The aftermath: Reminders of daughter's death still weigh heavily 2 years later
Mother calls for victims' rights as she waits on judicial process
Ben Brewer, Deseret News
LEEDS, Washington County — For the longest time, Ellen Hensley dreaded 11:15 a.m. on Saturdays. It was at that exact time two years ago tomorrow when a St. George police officer came to her door.
"I immediately knew this was bad, so much I couldn't even unlock the door I was shaking so bad. I knew something was terribly wrong. His first words to me were, 'Your daughter Jerrica was murdered last night.' And my world stopped. It ended.
"You know the movie 'Alice in Wonderland,' where she falls down the hole? That's what I felt like. I had nothing to grab onto. I was just falling and had no idea where I'd land,” Hensley said.
"Fifteen after 11 is embedded in my brain. Every Saturday since then, 15 minutes after 11 in the morning I look at my watch and think about (the officer's) words. I used to love Saturdays, and for the very longest time I absolutely dreaded going to bed Friday nights because I had so much fear of Saturday — re-living it again."
Saturdays aren’t the only residual casualties of her daughter’s death. Hensley has a couple of Christmas decorations put up around her house, but not because she is feeling the Christmas spirit.
"I wanted to pretend to be Christmasty," she conceded.
In reality, the holiday season today brings more pain than joy to Hensley because it, too, re-opens wounds that have yet to be given time to heal.
"It's just not the season for me. Somebody is missing and that just isn't right. And it was Jerrica's favorite holiday," Hensley said. "She made Christmas in our house. With her gone it's just hard to feel it. And it's hard to get people to understand we're not being 'Bah humbug.' It's just a hard time of year for me."
Jerrica Christensen, 20, and Brandie Sue Dawn Jerden, 27, were both killed about 3:15 a.m. on Dec. 11, 2010, inside a Main Street apartment in St. George. James Fiske, 28, was shot during the same incident but survived. Less than an hour afterward, police had one man in custody and a second was arrested less than 24 hours later.
Paul Ashton, 33, and Brandon Smith, 31, were each charged with aggravated murder and aggravated assault. Ashton is accused of shooting Jerden and also shooting Fiske. Smith is accused of killing Christensen. She died as a "result of incised wounds," but investigators have not indicated what type of weapon was used.
Despite the quick arrests, the court process has been slow. Neither man has even had a preliminary hearing yet. This as the two-year anniversary of the girls' deaths comes up on Tuesday. Twice a preliminary hearing has been set, and twice it has been postponed. A third date for the hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 19.
"It's frustrating. It's very frustrating. We're anchored to the past. ... How do you move forward when you're constantly pulled backwards? You can't," said Hensley. "The frustrating thing is we don't have rights. That's the hard part. My daughter lost her rights that night.
“When that man did what he did to her, which is still very tender to us — he brutally murdered her in cold blood for no reason other than the fact she could have testified. It's hard to go to court and listen to them defend his rights and I sit there and think, 'What about my rights?'"
Now, Hensley hopes that she, her daughter and the other victims won't be forgotten as they try and patiently wait for the legal process to move forward.
Dec. 11, 2010
On the night Christensen was killed, she was supposed to stay home and help her mother bake Christmas cookies. Instead, she went to be with her boyfriend — something Hensley was angry about. Before she died, Christensen and her mother texted each other and made up. She told her mom about a restaurant they needed to try. She then told her mother to pick her up in the morning.
Hensley texted her daughter several times the next day with no response. It wasn't until 11:15 a.m. — more than seven hours after Christensen's body was discovered by police — that the officer came to her door.
Two days later Hensley got to see her daughter's body, which by then had been embalmed and prepared for a funeral.
"I could not wrap my brain around it. To me, she was still here. I didn't ID her body. To me they made a mistake. So for two days of sheer hell I was waiting for my daughter to walk through that door at any moment and say, 'Elo, mom,'" she said, recalling how she and her daughter would jokingly talk to each other in fake British accents. "I waited and waited for that and it never came."
Christensen had reportedly been asked by Fiske to help Jerden move that night. Somehow, the three ended up at Ashton's apartment. When Jerden was shot, Christensen was hiding in a bathroom. Hensley said her daughter happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time that night.
Smith attacked Christensen "with the intent to prevent her from testifying" about the shootings, according to an arrest warrant police wrote. Smith assaulted Christensen "at the direction of Paul Ashton," he warrant states.
Hensley, however, believes Smith had the chance to just walk out of the apartment and leave her daughter alone.
"He could have been the hero that night," she said. "Brandon Smith could have made a really big decision that night and it could have gone a completely different direction and my daughter would still be alive … but he didn’t. He made a choice. He took the life of a person he didn't even know was in the house. He was unaware she was even in there, didn't even know who she was."
