Centerville organist describes feeling ‘absolutely helpless’ after a stranger broke into a church and attacked her

Farmington • She was used to hearing a tapping on the door outside the chapel as she practiced the organ.

But 71-year-old Margaret Orlando usually ignored the knocks. It wasn't her responsibility, she reasoned, to let people into her Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward after hours.

But on that November evening in Centerville, someone kept knocking. And knocking.

Every time Orlando would stop playing her music, either because she made a mistake or wanted to start a song over, the tapping started again.

She ignored it for about 20 minutes, she recalled on the witness stand of a Farmington juvenile courtroom Wednesday, before she felt an arm around her neck.

Someone had come up behind her, yanked her from the organ bench and started choking her.

“I was absolutely immobilized,” the woman testified. “I felt absolutely helpless. I could not get away.”

Orlando recalled from the witness stand struggling with her attacker, yelling and screaming and eventually biting the person’s arm to try to get away. She believes she lost consciousness at least three times.

“There were times when, in my mind, I was no longer being choked, I was in another place,” Orlando testified, “and it was pleasant and it was lovely. And then all of a sudden, I was back in the chapel and the arm was still there.”

She couldn’t believe what was happening to her. She didn’t know if she had passed out once more, Orlando testified, but all of a sudden, her attacker was gone. She never saw the person’s face.

“My first thought was that I need to practice some more, that I wasn’t done yet,” Orlando testified. “[But] I shut down the organ, I packed up my music and prepared to leave, and realized I did not want to go outside by myself.”

Orlando called her bishop who went to the church and called police, she testified.

Her testimony came Wednesday during a preliminary hearing for a 17-year-old boy who prosecutors believed attacked her on Nov. 17, 2018. They filed a petition in juvenile court earlier this month accusing him of aggravated burglary, aggravated assault and criminal mischief.

Police zeroed in on the youth as their suspect after using a genealogy website to trace the DNA found at the crime scene.

Authorities allege the boy broke through a window before assaulting Orlando. Three drops of blood were found on the sill, Centerville Detective Mark Taggert testified Wednesday.

But investigators ran into a dead-end with traditional DNA testing. Taggert testified he had been thinking of the possibility of using the genealogical website GEDMatch to search for a possible suspect.

So Taggert went to Parabon Labs — a company drawing increased business from police to help solve violent crimes. The lab can turn DNA tests into the equivalent information needed to upload it, but the police were told this case violated GEDmatch’s privacy rules.

Taggert got around that by getting special permission from GEDmatch’s founder — a controversial decision that ultimately led to the website tightening its privacy rules for law enforcement access.

The search led to a break in the case. The blood on the window sill matched a distant family member who had uploaded his DNA profile onto the website. Police later discovered that the distant family member had a nephew who lived just blocks away from the church, according to a search warrant affidavit. That nephew had a 17-year-old son who also lived there.

As a next step in the investigation, a school resource officer watched the 17-year-old eat lunch, and police later fished out a juice box and plastic milk container that the boy had thrown in the trash. The items were then tested: the DNA on the milk container was the same as that found at the church.

After hearing testimony from Orlando and Taggert, 2nd District Juvenile Court Judge Robert Neill found there was enough evidence for the case to move forward — despite an argument from the boy's defense attorney that there was no real evidence that showed it was his client who assaulted Orlando.

There was evidence that shows he broke into the church, attorney Joseph Jardine argued, but it didn't rule out the possibility that there were others in the church who could have assaulted Orlando.

"It could have been anyone," he argued. "Was an offense committed? Sure. Was it [the youth] who committed it? Could have been anybody. We don't know."

Now, the judge must decide whether the case should stay in the juvenile system — a decision he will make after hearing from experts who testified about the boy’s mental health and family history. Those portions of the hearing were closed to the media Wednesday. The testimony will continue at another hearing sometime in June.

If the case remains in the juvenile system, the teen would face a maximum potential penalty of a stay in a secure juvenile detention center until he turns 21.

If the judge moves the case to the adult system, he would face the same penalties as if he were an adult. The aggravated burglary count is a first-degree felony, which carries a potential sentence of five-years-to-life at the Utah State Prison.

The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify youth accused of crimes, unless they have been certified to stand trial in adult court.