Jury finds Utah man guilty in 2015 drug rip-off murder

(Courtesy photo) Jeremiah Ray Hart

A Utah man was found guilty by a jury on Tuesday of killing another man during a drug-buy rip-off in Sugar House two years ago.

Jeremiah Ray Hart was found guilty of first-degree felony aggravated murder in the Jan. 24, 2015, shooting death of 24-year-old Christian Lance McDonald, of West Valley City.

The 3rd District Court jury also found Hart guilty of second-degree felony counts of obstructing justice and possession of a firearm by a restricted person.

A sentencing hearing is set for Nov. 29 before Judge Keith Kelly, where Hart faces a punishment on the murder conviction of either life in prison without parole, or 25 years to life.

According to testimony during the six-day trial, McDonald was found lying in the park strip alongside the street at 1224 E. Parkway Ave. (about 2400 South) with a gunshot wound in the chest. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Hart also went to a hospital that night for treatment of a gunshot wound to his face and neck. He claimed he had been shot by a man who approached him in a park, police say.

But Erick Eugene Burwell, 38, who also was charged with murder, and Richard McDonald, the victim’s brother, both testified at the trial and at a 2015 preliminary hearing that Hart was injured while trying to steal drugs from the McDonalds.

Burwell said he and Hart decided to set up a drug buy and rob the sellers, a scheme they had pulled in the past.

(Courtesy of Salt Lake City Police) Erick Eugene Burwell.

Burwell testified that he and Hart met the McDonald brothers in a parking lot at 1300 East and 2100 South. The brothers got into his car, and Burwell drove south to Parkway Avenue, a residential street.

Burwell said that when he parked, Hart pulled a gun and pointed it at Christian McDonald’s head. McDonald pulled out his own gun, swung around and fired, Burwell said. Hart was hit but fired back.

Hart and Christian McDonald immediately jumped from the car and Burwell drove off, he said.

When Burwell reached the corner, he realized Richard McDonald was still in the car. “We were both kind of in shock,” Burwell testified at the preliminary hearing.

He said he dropped Richard McDonald off at the man’s apartment and then cleaned off a small amount of blood on the back seat where Hart had been sitting.

Like Hart, Burwell was charged with aggravated murder, obstructing justice and aggravated robbery.

But in exchange for his testimony, Burrell will plead guilty to second-degree felony counts of manslaughter and robbery, and prosecutors will ask for concurrent prison terms of 1 to 15 years.

Burrell is to appear in court again Oct. 13.