Ashton — who was leaving the area just as police were arriving and was immediately pulled over and questioned — told officers he shot Jerden in self defense after she attacked him with a tool box, the warrant states. Ashton also claimed he told Smith to come to his apartment and bring a gun because "someone was trying to kill him."
Smith called 911 several hours later, saying he "just woke up and was covered in blood," according to court records. He claimed to "black out" after giving Ashton a gun.
The day after the deaths, Fiske wrote on his Facebook page: "I was shot in the back when my girlfriend was murdered over a missing mountain bike! I wish I could take her spot!! I would take her spot anytime!!! I miss her so much!"
Police and prosecutors have remained fairly tight-lipped about the incident, including not revealing a possible motive. At one point, Ashton's defense attorney asked a judge to close all pre-trial hearings to the public. Neither prosecutors nor Ashton's defense attorney returned repeated calls from the Deseret News.
Hensley said prosecutors from the Washington County Attorney's Office have been good about keeping her up to date on the case. She said she knows about some of the evidence collected that has not yet been made public, which she declined to talk about.
But she believes that when some of the facts come out in court, the public will be surprised to hear how everything went down.
"Everything will eventually come to light, and when it does, I think the public is going to be really shocked," she said.
Until then, Hensley will try to get through the holidays the way she has struggled through everything else since her daughter's death. But it's far from easy.
"Losing her was just like losing myself, like having an amputation. It's gone, but you remember what it was like, and even if it gets replaced it's still gone," she said.
Ashton's past involves other violent incidents and prior felony charges. In 2007, he was shot seven times and left for dead on a back road in Ogden before being found by passers-by.
Ashton was "involved in the drug scene in Ogden. He was involved in a home invasion robbery" where a "meth lab was discovered," according to a police report obtained by the Deseret News.
He was also charged in 2010, eight months prior to being arrested in the St. George killings, with felony drug possession and possession with intent to distribute. In 2005, he was charged with two counts of felony unlawful sex with a minor. Both counts were dismissed, according to court records.
Smith, on the other hand, had a clean criminal history up until the time he was charged with murder.
But to Hensley, it was Smith who could have walked away that night leaving her daughter unharmed.
Tragedy strikes twice
Christensen is the second child Hensley has lost. Her 3-year-old son was killed in a car accident over a decade ago. Today, the headstones of Blair "Colt" Christensen and Jerrica Christensen stand next to each other in the Knarraville Cemetery. Jerrica's tombstone is decorated with the words, "Love, live, laugh, dance."
For Christensen's funeral, Hensley said she kept one more promise to her daughter. Before she died, Hensley told Jerrica she'd help her get a new car. For her casket, she picked out a "car" — a metal casket with chrome that also had wheels on the bottom.
Today, framed pictures of Christensen can be seen throughout Hensley's home. Most of them are self-portraits her daughter took with a cellphone and posted on Facebook. If not for the social media site, Hensley said she wouldn't have all the pictures of her daughter that she enjoys today.
She also has her daughter's small lap dog, Sammie. She admits she couldn't stand the animal when her daughter first brought her home.
"I don't even know what I'd do without her now. I can't even sleep unless she's in bed next to me," she said.
Christensen had an "over-the-top" personality that her mother said she connected with and that helped form a special bond between them.
"Jerrica was me born 25 years late. We were twins," she said. "We were so much alike. And so when she was gone, I didn't know who I was anymore because I couldn't watch myself anymore. She made the exact same mistakes at the exact same ages. I knew what she thought. I knew what she was always doing."
Waiting for justice
Each time a court hearing is set or re-set, Hensley said she has to mentally prepare herself for it. She compared it to pulling scabs off a wound. Twice now, she has pulled the scabs off to attend what she thought would be a hearing about her daughter's death, and twice her wounds were left exposed with no action taken.
Hensley is confident, however, the cases of the two men — who are being tried separately — will come to an end next year. And she hopes it involves plea agreements to spare her from having to re-live the brutal details of her daughter's death during both a preliminary hearing and a jury trial.
"I would love it if they would both take a plea deal and plead for life without parole. Own up, man up to what they did, especially Brandon Smith. He was raised with much better values and standards than that. He should man up and spare us, and let us put this to rest," she said.
And as the court cases against Ashton and Smith slowly move forward, Hensley hopes the victims in the case won't be forgotten.
"She was a great girl. She made some mistakes and bad choices like we all do and she learned from them. She was really resolved to make her life better.
"It's just so sad she was making her life better, then she lost her life."
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