Judge throws book at man for 'spineless' actions in swimmer's death

'I don't know how you can live with yourself,' judge says

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 23 2013 3:25 p.m. MST

Esther Fujimoto

OGDEN — A man convicted of hitting a swimmer in Pineview Reservoir and leaving her to die was given the maximum jail sentence Wednesday for his crimes.

Skyler Shepherd, 22, was ordered to serve 2 ½ years in jail for the 2011 death of Esther Fujimoto.

It was what Fujimoto's family wanted.

"We are outraged by Skyler Shepherd's crimes," brother Bryan Fujimoto said. "Justice must be served."

It was what was requested by both a pre-sentence report and prosecutors.

"We think a strong message needs to be sent on this case," prosecutor Dean Saunders said.

And it was what 2nd District Judge Ernie Jones, very clearly, felt was appropriate.

"What you did after this accident was callous, it was reckless and it was absolutely spineless," Jones said. "I don't know how you can live with yourself hearing what happened and then your response is to drive away. … Your response is to leave her there to die in the water. It's almost incomprehensible."

Shepherd was immediately taken to jail.

In December, a jury convicted Shepherd of reckless endangerment and obstruction of justice, class A misdemeanors, as well as failure to render aid, a class B misdemeanor, in connection with the Aug. 21, 2011, death of Fujimoto, 49.

Esther Fujimoto was swimming with her sister near the Spring Creek area of Pineview Reservoir when she was struck by a boat allegedly driven by Colton Raines. Shepherd said he took the helm after Raines swerved and turned the boat around to check on the woman. He said Fujimoto told him she was OK and appeared angry, prompting Shepherd, Raines and Robert Cole Boyer to leave.

Shepherd said he did not realize the woman was injured. Todd Grey, Utah's chief medical examiner, testified that Fujimoto suffered "multiple chopping injuries" consistent with being struck by a propeller and ultimately bled to death.

Defense attorney Glen Neeley argued that his client had no idea what had happened that night and made a mistake. He said Wednesday that he felt a consecutive jail sentence was too much and asked Jones to consider some probation or work release options.

"He's been very remorseful about what's happened," Neeley said. "He's a fine young man. We don't think the court is not going to give him a jail sentence, but we would ask that it be reasonable."

He pointed to his client's lack of a criminal history and said he poses no threat to the community. It was Shepherd, he said, who stopped to check on Fujimoto and who talked to police.

"Without Skyler, I don't think they would have much of the truth," Neeley said. "I don't think there's anything Mr. Shepherd could say and do to try and fix this, nothing he could do to bring Ms. Fujimoto back."

Shepherd himself turned to Esther Fujimoto's family and friends, including her four siblings, and extended his "deepest apologies and condolences." He said he knows that Fujimoto was an incredible person who was loved.

He said he regretted what had happened.

"I've been reflecting back and wishing I could do many things differently," he said. "I wish I could be more cautious. I wish I'd tried to render aid and saved Ms. Fujimoto's life. I carry on my conscience the loss of another due to my negligence and irresponsibility."  

Bryan Fujimoto told the judge that the loss of his sister, with her lively personality and tenacity for life, was "an unspeakable loss." He called her a "proven fighter" who overcame hip dysplasia and breast cancer and stayed fit and ate healthy to try and extend her life.

She was building a new home, complete with a 75-foot lap pool, that she never got to see finished. He condemned Shepherd's selfishness and asked the judge for the maximum possible sentence.

"You fled the scene and left her to die," Bryan Fujimoto said. "By fleeing, Esther's best hope of survival also fled. … We are anguished to know of the pain and suffering Esther must have suffered in her final moments. … We will never forget those autopsy photos."

The judge said there were a number of things that bothered him about this case, including Shepherd's seeming lack of remorse.

"It's troubling for me to hear this case not once but twice, and every time I looked at you I saw no remorse," Jones said. "Nothing. It was as if we were trying something that had nothing to do with the death of a woman."

The judge ordered all of the jail terms to run consecutively and ordered Shepherd to pay restitution to the family, which Neeley said the man wants to do.

Both Jones and Fujimoto's family also referenced a law passed during the 2012 legislative session that now makes leaving the scene of a boating accident a third-degree felony. Jones said that new law better speaks to the seriousness of the crime.

Saunders said he felt the sentence was appropriate given not only that Shepherd and his friends left Fujimoto, but that they also "concocted a lie to tell police."

"To leave someone to die with no chance of survival, we think that justifies the sentence," he said.

The cases against Boyer and Raines are set for trial in February. Boyer is facing a charge of obstruction of justice, a class A misdemeanor. Raines is facing the same three charges as Shepherd.

Shepherd has been issued a subpoena to appear at their trial, but it is unclear whether he will cooperate.

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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