Death penalty sought for Utah man accused of killing two teens, dropping their bodies in a mine shaft

(Evan Cobb | The Daily Herald file photo) Jerrod William Baum makes his way to his seat at the defense table during a special setting waiver hearing at the 4th District Court on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, in Provo.

Provo • Prosecutors will seek the death penalty for the man charged with killing 18-year-old Riley Powell and 17-year-old Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson in 2017.

Jerrod William Baum, 42, is accused in court papers of forcing Breezy to kneel before a mine shaft and watch as Baum beat and stabbed her 18-year-old boyfriend to death. He then allegedly cut the girl’s throat and threw them both into an open mine.

The deaths, authorities have said, were driven by Baum’s anger that the teen couple had come to his Mammoth home Dec. 29, 2017, and smoked marijuana with his then-girlfriend, Morgan Lewis.

Lewis — who has been a key witness to investigators and led them to the mine where the bodies had been stashed — testified at a preliminary hearing earlier this year that Baum had forbidden her from having male friends.

Baum faces two charges of aggravated murder, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, and other crimes. Utah County Attorney David Leavitt’s Wednesday announcement about seeking the death penalty came as the legal deadline for that decision neared.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah County Attorney David Leavitt announced on Wednesday, July 31, 2019 that he'll seek the death penalty when prosecuting Jerrod Baum, who is charged with aggravated murder in the deaths of 18-year-old Riley Powell and 17-year-old Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson in 2018.

Leavitt noted the power he held as the elected county attorney to seek the ultimate penalty, saying he wants to leave it to a jury to decide whether Baum is executed.

“I am going to give power back to people, in the form of juries, to decide,” he said. “It is the jury’s role to determine the guilt or innocence of this alleged killer. If they find him guilty, then it is the jury’s role to decide whether he should receive the death penalty or not.”

As Leavitt made the announcement, relatives of Breezy and Riley sat in the front row and wiped tears from their eyes.

The death penalty is what they’ve wanted from the beginning, said Breezy’s aunt, Amanda Hunt.

“That’s the one thing we were sure of,” she said. “These kids didn’t get to choose their life, they didn’t get to fight. So why should he get an option to live?”

The families also recognized that pushing for Baum’s execution will be no easy feat. In Utah, there are death row inmates who were convicted decades ago who still have no execution date as they appeal their convictions. Leavitt noted the last time Utah County prosecutors secured a death penalty conviction. It was 1984 — and Ron Lafferty is still alive and at the Utah State Prison.

But Riley’s father, Bill Powell, said they’ve been fighting for their kids since the day they went missing. They searched for months for the teens, combing through the hills surrounding Eureka looking for any clues about what happened to them.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brelynne "Breezy" Otteson's aunt Amanda Hunt, Bill Powell, father of Riley Powell, and Nikka Powell, sister of Riley Powell leave the Utah County Adminsitration Building, after attending a news conference where Attorney David Leavitt, announced that Prosecutors will seek the death penalty for the man charged with killing 18-year-old Riley Powell and 17-year-old Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson in 2018. Wednesday, July 31, 2019

“We put a long time, a lot of miles into trying to find them,” Riley’s father said, “and now we’ve got a lot more miles to go in the judicial system to get what needs to be done done. That’s what we’re here for.”

Baum’s ex-girlfriend, who has also gone by the name Morgan Henderson, told a harrowing tale from the witness stand during Baum’s preliminary hearing in March.

She detailed how Baum had tied up the two teens and put them in the back of Riley’s Jeep, before driving Lewis and the young couple to the abandoned mine shaft known as Tintic Standard No. 2.

The woman recounted how Baum forced her to her knees in what she described an "execution style" pose, and pushed Breezy down to her knees as well.

Lewis testified that she looked on as Baum began stabbing Riley multiple times until the young man stopped breathing.

Baum then turned to Lewis and Breezy, the woman testified, and walked behind them. He held the teen girl in his arms, Lewis said, then slit her throat. Baum threw the teens’ bodies down the 1,800-foot mine shaft, according to Lewis. The bodies landed on a ledge about 100 feet down.

Lewis initially lied to police after they came to question the couple once Riley and Breezy had been reported missing. But after she was pulled over by police for an unrelated reason, she decided to tell investigators what she saw.

In late March 2018, Lewis led investigators to the mine shaft, and authorities were able to extract the teens’ bodies.

She testified against Baum as part of a plea deal after she pleaded guilty to 10 counts of obstructing justice for lying to police as they tried to investigate Riley and Breezy’s disappearance. She is now serving a three-year sentence in the Utah County jail.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this April 7, 2018, file photo, a reward poster is shown at a funeral service for Brelynne "Breezy" Otteson, 17, and boyfriend Riley Powell, 18, in Eureka, Utah. Prosecutors say an enraged man killed the teenage couple after they visited his girlfriend despite his warning her not to have male visitors. He dumped their bodies in the mine shaft, where they remained for nearly three months before being discovered in March.

Utah prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against a handful of defendants — including an Ogden couple accused of starving and beating their 3-year-old daughter until she died and a Utah prisoner who is accused of beating and stabbing to death a rival gang member in the Draper prison in 2016.

The death penalty is often threatened in aggravated murder cases in Utah but rarely carried out. It’s been more than a decade since Utah prosecutors have secured a death penalty conviction, and cases more often resolve with a plea deal that takes the possibility of execution off the table.

Leavitt on Wednesday said he wasn’t seeking the death penalty to get a life-without-parole plea deal, and said it was “morally repugnant” for prosecutors to use the possibility of death as a bargaining chip. He didn’t rule out the possibility, however, that he would approve a plea deal with Baum if he wanted to plead guilty at some point.

The newly elected county attorney also took a swipe at Utah legislators during his Wednesday news conference, pointing out that the way lawmakers have set up the public defender system means his county will have to shoulder at least $1 million in expenses to pay for Baum’s defense — even though the only connection Utah County had to the crimes were that the teen couple were killed 1.3 miles past the Utah County border. Had the mine been located just one mile south, Juab County, where Baum lived, would be on the hook to pay for those costs, Leavitt noted.

“In deciding questions of life and death and the death penalty,” he said, “counties are at the mercy of criminals. When, in reality, the state Legislature is the funding body that ought to be funding [public defense].”

Utah is unique in that it delegates its responsibility to pay for public defenders for poor Utahns to individual counties and cities. Only in 2016 did state officials start funding grants to help local governments meet that constitutional obligation. Utah County has received about $2 million in state funding, but that money has not specifically been used for capital murder cases.

The last person to be sent to death row was Floyd Maestas, who was sentenced to die in 2008 for stomping a woman to death. He was not executed. Maestas died last December of natural causes.

There are eight men currently on Utah’s death row, all with ongoing appeals in state or federal court and no set execution date. Two of those inmates, Douglas Carter and Douglas Lovell, have been granted evidentiary hearings exploring issues involving their convictions.

The last execution in Utah was carried out in 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was killed by firing squad for the 1984 murder of attorney Michael Burdell during Gardner’s failed escape attempt from a Salt Lake City courthouse.