Search for missing Utah teens reveals brutal murders following friendly visit
04/24/2018 3:07 pm PDT
UPDATE November 14, 2018:
Jerrod Baum, the man accused of killing two Utah teenagers, has a new judge who will oversee his trial, KUTV reports.
The case has been reassigned to Judge Derek P. Pullan in the Fourth District Court.
Baum's girlfriend, Morgan Henderson, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice charges related to the two Utah teen murders [story below]. She was sentenced to five years probation and will serve jail time for three years.
In Utah, the search for a missing teenage couple had families pointing fingers and accusations flying.
It's the night before New Year's Eve in Utah's west desert town of Eureka.
"This is a very small, small town. It's classified as a 'ghost town.' Used to be a mining town," Fox 13 KSTU-TV Reporter Lauren Steinbrecher tells Crime Watch Daily. "You've got whole families who are living in this town who have known each other for, in some cases, generations."
One of those residents was 17-year-old Brelynne Otteson, known simply as "Breezy." According to her family, she had lived a life that was anything but.
"She's grown up a very difficult life. She lost her mother about six years ago. She just wanted to be loved," said Breezy's aunt Amanda Hunt.
Breezy she seemed to have found that love with her boyfriend, 18-year-old Riley Powell.
"I felt like it was serious," Amanda said. "She felt safe with him."
And Riley felt safe with her after enduring a childhood plagued with instability. As a young child, he was taken away from his biological mother Mistie Carlson and adopted by his grandmother Linda and her husband at the time, Bill Powell.
"I adopted him," said Bill Powell. "We both had joint custody of all the kids but I pretty much had him then, and she had the two girls."
Riley seemed excited to ring in the new year, now just a day away. But first, they had to make one more stop in Tooele to celebrate the holidays with Breezy's family before making the hour drive back to Eureka. And somewhere on their drive back from Tooele to Eureka on December 30, 2017, the teens vanished.
"No social media activity, no debit card activity, no one has seen their vehicle. Nobody knows where they are," said Steinbrecher.
No one can get a hold of the teens. Then, finally, after 72 hours of no contact, Breezy's family files a missing-persons report with the Juab County Sheriff's Department. And with it being early January with average temperatures in the low 20s, authorities know time is of the essence to find the young couple.
"We received a report through the sheriff's office on January 2nd of them reported missing. They had been missing, estimated two or three days," said Juab County Sheriff Douglas Anderson.
Authorities uncovered Facebook messages between Riley and a woman named Morgan Henderson. The messages are from the night the teens went missing. Investigators interview Henderson. She tells them she saw the couple that night, claiming they stopped by her place in Mammoth on their way back to Eureka, but that they left after about 40 minutes, and she never heard from them again. In fact, investigators say that's the last known contact Breezy and Riley had with anyone.
"On the onset, we didn't suspect foul play, but there's also that possibility. We were treating it like a search-and-rescue operation," said Sheriff Anderson.
Law enforcement agencies from Juab and Tooele counties join forces to search the massive 10,000-square-mile area. Friends and family of the victims join in on the search, with one noticeable exception: Mistie, Riley's biological mother. Riley's adoptive father, however, didn't miss one search.
But after days of searching and no sign of the teens, their families offer up a $2,000 reward for any information leading to Riley's missing Jeep.
"We were looking for a Jeep, not kids at that point, thinking the Jeep was our key to finding them," said Amanda Hunt.
Then on January 11, nine days after the teens were reported missing, a civil air patrol working with members of Juab County Search and Rescue located the Jeep. It was found parked near the Cherry Creek Reservoir, 14 miles from Riley's home town of Eureka.
"So then once we found the Jeep, then as we started to investigate the Jeep further, then it started to lean towards foul play," said Sheriff Anderson.
"It's hidden in the bushes, there's windows rolled down," said Steinbrecher. "Two of the tires have been slashed. They've been cut from the sides, not necessarily from running over something. Their clothing or their items are inside, but there's nothing else, just, they are gone from the vehicle and it is just sitting there."
As if it was abandoned -- or staged, according to the sheriff.
"Where that Jeep was located, both the tires were deflated in place," said Sheriff Anderson. "Evidence there at the scene suggested that that Jeep was driven into that park location and then the tires were deflated subsequent to that."
But where are Riley and Breezy? There is no evidence found inside the vehicle pointing to the location of the missing teenagers.
While processing the Jeep, investigators do make one interesting find.
"There was tow strap on the back portion of the Jeep," said Sheriff Anderson.
Investigative teams collect the tow strap and take note of its appearance: a camouflage-colored strap. And now with the discovery of the Jeep, the sheriff no longer believes this is a simple missing-persons case.
