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Man charged with elderly Murray woman's homicide

Published March 25, 2014 2:13 pm

Crime • Prescription bottle, DNA tie suspect to slaying, charges state.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Prosecutors have charged a man with killing an elderly Murray woman and setting fire to her home earlier this year.

Investigators allege that on Jan. 25, Christen James Spencer killed Shirley Sharp, 84, who lived alone in the home at 20 E. Winchester St. (6400 South).

Spencer, 49, was charged Tuesday in 3rd District Court with aggravated murder — which is potentially punishable by death — aggravated burglary, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated robbery, aggravated arson and failure to stop at the command of police.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 25, a Utah Transit Authority officer stopped a 1991 maroon Buick LaSabre for driving in a bus-only zone at 5144 S. Cottonwood Street. But the driver took off when the officer was speaking with him, according to the charges.

The UTA officer wrote down the vehicle's license plate number and traced it to a Buick LeSabre registered to Sharp. Police dispatched to her home found smoke pouring from the small, red-brick residence. They called firefighters to the scene, who doused the flames in Sharp's closet and found her bound and beaten body inside the house.

The Murray City fire marshal determined someone had intentionally set the fire, while an autopsy determined that Sharp had died from blunt force trauma to the head.

Officers eventually identified Spencer as the man who had been driving the LaSabre — by studying security footage of a traffic stop — and discovered that he was already in custody. He had been arrested Feb. 5 on a probation violation-related federal warrant and was in the Davis County jail, where he remained on Tuesday.

Officers who had arrested Spencer discovered he had a prescription bottle belonging to Sharp's late husband.

At the place where Spencer's was living, officers found property missing from Sharp's home, including dresser drawers and their contents, as well as a blood-stained sweatshirt, according to the charges.

DNA on the inside neck area of the sweatshirt matched Spencer's, and the DNA found on the inside right hand sleeve matched Sharp's, according to the charges.

"The work of Officer Tolbert, the UTA officer, really needs to be commended for being quick on his feet … and having initiative to putting the evidence together," said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill on Tuesday. "He really needs to be commended for the great job that he did, along with the Murray police detectives."

While the specific nature of Spencer's alleged probation violation was sealed, federal court records do show that he had pleaded guilty in April 2005 to drug and firearms charges.

In Utah, 3rd District Court records show Spencer has a criminal record going back to 1997, which includes convictions for forgery, theft, credit card fraud and possession of a controlled substance. In 2011, Spencer was charged with stealing credit cards from a Salt Lake City housemate and using them to withdraw $400 from ATMs, according to charging documents.

Sharp was a well-known resident on Winchester Street, ever since she and her late husband, Richard, moved there in 1952. Richard Sharp and his brother Virgil once owned Sharp Foods, a grocery store just across the street from their home, which is now occupied by a strip mall. The store closed in the mid-1970s, around the same time that Richard Sharp passed away from cancer, said Sharp's nephew R.D. Gatherum.

"She was a great lady, absolutely salt of the Earth," he said about his aunt not long after her death. "She was one of the sweetest ladies you would ever meet. I just can't believe this happened."

Though she lived alone, Gatherum, who lives about a mile away from his aunt, said he and her sons would visit her often to make sure she was OK. Both the state of Utah and a building owner each wanted to buy Sharp's home to develop on the property, but she always refused.

"She just wanted to be in the house where her husband lived," Gatherum said in January.

No court dates had been set for Spencer as of Tuesday.

mmcfall@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mikeypanda