UTAH STATE PRISON — Aaron Shavers was just 18 when he shot and killed 15-year-old Jesse Rojas on Dec. 26, 1998.
In 2001, Shavers pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to five years to life in prison. Third District Judge Judith Atherton recommended that Shavers serve at least 16 years.
On Tuesday, Shavers, now 34, was remorseful and apologetic as he went before a member of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole hoping for a second chance in life.
"I would just like to apologize to the Rojas family for what I've done. It was horrible and I think about it every day. It's changed me completely. I know there really isn't anything I can do to make up for it to them. I hope that just through community service or doing the best I can for my friends and family that I can do something in the long run to make up for it some way," Shavers told parole board member Jesse Gallegos.
In 1998, Shavers, originally from the St. Louis area, was attending Highland High School. He was doing OK in school and was good in athletics, the board noted. Gallegos asked him Tuesday how he went from being a good student to coming up with a plan to rob someone.
"I felt lost. I'm pretty sure I was trying to fit in. Actually I know I was trying to fit in and do what the people thought at the time was cool or acceptable. I pretty much lived by myself and I was foolish and made a horrible mistake," he said.
It was Shavers who came up with the plan for him and two acquaintances to go into the apartment of Angela Barlow and take a safe, which allegedly contained drugs and money. Shavers said he had purchased marijuana from Barlow in the past and knew that her door was always unlocked.
"We planned on sneaking into the house because a door was open and taking a safe that was in there," he said.
But instead of just walking in and walking out with the safe, Shavers decided to "check" a door leading to a back bedroom.
"It wasn't well-thought out. It wasn't something that was a detailed plan," he said. "None of it made any sense. It's not something I'd ever done before or thought about."
And even though he said the intent was never to harm anybody, he took a loaded sawed-off shotgun with him.
"I was responsible," he said. "The fact of the matter is that regardless of my intent, I brought an armed weapon into the house that led to the death, and that leaves me fully responsible."
When he got to the back bedroom, Shavers found that the light was on and people were awake.
"I stood frozen for about three or four seconds, at which point the door was slammed on me. But the gun was caught between the door, the barrel was pulled on and the gun went off what I believed up into the ceiling, at which point I immediately ran, grabbed the safe, ran out, dropped the safe, continued to run to the car, left the safe behind."
The round had not gone into the ceiling, however. Rojas was struck in the head and killed.
At first, Shavers tried to deny to police that he was responsible.
"I know that I was misleading and I know that I lied to them. I know I did not take responsibility," he said. "I knew something was wrong. I'd done something horrible. I wanted to talk but there's the stigma, that you know is out there to be quiet as I was told by (the others) time and time again not to say anything."
Eric John Gomez and Nathan Sanchez eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and attempted burglary. They were each sentenced to prison for up to 20 years.
For the majority of time that Shavers has been in prison, Gallegos noted that he had been a model inmate. So much so that his parole hearing was moved up. But in 2014, Shavers was caught transporting heroin, something Gallegos called a "bonehead move."
"I've done a number of things in prison that I didn't want to do, whether because I was scared to say no or foolish," Shavers said.
The inmate said there is "a large amount of items" that get passed around in prison. He said when he was asked to deliver a package by other inmates, as he had been before, he just did it to avoid retaliation and didn't ask what the package was.
But after he got busted with it, Shavers said he faced retaliation from other inmates for losing the heroin and then telling administrators about it. His personal possessions were stolen by other inmates and he was forced to move to a new housing unit.
Gallegos, who previously served as the No. 2 man for the Utah Department of Corrections, while not condoning what Shavers did, acknowledged that there are things inmates do in prison for survival, including being forced into being a mule.
Still, Gallegos said that bust made his decision whether to grant parole much more difficult.
"You have effectively destroyed your life, sir. Yet you have done very well in prison. You are probably worthy of a parole date at some time. I just don't know what I'm going to recommend," he told Shavers.
Several friends and family members attended Shavers' parole hearing. Gallegos noted that family support is important and Shavers seemed to have a lot of it. If he is released, Shavers said he would want to return to St. Louis and possibly work in a Big Brothers program.
The full five-member board will now vote on whether to grant Shavers parole. A decision is expected in about six weeks.
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