SALT LAKE CITY — Matthew Holt was afraid of death.
Despite having numerous health problems that resulted in 35 surgeries — including open heart and two kidney transplants — the South Jordan man "beat the odds" and was a survivor, noted 3rd District Judge James Blanch.
But all of those years of successfully battling health issues were erased in 20 seconds when Holt, a man who friends say did not pose a threat to anyone and was exceptionally generous in giving to others, was robbed, shot in the head and murdered while sitting in his car in an empty parking lot on Easter Sunday.
"He did nothing wrong," the judge said.
Jeffery Ray Shepherd, 35, of Tooele, was convicted of murder, a first-degree felony, in Holt's death. On Tuesday in front of a packed courtroom, he was ordered to serve 15 years to life in the Utah State Prison.
Before handing down the sentence, Blanch held 20 seconds of silence in the courtroom to illustrate how long Holt suffered during his terrifying experience before being killed.
Holt, 46, was in his car in a parking lot at 952 W. 3265 South when he was approached by Shepherd early on the morning of April 16. Police say Shepherd robbed Holt of cash, and then inexplicably shot him in the head at close range. Shepherd was arrested about a month later.
In court on Tuesday, Shepherd and his attorney blamed a heavy addiction to meth for much of what happened.
"The effect of this terrible drug has played the biggest role in what’s happened here," said defense attorney Heather Chesnut.
Shepherd sat expressionless for the majority of the hearing, staring blankly straight ahead. He offered a brief statement before being sentenced, apologizing to Holt's family and friends.
"I just want to say I'm sorry for my actions and poor choices I made," he said, adding that he was sorry for the "pain and sorrow" he had caused everyone.
But even though drug addiction was a factor, prosecutors argued that Shepherd's "cold, deliberate actions" went beyond being a spur-of-the-moment drug-fueled crime or even a case of self-defense, as Shepherd originally claimed to authorities.
Salt Lake County deputy district attorney Matthew Janzen pointed out the many calculated steps Shepherd took to cover his tracks, including using his coat sleeve to avoid leaving fingerprints, taking his vehicle to a car wash immediately after, disposing of the gun in a dumpster, and even taking the shell casing from the shot that killed Holt away from the scene and melting it at home.
Blanch agreed. The judge said while he appreciated the fact that Shepherd avoided putting Holt's family through a trial by pleading guilty and that he apologized to them in court, a "harsh" sentence was necessary for his "despicable act."
"This is a tragic day," Blanch said, referring to the losses on both sides.
"This courtroom is as full today as its ever been," the judge recognized as he looked over the large number of family members and friends of Holt, some of whom had to sit in the jury box due to every seat in the gallery being filled.
Among those who were there to support Holt's family was Megan Oviatt, a co-worker and friend of Holt for 18 years. She said there was no reason to shoot her friend, who gave Shepherd the money he demanded.
"Matt was harmless. He weighed 100 pounds, and he was defenseless. He would have given him the money, (Shepherd) could have walked away and Matt would still be with us here today."
Oviatt said while there are a lot good people in the world, her friend was "exceptional."
"And an exceptional one was taken from us that day for no reason whatsoever, because of somebody's bad, selfish choices," she said.
"The hardest part, losing Matt is one thing, (but) losing Matt to be murdered is a totally different ball game we're dealing with. And the hardest part is closing your eyes sometimes and (thinking) that that is how his life ended. For someone who lived his life trying to make others happy — he was kind, he was generous.
"He never even had so much as having a speeding ticket, never even broke the law," Oviatt continued. "If there was someone who fought for their life to live, with all of the health problems he had, it was Matthew. It's just unfair."
Maxine Holt, Holt's mother, said the death of her only child has been exceptionally difficult, particularly during the holiday season. She told the judge that the grief her family feels "is crushing" and that there is still "deep pain and sorrow."
"My heart is broken," she said in court while wiping away tears.
But she also said its been inspiring to see how many people were touched by her son during his life. She said while it has been too hard to carry on with some of the Christmas traditions they used to with her son, the family did donate a tree at this year's Festival of Trees event to remember him and help other children.
"I think it was therapeutic for all of us and we were grateful to give that gift back to Primary Children's (Hospital) because he did spend most of his childhood there," Maxine Holt said.4 comments on this story
The family also noted that while they want Shepherd to spend the rest of his life in prison, his family is also in their thoughts.
"I think it was justified, the sentence," said Earl Holt, Matthew's father. "He deserved that."
"There's accountability today, which means a lot. And he did apologize, and that means a lot to us too. And there's consequnces for things we do in this life. Drug use is difficult. And I hope that people realize there needs to be accountability."