leigha was sick with cancer or a tumor, and by September she was staying in a guest bedroom in the apartment with no furniture. She would rarely if ever leave that room, and the door was kept closed, he said.
Joel Ackerson said he was buying their groceries and not charging them rent.
“It was difficult and I thought she exhibited symptoms, she was more pale, significantly thinner, quieter, tiredness,” Joel Ackerson said. “Those would have all been symptoms of cancer or a tumor … He had told me they had gone to all the doctors in Colorado and there were no other options to help her. So I thought I was doing the best I could with food and space to help my sister.”
Joel Ackerson said he was afraid of White and recalled the time he tried to go into the room to check on his sister.
“I had told (White) that exactly the dynamic of her being in the room and him being out, that couldn’t continue,” Joel Ackerson told the jury. “He was done with the conversation. He walked back to the room. I followed him back. He tried to close the door behind him. I put my hand on the door and he attacked me. He pushed me, and before I knew it I was about 8 feet back on the floor with his elbow pinned on my chest and neck … I had never been in a situation like that.”
Joel Ackerson said he went to work the next morning. After that his sister and White were gone. “No goodbye, they just disappeared,” he said.
Several mysterious packages later arrived at his apartment addressed to “Llewyn Kent.” Leigha Ackerson has testified the name is one of several personalities White has for himself.
‘I wish I could’ve taken her with me’
Ackerson’s defense attorneys also called Victoria Van Allen, a family friend who at one point was engaged to Ackerson’s father, who she said struggled with alcoholism. Van Allen recalled two interactions with Ackerson and White when they stayed with her in California in spring 2015 and a year later, and being worried about Ackerson and afraid of White during that second visit.
“She looked very ill, she looked like she was anorexic, had sunken eyes, and she wore long sleeves even though it was hot,” Van Allen said, noting that White and Ackerson would not stay in her house or eat her food the second visit, instead staying in a tent in the yard.
The only interaction Van Allen had with Ackerson the second visit was when White left the house. One time she tried to talk to Ackerson about her concerns while White was gone.
“We saw Jacob White’s car pull up and she bolted. She was already white as a sheet, but she got very frightened and upset and ran outside back to her tent … She looked me in the eye briefly and all I saw was pain and fear.”
Van Allen recalled another time when Ackerson and White were in the home with her and Ackerson’s father. She said she watched White pull Ackerson by the arm to sit on the sofa.
“He looked at me like he hated me, pure absolute hatred. That’s when he said, ‘You are evil,’” Van Allen testified.
“I got very frightened, I objected to what he said. I said I am not evil, I’m a good person, I’ve given you food, shelter, helped you, what have I done to you? He said, ‘You’re a witch.’ Leigha turned into a mouse, she looked down, and her father wouldn’t even take a stand. I was very frightened. Jacob stood up. Even though he’s not a tall person, I felt threatened. I ran to my bedroom and grabbed my purse and my keys and I never came back. I ran out the front door. I felt so bad I left Leigha there. I wish I could’ve taken her with me. But I never saw her again, never heard from her,” Van Allen said, breaking down into tears at several points in her testimony.
Van Allen said she stayed away from her house for a month, during which time Ackerson’s father moved out.
Ackerson’s defense attorneys also called Victoria Lutz, a domestic violence expert. Lutz testified broadly about domestic violence and abuse, how abusive relationships form and are perpetuated, and why it can be difficult for abused women to leave those relationships, find escape routes, or reach out for help.
Prosecutors said they expect to call several rebuttal witnesses on Monday, after which attorneys will end the trial with closing arguments. A jury will then determine Leigha Ackerson’s future for her alleged involvement in the killing of Kelley. Prosecutors have charged Ackerson, 27, with first-degree murder, burglary, aggravated robbery, felony murder, tampering with evidence and conspiracy to commit murder, burglary and robbery. She faces life in prison.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at email@example.com.