SALT LAKE CITY — Those who loved Christina "Nina" Harms drove 1,500 miles from their homes in Minnesota and South Dakota to stand in front of a judge Friday and tell them about the person they lost.
They wore T-shirts printed with Harms' smiling face. They carried a cardboard display covered in pictures of the woman throughout her life.
"Nina wanted to go to college, she wanted more kids, she was very loving," Marilee Nelson said. "She loved her daughter more than anything. Nina was the most loving person you would ever meet."
Harms was 22 when she died on March 25, 2011, as the result of abuse and neglect in the Kearns home she shared with the woman who was her guardian, Cassandra Marie Shepard, their children and Shepard's mother and stepfather.
"I don't think there will ever be understanding, but today there will be justice," 3rd District Judge Katie Bernards-Goodman said before sentencing Shepard, 29, to prison.
Shepard, who pleaded guilty to aggravated abuse of a disabled adult, a first-degree felony, and manslaughter, a second-degree felony, was sentenced to consecutive terms of five years to life and one to 15 years in prison.
Prosecutors say Harms, who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and had the mental capacity of an 8- to 12-year-old, was constantly kept in a small closet where she was forced to eat and go to the bathroom while being bound to a metal bar.
Harms had ligature marks on her ankles consistent with plastic zip ties when officials examined her, severe bruising on her thigh and head, bloodshot eyes, a pepper seed in one of her eyelids, and her hands were completely covered with bandaging material, which would have prevented her from getting the pepper seed out.
Nelson and Tonya Willprecht, both close friends of Harms and her family, said Harms was more like a 16-year-old — loving and happy. They struggle to understand or reconcile the mental and physical abuse she endured.
"When I think of the awful, horrifying days that Nina went through and how horrible it must have been, my heart aches for her," Willprecht said. "Those last two years of her life should have been the happiest she'd ever known. She had a beautiful baby girl. … Cassandra was supposed to help with that and make sure they were both safe."
Both Nelson and Willprecht met Harms in Aberdeen, S.D., and when Harms' mother was dying of cancer, Nelson said she offered to care for Harms. But Harms' mother entrusted her daughter to Shepard, a cousin who was studying to be a nurse, Nelson said.
Though they live in Minnesota, Nelson and Willprecht said they often called and drove to South Dakota to visit Harms until one day they found that Shepard, Harms and their children were gone. They later learned they had moved to Utah with Shepard's mother, but had no contact information.
They later learned of Harms' death from news accounts. Both women said they felt Shepard deserved a life sentence.
"Cassandra deserves life in prison so we can send a message to people who hurt other people that it is not OK," Willprecht told the judge, then turned to Shepard. "May God forgive you, because I don't and I never will. Ever."
Shepard was stoic throughout the hearing and did not speak. Her attorney, Michael Sikora, said his client had a difficult childhood, but was still a caring mother to her own two daughters. He said they are well-adjusted and doing well with their new families.
"It's sad it ended this way," he said. "It's a tragic end to Nina's life. I do believe Cassandra when she said she wishes she could go back and do this all over again."
Shepard's mother, Sherrie Beckering and her husband, Dale Beckering, were also convicted in connection with Harms' death. Both claimed that they were not aware of the abuse taking place.
Dale Beckering, 54, was sentenced to one to 15 years in prison last year. Sherrie Beckering, 52, was sentenced to five years to life in prison.
Nelson and Willprecht said they went to the Kearns neighborhood where Harms was living at the time of her death and talked to neighbors. They were told by one man that he wasn't even aware Harms lived in the home until her death.
"Nina was so sweet, so helpful and so loving," Willprecht said. "The kind of neglect Nina endured for over a year most of us couldn't have handled for days or weeks. But sweet, strong Nina endured it for a year."
Nelson said they had to have a closed-casket service for Harms due to the extent of her injuries. To this day, she wonders why this happened.Comment on this story
"Nina was very intelligent and she was very smart," Nelson said. "My biggest question is why? I offered to help. I offered to be there."
They planned to return to their homes Friday. They were assured by those living in the Kearns neighborhood that candles will be lit and flowers laid near the home in remembrance of Harms on the anniversary of her death.
"She had a smile that could light up a room and a laugh that made it so you couldn't help but giggle," Willprecht said.
"I would never have dreamed this was possible," Nelson added.