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Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News
James William Tolbert is escorted on Friday at 2nd District Court, where he pleaded guilty to felony aggravated murder for killing Ann Poulson. Tolbert had been paroled in 2006 after serving 18 years for killing his wife. He met regularly with his parole officer and lived within the bounds of society — then murdered a woman who tried to be his friend.

James William Tolbert graduated successfully from a court-ordered mental health treatment program 10 months before he killed a woman who tried to be his friend.

The parolee showed up regularly to meetings with his parole officer month after month, kept a job and raised no red flags among the experts trained to detect problems with the state's 15,000 offenders out on probation or parole.

Tolbert lived essentially within the bounds of society, and a division audit of the case showed Tolbert complied with the standards of his supervision.

But on Friday, Tolbert pleaded guilty to murdering Ann Poulson, 68, in her Murray home earlier this fall.

Her body was found on Oct. 9. "A belt had been wrapped around Ms. Poulson's neck," police wrote in documents filed with the criminal charges.

"You can't predict behavior. As much as we'd like to, we can't," said Tony Brown, an Adult Probation and Parole supervisor at Salt Lake City's Region III office.

"Tolbert was not a management issue," Brown said.

In the hallway of Poulson's home, police said, they found her purse with its contents spilled out. Her keys were not in her purse and her 2002 Honda Accord was missing from the garage.

At the time of her death, Poulson worked for the Deseret Morning News in the accounting department. Her death and the subsequent arrest of Tolbert shocked colleagues, friends and relatives who learned Poulson had met Tolbert in prison while conducting spiritual counseling for inmates. She then stayed in touch with Tolbert via e-mail and visits. The man met several neighbors and relatives when visiting Poulson's home.

A study of Corrections Department records and an audit of the case show no signs that officials should have been concerned about the parolee.

Tolbert was committed to prison on Feb. 27, 1989, for murdering his wife. After 18 years behind bars, he was paroled on April 11, 2006.

As part of his parole, Tolbert entered a mental health treatment program in Davis County. A review of records shows Tolbert's therapist first described Tolbert's presence as "hit or miss." But his supervising therapist later called Tolbert "an active member of therapy group,"

"He talked extensively about his crime and how his behavior has improved," the supervisor reported. Tolbert was allowed to graduate from the program,

Tolbert had gone for months with no trouble at all, and in fact his parole officer noted he would write to the board for permission to grant Tolbert an early release from parole supervision.

The man's parole officer last saw him about a month before Poulson's death. Tolbert reported to the office of Adult Parole and Probation and said he had a new job; nothing that raised a red flag for the agent.

But a few weeks later, a man told police in Woods Cross that Tolbert hit him with a crow bar, which caused injuries requiring 85 stitches. AP&P was notified, and his agent tried unsuccessfully to find the offender.

A day later, police made contact with Tolbert at Sugarhouse Park, where he admitted to having overdosed on heroin. Police, who didn't know anyone was looking for the parolee, then took him to University Hospital. Tolbert walked out of the hospital.

His parole officer joined a massive law enforcement search for Tolbert in the days after Poulson's body was found. Several members of a special joint agency task force worked around the clock, calling and knocking on the doors of Tolbert's relatives, friends and former prison cell mates.

"This appears to be a real serious effort to track this person," said Jack Ford, spokesman for the Utah Department of Corrections.

About two weeks later, a member of the public led police to Tolbert in Memory Grove Park, near downtown Salt Lake City, and he was taken into custody.

As a result of his guilty plea Friday, Tolbert was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

E-mail: lucy@desnews.com