Uncle sentenced to life in a Utah prison for killing 5-year-old Lizzy Shelley

(Eli Lucero | Herald Journal) Alex Whipple, left, appears in 1st District Court with his lawyer Shannon Demler, for his sentencing hearing on Tuesday in Logan. Whipple was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for murdering his niece Lizzy Shelley.

Logan • Jessica Black couldn’t bear to be in the same room with her brother.

As Alex Whipple was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison for kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing her 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth “Lizzy” Shelley, Black wasn’t even in the same building.

She was across the street, waiting for word of the sentence. Afterward, she said it was what she had hoped for. No more court dates or parole hearings. Her family can start to move forward.

"It was just relieving to have it over with,” she said. "It was a hard day, all day today. It’s just been emotional and hard to think that it was happening. But it was good to have it over with.”

After the sentencing, Black and her family stood in a quaint Logan square and released butterflies in Lizzy’s memory.

They scooped up the orange painted ladies from a glittery box and handed them to Lizzy’s cousins, young children who used to play with the little girl. Black watched one butterfly linger on her fingertips, then wiped a tear from her eye after it flew away.

This was how Black wanted Tuesday to be. She wanted to focus on Lizzy, her little girl who loved rainbows and butterflies. A beautiful and bright girl who was kind and exuded sunshine.

(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.

And Black wanted to remember those who helped her during those harried few days in May after her daughter and Whipple vanished from her home. Those police officers and volunteers who scoured through Logan for any sign of the girl, who gave food and their time to help someone in need.

She made a sign of gratitude from an orange poster board, writing in thick black marker “Thank you!” with the names of groups who helped her family.

In the courthouse across the street from where she had quietly released those butterflies, her 22-year-old brother had just learned he will never be released from prison for what he did to Lizzy.

His actions were so terrible, 1st District Judge Kevin Allen told Whipple on Tuesday, that he had no choice but to give him the maximum sentence.

“You will never see the light of day,” Allen said before announcing the sentence. “You will never breathe free air again. What you did was so abhorrent and vile that you must spend the rest of your life in prison.”

This was the sentence Black’s family and prosecutors had asked for. Cache County Attorney James Swink called it the worst crime he’d ever seen in his 22 years in law enforcement, and said police in the area felt the same.

“There is no worse crime than what the defendant committed,” he said. “There is no worse crime than sexually assaulting [his niece] and covering up the act by silencing her, by taking her breath from her.”

Black’s family expressed anger towards Whipple, each turning from the podium to face the man who killed their family member to tell them how his actions had filled them with grief.

“You are filth,” Lizzy’s uncle, Zachary Black, said. “I hope you spend the rest of your life in a tiny box.”

Words couldn’t convey how disgusted and angry she was, said Bonnie Black, an aunt.

“I want you to rot,” said another aunt, reading from a letter written by Lizzy’s stepfather, Detrich Black. “I hope you remember every day what you did and that it haunts you. I hope you hate yourself as much as I do.”

During all this, Whipple sat with his head hung low. When given the chance to speak in court, he shook his head side to side. He had nothing to say.

Whipple’s defense attorney, Shannon Demler, had asked the judge to at least give his young client the chance at parole some day. Despite the horrific crime he committed, Demler said there may be some good still inside Whipple. Maybe decades from now, the defense attorney said, he could find that goodness in himself and be rehabilitated.

Demler noted that Whipple had a difficult childhood and was physically abused. He at times was homeless, and suffers from mental health issues and struggles with substance abuse.

And Demler said that even after doing something so terrible, Whipple did something good when he pointed investigators to where he had stashed Lizzy’s body.

"He wanted to tell the family, law enforcement and all the others where the body was so they could stop his sister and the people out searching from suffering anymore,” he said.

Whipple’s confession on May 25 also spared him the death penalty. He struck a deal just days after he was charged in late May, where prosecutors agreed not to seek his execution if he told them where the girl was.

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.

Whipple ultimately pleaded guilty last month to aggravated murder, child kidnapping, rape of a child and sodomy of a child.

Allen sentenced him to life-without-parole for the murder count, plus back-to-back sentences of 25-years-to-life for the remaining three charges.

Prosecutors noted the brutal nature of Lizzy’s death when seeking this maximum penalty.

In court papers filed ahead of the sentencing, Swink detailed gruesome injuries that Lizzy suffered before her death as part of his argument that Whipple should never be released. A medical examiner found injuries to the girl’s face and the back of her head, and a “superficial slash wound” to her neck. What killed the young girl was a stab wound to the girl’s back, a medical examiner determined.

There was also significant trauma to the girl's genitals, and officials have said DNA evidence showed Whipple sexually assaulted the young girl.

"Lizzy's last minutes of life," Swink wrote, "were undoubtedly marked by pain, terror and confusion."

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 a.m., 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.

During the interview, Whipple “would allude to how evil the world we live in is.”