Utah teen could spend 6 years in secure care for shooting death of stepbrother

A 15-year-old boy may spend the next six years of his life in a juvenile secure care facility after admitting he shot his stepbrother with a gun he thought was unloaded — and the slain boy’s mother still can’t understand why the shooter won’t serve more time.

While sentencing guidelines recommended the teenager spend three to six months in custody for admitting to manslaughter, a second-degree felony, Third District Juvenile Court Judge Susan Eisenman handed down a different disposition on Thursday.

She ordered the boy to secure care — the juvenile equivalent of prison time — and is letting the youth parole board determine how long he will be there. At most, he could be in secure care until he’s 21.

The 15-year-old wasn’t at the hearing Thursday because Eisenman said the boy had received death threats, but he and his attorney participated over the phone. The Salt Lake Tribune generally doesn’t identify juveniles charged with crimes unless they have been certified to stand trial in adult court.

The disposition comes after the 15-year-old admitted in March that he shot his stepbrother, Jerrad Jacobsen, with a shotgun earlier that month in Jacobsen’s room at the boys’ home in Kearns. The gunshot was initially thought to be an accident and self-inflicted.

Around 40 of Jacobsen’s family members and friends attended. Nine of them spoke out, often through bouts of tears, describing Jacobsen as a good-hearted kid who focused on his family and friends, excelled in sports and had aspirations of becoming a rapper, and most said they wanted the teen who pulled the trigger to spend more time in custody than the guidelines recommended.

(Paighten Harkins | The Salt Lake Tribune) Friends and family of Jerrad Jacobsen stand Thursday, July 18, 2019, inside the lobby of the Salt Lake County District Courthouse after a disposition hearing for the teen who shot and killed Jacobsen. Supporters brought a poster covered in pictures of Jacobsen to the hearing.

When police first learned of the shooting, investigators thought it was just a “tragic accident," a story supported by the 15-year-old who was in the room when Jacobsen was shot. The boy told police and family members that Jacobsen had shot himself while handling a shotgun in the room where they were playing video games, according to a search warrant.

For two days, the family believed that story and consoled the 15-year-old for what they thought he’d witnessed, Jacobsen’s aunt April Bragshaw said during Thursday’s disposition hearing.

Then circumstances changed.

Police contacted Jacobsen’s mother, Theresa Toledo, on March 20, and told her that autopsy results indicated Jacobsen couldn’t have shot himself. Instead, it appeared someone shot him from behind as he was sitting down, according to the warrant. Toledo confronted the 15-year-old, and he reportedly told her he’d shot Jacobsen, said he was sorry and started crying.

The boy was arrested and told police he didn’t realize the gun was loaded when he pointed it at the back of his stepbrother’s head and pulled the trigger.

During his disposition hearing, the boy spoke briefly over the phone. He told the courtroom, “What I did was not right, and I know that. And I will regret it for the rest of my life."

Jacobsen’s supporters disagreed with prosecutors’ decision to charge the 15-year-old with manslaughter and not homicide. Toledo told reporters after the hearing that she believed the teenager had gotten away with murder.

“You don’t get to take a life and nothing come out of it,” Toledo said.

Prosecutor Tyson Hamilton addressed the issue at the beginning of the hearing, and said the state had brought the maximum charge against the boy based on the evidence, which didn’t indicate the teenager meant to kill his stepbrother, a stipulation for a murder charge.

Bragshaw asked the court to make sense of that for her, because to her, everything the 15-year-old did was thought out. He picked up the gun. He pointed it at Jacobsen’s head. He pulled the trigger — and then he chose to lie about it.

Not charging him with murder, she said, “It’s like a slap in the face” for the family, and “it’s a slap on his hand.”

Eisenman tried to assuage the grieving family and friends and explained the goal of juvenile court is to focus less on punishment and treat children as children and help them grow.

“I wish I could order your pain away,” she said, “but I can’t.”

What she could do is order the boy to the maximum allowable disposition and have hope that the boy, with “treatment and with confinement, and with time and accountability," can be more than the worst thing he’s ever done, no matter how “horrible, terrible, displaceable and bad” that thing was, and the heartbreak it caused.

As Eisenman announced her order to send the boy to secure care, supporters exited the courtroom one after the other, some walking swiftly and slamming into the swinging doors to open them and then letting them fall shut.