Murder trial starts for Leigha Ackerson |

Murder trial starts for Leigha Ackerson

In opening arguments Monday, the prosecution and the defense paint wildly differing views of Ackerson’s involvement in the slaying

Leigha Ackerson stands accused of murdering Catherine Kelley in her home near Edwards.
Daily file photo

EAGLE — Leigha Ackerson’s first-degree murder trial started Monday for her alleged role in the gruesome January 2018 killing of 74-year-old Catherine Kelley at her Pilgrim Downs home near Edwards.

Ackerson, 27, and her husband, Jacob Taylor White, 26, reportedly planned to hike into the mountains and live off the land. When snow and freezing temps quickly made that impossible, they reportedly broke into Kelley’s home, hid in a back bedroom for two days without Kelley knowing they were there, and then attacked and killed Kelley.

Ackerson is charged with first-degree murder, felony murder, burglary, robbery, tampering with evidence, and conspiracy to community murder, burglary and robbery. She faces life in prison if convicted.

In opening arguments Monday, prosecutors and Ackerson’s court-appointed defense attorneys, Jennifer Henslee and Amber St. Clair, painted wildly differing views of Ackerson’s involvement in the killing.

“We’re going to ask you to return a guilty verdict on every charge in this case,” Assistant District Attorney Heidi McCollum told the jury.

The crime, the evidence

Kelley was found dead in a shower in her home under a pile of towels and bathrobes, following a manhunt around her home that led to Ackerson and White being taken into custody. Police found Kelley had been strangled with a piece of rope that was still around her neck with self-tightening loops on each end. Kelley also had a post-mortem knife wound to her left wrist, which was severed nearly to the bone, and a knife lodged into her skull, McCollum said.

The trial is expected to include forensic evidence involving fingerprints and DNA found in the home and on weapons. 

Prosecutors also plan to call on Heather Sellers to testify against Ackerson. Sellers, a convicted felon, was Ackerson’s cellmate in the Eagle County Detention Facility and reached out to law enforcement “because she felt so uncomfortable and was so creeped out she had to tell someone,” McCollum said.

According to McCollum, Ackerson confessed details of the killing to Sellers that only a person involved in the crime would have known.

“She told her they were going to cook and eat a chicken, but Kelley came back early and they had to rush and take the chicken into the bedroom with them, and didn’t get to eat their chicken,” McCollum said. “They had a discussion and decided they were starving and needed to eat and this woman was in their way. She told Sellers they discussed where and how they should kill her, and they didn’t want to to do it in the kitchen becaue it would be too messy and they still hadn’t eaten.”

In searching Kelley’s home police found dinner for two in the living room, eaten but not cleaned up, as well as utensils left on the counter and a dirty stove, McCollum said.

The defense

Henslee said evidence will show that Ackerson did not kill Kelley. 

According to Henslee, Ackerson has suffered a lifetime of abuse and was an emaciated, traumatized and beaten woman at the time of the killing who was living in fear of her husband, who had beaten her before and was increasingly deranged, believing himself to have supernatural powers.

“Jacob White brutally murdered (Kelley),” Henslee told the jury. “Leigha Ackerson was there, she was horrified, shocked and unable to stop him. This was a horiffic act commited by a deranged, mentally-ill, abusive monster.”

“The evidence in this case, the physical evidence, proves Jacob White killed Catherine Kelley, and you will see evidence that he terrorized Leigha Ackerson,” Henslee said.

In regard to Sellers, Henslee told the jury the convicted felon approached Ackerson and probed her for information, hoping to get help for her own pending criminal cases.

“Heather Sellers has multiple felonies for stealing other people’s identities, among other felonies, over a dozen felonies, and at that time she was looking at many years in prison, maybe decades,” Henslee told the jury. “She knew exactly what she had to tell police. You will see she exaggerated and fabricated and you will see that Heather Sellers actually later admitted that she lied. She sent a letter to the prosecution, on the back of her subpoena, she said I lied to the police to gain a benefit,”

Ackerson’s trial for the killing has been repeatedly postponed and rescheduled. 

Jacob Taylor White, her husband, offered a plea deal to prosecutors and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary in September 2018. White was sentenced to 68 years in prison and must serve at least 75% of that time due to the violent nature of his crimes.

At least two of Kelley’s relatives objected to that plea agreement in court, arguing White should stand trial for his crimes. Fifth District Court Judge Paul R. Dunkelman hesitantly accepted the disposition for White’s case. He is also the judge for Ackerson’s trial, which continues Tuesday.

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