Provo River Trail rape case had profound impacts for victim, her family and community
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News archives
SALT LAKE CITY — She was a 19-year-old from rural Utah, just getting started on her college career.
She was socially active and had already made many friends. "She was just an elegant creature," said Provo Police detective Brian Taylor.
As the eldest child in her family, she was the first to leave home and "her mother was apprehensive about letting her daughter move out to the big city of Provo," Taylor said.
On June 9, 2010, her mother's worst fears were realized — her daughter was the victim of a violent sexual assault along the Provo River. She nearly died from her injuries, which included being dragged into the bushes by a bootlace around her neck, strangled until she was unconscious and hit the face with a cinder block. Prosecutors would later learn that the perpetrator, Shawn Michael Leonard, who had been in prison six times, committed the crime after walking away from his jail work release program.
"I think it (the crime) pulled the rug out from a lot of people," said long-time prosecutor Donna Kelly. "We thought, 'We're safe. We live in Provo, Utah.' "
Kelly, Taylor and Vicky Proctor, a long-time victim advocate for the Provo Police Department, shared lessons learned from the case Thursday during the 25th annual Crime Victims' Conference sponsored by the Utah Council on Victims of Crime. The conference, held at the Salt Lake City Marriott University Park Hotel, runs through Friday.
Beyond the profound and lasting impacts to the victim and her family, the case had a ripple effect for others. The community feared for its safety, as did people in the victim's hometown. The crime was so violent that it affected seasoned professionals who dealt with the case.
Kelly, now an assistant attorney general for the state of Utah, said the young woman's injuries were so severe that the emergency room doctor who treated her wept as he testified at Leonard's preliminary hearing.
"Everyone in the ER was absolutely panicked that they weren't going to be able to save her," Kelly said.
While another man was initially identified as a suspect in the crime, police and prosecutors tied Leonard to the crime when it was learned, during a multi-agency meeting following the crime, that Leonard had walked away from his work-release program.
Police found his identification bracelet from the program in the Provo River, almost as if he had left a calling card.
He also had left his DNA on the bootlace he had used to strangle the victim. He used the ligature in another crime that day, the aggravated robbery of a boutique. In that crime, he used the same bootlace to bind the hands of a woman who worked at the shop.
Experts said the DNA on the bootlace linked Leonard to both crimes.
While many people associated with the prosecution considered the physical evidence in the case a "slam dunk," Taylor said she didn't take anything for granted.
"Whenever I start thinking that as a prosecutor, I think about this scene," she said, projecting a slide of O.J. Simpson struggling to pull on a leather glove. She reminded the audience that Simpson had blood on his socks from both victims in his case.
The victim of the sexual assault had suffered such severe injuries to her face that her vision has been permanently impaired. "I didn't know if she was going to be able to ID Shawn Leonard," she said.
But Kelly was determined to construct a case from available evidence to ensure that Leonard serve a life sentence for the crime spree.
"The whole community cared about this crime," she said. "We wanted him to have a consequence (commensurate to the offenses)." Leonard is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole after pleading guilty to attempted aggravated murder, aggravated robbery and two counts of aggravated kidnapping.
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