Twenty years ago, Grace Mae Odle died on Mother’s Day.
She died six days after an assailant crept into Odle’s room at an Ogden retirement home the night of May 3, 1993, where he sexually assaulted and beat the 92-year-old woman — then disappeared.
Thanks to a recent DNA match, investigators say they finally caught up with her alleged killer, Stephen P. Ellenwood, on Wednesday.
But Odle’s family refuses to remember her as a victim. They said she conquered too much in her life for such a label.
“We are all proud of her and honored to have been part of her heritage and her journey,” her family wrote in a statement. “She honored justice, loved kindness and walked humbly with her Lord who she met again.”
Odle grew up and married in Kansas, but the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl forced her and her husband to sell their possessions and move to northern Utah, where he had a job waiting. But a while after the move, they divorced.
She was a thousand miles from home with five boys, no car, no money, no higher education and no work experience.
“[But] refusing to be a ‘victim’ she went to work, riding the Bamberger train each day from Salt Lake City to Hill Air Force Base where she secured employment to provide for her family,” her family said in a statement.
Given their situation, Odle’s five sons could have been set up for troubled lives, her family said. But after they all went to fight in World War II, four came back and turned out fine. Odle even raised enough money to move out of rented public housing into a modest home in Layton, which she paid off herself.
Hers became a life filled with painting, gardening, church, friends and a house full beyond capacity around the holidays.
“By her many courageous acts, Grace Mae Odle demonstrated her refusal to be labeled a ‘victim,’ ” her family wrote. “She valiantly fought to overcome every challenge life presented her, including the incident that eventually took her life.”
After the attack, Odle hung on another six days before she died. Ogden police had the assailant’s DNA, but no profile to match it to. Her case quickly went cold.
Ellenwood, meanwhile, initially remained in Utah and also spent time in Idaho, according to his criminal record.
Last summer, he moved from Idaho to Haines, Alaska.
When Ellenwood showed up in Haines, he and his girlfriend fit right into the tight-knit town of about 2,500 people, according to Daniel Lundberg, Ellenwood’s former co-worker.
Ellenwood got a job at the Quick Shop, a combination convenience store, liquor store, bike shop and sporting goods business, where Lundberg also worked.
A lot of people move to Alaska for a fresh start, and the people of Haines tend to give the benefit of the doubt, Lundberg said. People liked Ellenwood, and he had an infectious laugh, he added.
“I’ve often wondered about people who travel up here. Some even look pretty shady, but [Ellenwood and his girlfriend] didn’t,” Lundberg said.
He didn’t know what was in Ellenwood’s past, but a comment the man had made once gave Lundberg a “weird vibe.”
Ellenwood had said that if he were out partying, he wouldn’t take nonsense from people and would beat them up, Lundberg recalled.
“We’re a tough, hardy breed up here. But that just kind of struck me as odd,” Lundberg said. “It made me wonder what this guy’s past was.”
Wednesday afternoon, Alaska state troopers and police descended on Ellenwood’s home and arrested him on suspicion of murdering Odle.
After all these years, investigators had finally landed a DNA match. Weber County Attorney Dee Smith said Friday that his office is still waiting to hear if Ellenwood, now 40, will waive extradition to Utah from his jail cell in Juneau.
Ellenwood’s criminal history in Utah is short and dated. In November of 1993, he was convicted of carrying a concealed dangerous weapon, and in 1994, he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault. In 2001, he pleaded no contest to driving under the influence.
The next year, in Idaho, Ellenwood was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to prison. He was released in 2008.
Investigators also suspect Ellenwood attacked a second woman in Ogden, three hours after Odle was attacked.