Neighborhood caretaker testifies in Leigha Ackerson murder trial: ‘Call 911, something funky is going on out here’
In day two of trial, witnesses recount events that led to discovery of Catherine Kelley's body in her home
EAGLE — Headlights of a car parked outside the north gate to Pilgrim Downs, a gated community near Edwards, on the night of Jan. 24, 2018 caught the eye of James Childers, who works as the neighborhood’s full-time caretaker.
It was the night of the day that authorities now allege Jacob White and his wife, Leigha Ackerson, murdered 74-year-old Catherine Kelley, after hiding out inside her home without her knowledge.
Childers, who took the stand Tuesday in the murder trial of Leigha Ackerson, said he was headed to bed around 9:30 p.m. when he saw the car’s headlights through a window. He looked at the view from the gate’s camera from a computer in his house, saw a parked car there and saw someone walking around it. Childers told his wife, Lesa, he was going to check it out.
Childers said he found an Uber driver parked outside the gate, unable to get past without the code. It was the first of two Uber drivers who showed up at the gate that night saying they were called out for a ride by “Catherine.”
No one knew Catherine Kelley had been murdered yet, though she had reportedly not replied to a text earlier in the day from her daughter, which was out of character.
The first Uber driver, Jaryd Abess, of Minturn — who also testified on Tuesday — told Childers that he was there to pick up a man and a woman going camping. Childers thought it strange anyone wanted to go camping that time of year, because of the cold and snow, and stranger still when the driver said he was there to pick up someone named “Kelley.”
There were two possible Kelleys in the neighborhood. Childers asked Abess to stay put while he drove past both their houses, which were completely dark. When Childers returned to the gate he saw a pile of items now behind the car near the gate.
Abess told Childers a man had come down, put the stuff there, and asked him to wait while he got more. When Childers asked Abess for more details about who he was picking up, the driver told him it was someone named Catherine Kelley, and gave him the address.
Childers knew Kelley. He drove back up to her house. This time he saw a backpack in the driveway and noticed lights on inside. Childers told the jury no one answered when he knocked loudly on Kelley’s door several times, and that he couldn’t see anyone inside through the home’s large windows.
Childers went back to the gate and called his wife from its phone: “Call 911, something funky is going on out here and I need some help,” he told her.
Police arrive at the scene
Three Eagle County sheriff’s deputies arrived to Pilgrim Downs. One stayed at the gate with the Uber driver. The other two followed Childers up toward Kelley’s home.
About halfway up, Childers stopped his truck and got out. He saw another odd pile of stuff on the side of the road — what looked like boxes or baskets of blankets, food and cooking materials, as well as the backpack that he had just seen in Kelley’s driveway.
Childers noticed the motion light turned on at the neighborhood’s storage barn. He and a deputy went to check that out, but no one was there. As they returned to the gate, another Uber driver pulled up. She said she was there for “Catherine.”
Detective Cory Diss — then a sheriff’s deputy — told the jury in testimony Tuesday that he was one of the three officers to arrive. He called Sgt. Alex Iacovetto for backup, not sure if it was a burglary, trespassing or something more serious.
Driving up toward Kelley’s house, Diss saw it sat atop an open hillside with a clear view of the road. When the sergeant arrived, the two parked at a neighboring house near the items found along the road and hiked up the ridge to the back of Kelley’s home, trying to keep their cover.
Above the back of Kelley’s house, about 30 yards away, Diss noticed glittering in the moonlight. A flashlight showed that a small, rectangular window was broken out.
Diss, the sergeant and the other deputies called for more personnel to help set up a perimeter, thinking there was a burglary at least, and possibly two people involved. With the perimeter set up, Diss walked back down to his patrol car. On the way he found a backpack in the snow, with footprints around it and arrows and knives inside.
Diss said he and the sergeant drove up to Kelley’s house. The fire department opened an emergency key box to get a key for the house and helped shine lights into the home as Diss, the sergeant and two other deputies announced themselves repeatedly and went in. They worked their way through the house, clearing every room as they went, their guns now drawn.
Diss told the jury he and another deputy, Mark Linn, made their way back to the master bedroom and bathroom. Diss took the bedroom and Linn took the bathroom. Diss said he heard Linn call out and went to help.
Around the corner of a wall leading to a walk-in shower, Diss saw a single foot poking out from a pile of blankets or towels. Diss told the jury the foot looked blue and was cold to the touch with no pulse. The pile of blankets or towels had a bloody knife on top of it with blood spatters on a nearby wall.
It was Catherine Kelley, and she had been murdered. Diss said police then called for detectives, coroners, and the swat team, as well as a K9 unit from a neighboring county to help search for the killer or killers.
Jacob White has already pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary for his role in the killing of Catherine Kelley and was sentenced to 68 years in prison. Ackerson’s trial resumes Wednesday.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at email@example.com.
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