Judge grants bail to Kanab murder suspect after 43 letters of support, including some from county commissioners

A Kanab man is suspected of killing 29-year-old Nichole Olsen outside of a Salt Lake City nightclub.

(Via GoFundMe) Nichole Olsen is photographed with her son. Olsen was fatally shot in November.

A Kanab man suspected of killing 29-year-old Nichole Olsen outside of a Salt Lake City nightclub in November was released on $100,000 bail last month after a judge received letters of support from 43 different character witnesses, including powerful people in the suspect’s southern Utah community.

The Feb. 27 decision from 3rd District Judge Richard McKelvie, issued after objections from Olsen’s family as well as Salt Lake County prosecutors, has left Olsen’s family and friends reeling. The killing left Olsen’s son without the only parent he has ever known, Jessica Jensen, Olsen’s aunt and the family’s spokesperson, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“We have a 10-year-old boy whose life has been turned upside down,” Jensen said, noting Nichole’s son has never had a father in his life. “We don’t feel the [decision] was appropriate. How is granting bail to someone accused of murder serving justice to a 10-year-old boy? How can we give a voice to Nichole, the actual victim in this case?”

Before McKelvie made his decision, Salt Lake County prosecutor Blithe Cravens argued suspect Dustin Pedersen, 37, posed a flight risk and was a danger to the community.

In arguing for Pedersen to be granted bail, defense attorney Loni DeLand submitted letters of support he termed “very compelling” to the judge. One of them was from Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist, who wrote that he had once worked with Pedersen and praised his “intellect, humanity and hard work.” In his letter, Almquist wondered if the killing was a case of someone being in the “wrong place, wrong time.”

“I say this boldly and convincingly because this horrible series of events is unbelievable to me,” Almquist wrote. “I worked side by side with Dustin. His mannerisms were always calm. I never saw him angry or even perturbed with anyone over anything.”

Another, from Kane County Commissioner Celeste Meyeres, lauded Pedersen as someone who gave back to the community, was giving, kind and even-keel[ed].”

“Even in instances where there may have been cause for hard feelings, Dustin has taken the high road,” Meyeres wrote. “I have never heard him speak ill of another person.”

A fight in a parking lot

Olsen was fatally shot at about 2 a.m. on Nov. 20 after an “altercation” at The Exchange nightclub, according to charging documents. Matthew Hightower, Olsen’s boyfriend, told The Tribune that he and Nichole, affectionately known as “Nikki,” were at the nightclub with another couple when two men started trying to “pick up on” their girlfriends.

Hightower told the men that Nichole and the other woman were “already spoken for,” at which point he said the men — one of whom police identified as Pedersen — became confrontational. Security then escorted the two men out of the club, according to the charging document.

Olsen’s group later left and drove to a parking lot near 300 S. West Temple for an “after party,” where a BMW pulled up and parked directly in front of the Olsen group’s vehicle.

At that point, a man police have said was Pedersen then exited the driver’s side of the car and confronted Hightower, saying “you are the people from the club,” according to a police report. A fight between Hightower and the passenger in the BMW ensued.

A witness in Olsen’s group said Olsen and Pedersen were standing by the BMW when a single shot was heard, and Olsen walked over to a friend and said she had been shot. The witness saw Pedersen tuck “something back in his waistband. The two men left the scene in the BMW, according to the charging document.

As the BMW left the parking lot, another witness used a cellphone to film it driving away.

When homicide detectives reviewed the footage, they saw the BMW had a dealership license plate and later traced the sale of the car to Murray, where it had recently been sold to Pedersen.

Olsen’s friends drove her to the hospital, where she died of her injuries.

At the Feb. 27 hearing, Salt Lake City police detective Nathan Wiley said Pedersen and his friend rushed to their hotel after the shooting, quickly packed up their belongings and drove south. They stopped for a few hours at a hotel in Nephi, where Pedersen learned the shooting was fatal, the detective said, before continuing their drive home to Kanab.

The following morning, Pedersen turned himself in to the Kane County Sheriff’s Office, where he told detective Dathan Chamberlain he had fired the gun to “scare some people who were fighting and a female was hit by the bullet,” according to the charging document.

Salt Lake City investigators drove to Kanab to take custody of Pedersen and served a warrant on his vehicle, where they found the .22-caliber handgun they say was used in the shooting.

While arguing that Pedersen should not be granted bail, Wiley said at the February hearing that Pedersen had some instability in his family life. Six days before the shooting, his wife had filed for divorce, Wiley noted. About nine days before the shooting, Pedersen was cited for speeding in Millard County and subsequently charged with reckless driving, court documents show.

“So all these decisions … leading up to the homicide were very impulsive,” Wiley told the judge. And I do believe that there is a threat by releasing him … that he may flee the jurisdiction or not be able to have the stability at home … to be out on bail.”

Letters of support

In her remarks to the judge, Salt Lake County prosecutor Blithe Cravens echoed Wiley’s concerns, noting that many who wrote letters of support for Pedersen called the shooting a “huge surprise.”

“I think what that shows the court is that this defendant is unpredictable,” she said. “His actions are unpredictable, and that makes him a danger to the community.”

DeLand countered that Pedersen’s wife had since withdrawn her divorce filing. Moreover, the letters to the judge portrayed the suspect as a devoted family man and good employee — he was the information technology director at Kane County Hospital — who was great with computers and people.

“He is an honest and decent man who loves his family and his work. He is responsible, dedicated, and usually of a very even demeanor and temperament …,” hospital CEO Kurt Loveless wrote in his letter. “I only ask that Dustin be allowed to work through the legal system, spending time with his family. In our system, we act on the principle of innocent until proven guilty.”

DeLand told the court Pedersen had no criminal history and that if he was released on bail, he would get his job back at the hospital. Loveless has not returned calls from The Tribune about Pedersen’s employment status. A receptionist for the hospital told The Tribune that Pedersen no longer works for the hospital.

In awarding bail, McKelvie placed Pedersen on home confinement, though he can still travel to and from work, church services or court hearings. The judge also stipulated that the defendant must wear an ankle bracelet, not have access to firearms and surrender his passport, among other things.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said “it’s a rarity” for judges to grant bail to suspects charged with first-degree murder. He said some offenses, especially when there is a loss of life, are too serious to grant bail.

“There shouldn’t be enough money in the world to release that person,” Gill said, adding that he thinks Pedersen has even more incentive to flee now than before he was charged.

For his part, Hightower said the fact that Pedersen held a job and had no criminal history is irrelevant.

“He gets to go home to his family and Nichole’s family is completely torn apart,” he said. “Her son doesn’t get to see his mom anymore.”

Jensen said her niece used to live with her and became extremely close with her daughter Shandy, who passed away several years ago. She said Olsen was energetic and loved shoes, clothes, and cooking, and even ran a candy business, Melts by Nikki, out of her home.

“When we got the news about Nichole, it was like someone plunged a knife in my chest,” Jensen said. “It reminded me of the loss of my own child and made me realize that [Brenda] Nichole’s mother was now walking that path with me.”

Hightower is also struggling to cope with his loss.

“She brought a spark back into my life, and I was looking forward to having a family with her and getting our own place,” he said. “She brought out the best in people around her. So it is very hurtful to wake up every morning and realize she is not there.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to note that Defense Attorney Loni DeLand found the letters of support for his client “very compelling.”