Uncle pleads guilty to killing 5-year-old Lizzy Shelley, in deal that avoids the death penalty

(Amy Macavinta | Herald Journal) Alexander Whipple, center, appears in 1st District Court on Tuesday with defense attorneys Shannon Demler, right, and Bryan Galloway, where he pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, child kidnapping, rape of a child and sodomy of a child.

Logan • A Utah man has pleaded guilty to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing his 5-year-old niece.

Alex Whipple, 21, admitted to charges Tuesday afternoon in connection to the May death of Elizabeth “Lizzy” Shelley.

He pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, child kidnapping, rape of a child and sodomy of a child. Other charges, including obstructing justice and abuse or desecration of a human body, were dismissed as part of a plea deal.

The pleas also spared Whipple the potential of the death penalty, part of a deal that he struck with prosecutors just days after Lizzy went missing. After he was charged in late May, prosecutors agreed to not seek his execution if he told them where the girl was.

Whipple agreed and disclosed where he had hidden her body, stashed under leaves and debris in a wooded area about a quarter-mile from her home.

The young girl had been missing for five days by that point, her disappearance prompting widespread searches by investigators and pleas for the public’s help.

Cache County Attorney James Swink said Tuesday in court that Lizzy died from a stab wound to the back with a knife Whipple took from her home. There was also DNA evidence that showed Whipple sexually assaulted the young girl.

As Swink went through the graphic details of his crimes, Whipple stared forward with his head hung down. He spoke little at the hearing beyond saying “guilty” each time to the four charges.

Liesel Merrill, Lizzy’s aunt, said after the hearing that her family misses the little girl and are thankful for the support the community has offered them.

“We are hopeful that the criminal case can be resolved quickly so that we can continue to grieve without the worry of court hearings,” she said. “We would like to remind everyone that Lizzy was about kindness, happiness and looking for butterflies and rainbows.”

(Photo courtesy of the Shelley family / Facebook) Elizabeth "Lizzy" Shelley has been missing since May 25, 2019. Cache County prosecutors have charged her uncle, Alex Whipple, with aggravated murder.

Defense attorney Shannon Demler said Tuesday that there’s no excuse for what his client did — but said mental health issues likely played a role. He expects to detail more of Whipple’s background at his sentencing hearing, but acknowledges it will be a difficult argument to ask the judge to sentence Whipple to anything less than the maximum penalty.

“He’s known all along from the very beginning that what he did was terribly wrong,” Demler said, “and that he was going to face prison time.”

Charging documents say that Lizzy’s mother, her mother’s fiance and Whipple had stayed up late on May 24 drinking beer and rum and playing video games. The couple went to bed, and Whipple stayed the night on the couch.

The girl’s mother told police she last saw her daughter in her bed around midnight. When the couple woke up at around 9:30 the next morning, Lizzy and Whipple were gone — and the front door was wide open.

Police later found Whipple walking alone in a rural area near Hyrum around 3 p.m. and arrested him. Lizzy’s blood was found on Whipple’s wristwatch and a hooded sweatshirt that he was wearing when he was arrested, according to authorities.

As Whipple waited in a police interview room, he began to lick his hands in an attempt to wipe them clean, investigators wrote in charging documents.

During the interview, Whipple “would allude to how evil the world we live in is,” and said he had struggled as a child and that his family has mistreated him throughout his life, police wrote. He said alcohol makes him “black out” and that sometimes he does “criminal things” while he’s blacked out, police wrote.

On the grounds of a charter school near Lizzy’s home, investigators found a broken knife that had Lizzy’s blood on it and matched the brand of a knife that was missing from her family’s kitchen, according to charges.

About 50 yards from the parking lot, investigators also found a teal blue skirt — clothing that Lizzy was last seen wearing — “hastily buried” under some dirt and bark. The skirt also had blood on it, according to charges.