OGDEN — A teenage girl accused of killing two people in a deliberate crash pleaded guilty in an adult courtroom Wednesday, finalizing a plea agreement in the case.
Marilee Gardner, 17, answered quickly and clearly as 2nd District Judge Brent West asked if she had thought about the deal she was making, whether she was taking her prescribed medication and whether she was thinking clearly.
Each time, Gardner responded with a firm, "Yes, your honor."
Gardner was originally charged as an adult with two counts of murder, a first-degree felony, after police said she deliberately crashed her mother's SUV into another car in a suicide attempt last year. She was 16 years old at the time.
The two people in that car — Maddison Haan, 20, of West Point, and Tyler Christianson, 19, of Ogden — were killed on impact.
Charging documents allege Gardner and a 17-year-old friend she was meeting planned on "purchasing drugs, taking the drugs and then crashing her mother's car with both of them inside in an attempt to kill themselves." Police said Gardner was driving almost 100 mph as she fled from them and slammed into the back of Haan and Christianson's car at an intersection.
As prosecutors and Gardner's attorneys negotiated a deal in the case, the charges were dismissed and re-filed as two counts of attempted murder in order to move Gardner back into the juvenile court system. Gardner admitted to one of those two charges in juvenile court last month, while the second count was transferred back to the adult system.
Utah statute specifies that murder charges for juveniles who are 16 or 17 years old are directly filed into district court.
Gardner is expected to remain in a juvenile secure care facility for the first charge until just before her 21st birthday. Following her time there, she will be sentenced to at least three years and up to life in prison for the second charge.
A review hearing to start the adult sentencing process is scheduled for March 3, 2021.
As Christianson's family watched Gardner plead guilty during her brief court appearance Wednesday, Heather Morrison, his mother, was thinking instead about her son.
"We all miss Tyler," she said following the hearing. "We're glad we can all start healing from now."
Morrison smiled through tears as she described her son as "a goofball."
"I don't think that boy had a serious bone in his body," Morrison said.
His stepfather, Ken Farley, added that Christianson's happy nature led him to make friends wherever he went.
"He lived up to his initials, TLC," Farley said.
While both Christianson and Haan's families have said they struggled with a deal that allowed Gardner to plead guilty to charges of attempted murder rather than murder, Morrison said she still supports the resolution.9 comments on this story
"I think it's a good answer, because at least now (Gardner) has access to the help that she needs," Morrison said.
Christianson's aunt, Liz Wilder, said the family now hopes that Gardner will take advantage of the chance she has been given.
"We come from love and forgiveness," Wilder said. "We're grateful she has that choice. She's the only one left with a choice."
The Utah Department of Health offers suicide prevention help at utahsuicideprevention.org/suicide-prevention-basic. The national crisis hotline is 1-800-784-2433.