"It is foul play. I believe that, I strongly believe that," said Sheriff Anderson.
The sheriff's suspicions seem to be confirmed when a witness comes forward claiming to have seen a truck towing Riley's Jeep on the same day the teens were reported missing.
The truck belongs to a man named Lee Shepherd, the live-in boyfriend of Riley's biological mother Mistie Carlson. Investigators immediately contact the couple. According to Sheriff Anderson, Mistie fully cooperates with detectives. But Lee?
"He's refused to interview with our detectives," said Sheriff Anderson. "It's a red flag. It's something that heightens our suspicion."
So much that the very next day, the sheriff pulls a search warrant for Mistie's home, where she lives with her boyfriend Lee. The property is near Lofgreen in Tooele County. In the unsealed search warrants, investigators reveal they were looking for evidence of a homicide.
According to the search warrants, inside the home Major Crimes teams confiscate letters, receipts, drug paraphernalia -- and something else that could blow this case wide open.
"We found another portion of that tow strap similar to that in another truck from reports through our investigation that is close in appearance and configuration to that tow strap we found on the Jeep," said Sheriff Anderson.
That was the one found on Lee Shepherd's vehicle?
"It was, yes," said Anderson.
Utah teenagers Riley Powell and Breezy Otteson are missing and presumed dead after authorities discover Riley's Jeep, abandoned under suspicious circumstances.
Investigators attempt to question Lee Shepherd, but he refused an interview with detectives, according to Sheriff Douglas Anderson.
So we decide to see if we can get some answers, and we head over to Lee and Mistie's home.
When was the last time that you saw Riley and Breezy?
"The 29th of December," said Mistie Carlson. "I don't know, he just got excited and took off."
But we still had a few questions about the last time Mistie saw her son Riley -- and that's when Mistie appears to get emotional.
"Somebody out there knows about my son, and it's not me," said Mistie. "I don't, I wouldn't hurt my son. Yeah, I gave him up for adoption."
Since Mistie didn't raise Riley, some residents have attacked her character.
"I went through my lifestyle, yes, and my lifestyle is [----] up, but you know, I don't, I didn't do anything to my son," said Mistie.
That's what Mistie had to say. We still wanted to talk to Lee, the man who was allegedly seen towing Riley's Jeep and then refused to speak to investigators.
Do you think Lee had any involvement?
"No, no sir," said Mistie. "No. no."
Mistie goes on to explain that she broke things off with her now ex-boyfriend Lee Shepherd, who we found living just down the road.
"If I knew anything about them kids, everybody would have known as soon as I knew," said Lee Shepherd.
The sheriff says you won't talk to him or his investigators.
"No, I've talked to him," said Lee.
He says you're not cooperating. Not my words.
"Well, the first time they come out, I had cupboards out and painting, and my truck was broke down, and they wanted to go right then," said Lee. "I said 'Can I come in tomorrow?' He's like 'Another day?' I said, 'Yeah, you know.'"
Lee explains that he was simply busy and not avoiding an interview with sheriff's deputies. And concerning that eyewitness who claims to have seen him towing Riley's jeep?
"It never happened. It had to be somebody else," said Lee.
And then the question everyone wants an answered:
Lee, let me just ask you point-blank: Did you have anything to do with Riley or Breezy's disappearance?
"No," said Lee.
Do you know what happened to them?
"No," said Lee.
It's now been three long months since 18-year-old Riley Powell and his 17-year-old girlfriend Breezy Otteson went missing.
The strongest lead was Riley's Jeep and the location of where it was discovered. It's a long shot, but Crime Watch Daily Special Correspondent Elizabeth Smart calls in a favor to an organization she has been working with to find missing people. And Crime Watch Daily is there on the ground ready to meet up with these specialized searchers and join in the hunt for the missing teenagers with a group called Scent Evidence K9.
"It's the company I started in 2012 after my time with the FBI to improve the processes and the methods for searching," said founder Paul Coley.
Basically, the group pairs drones and dogs to search massive areas like Utah's West Desert, where Riley's Jeep was abandoned. The Juab Major Crimes Task Force and Scent Evidence K9 map out the search area together.
For this particular search, the handlers and their three specialized K9s made the 23-hour drive from Tallahassee, Florida to Eureka, Utah. The command post is set up next to the Cherry Creek Reservoir where Riley's Jeep was found. The footage from the drones is transmitted back in real-time so that if a discovery is made, law enforcement can move in quickly. The K9s are assigned their scents and the drones begin to follow the dogs as they track.
At times the dogs appear excited or headed in a specific direction, but sadly, after hours of searching through some of Utah's toughest terrain, the dogs can't pick up the scent of the missing teenagers. The Scent Evidence K9 search is called off.
Then 15 days later, the Juab County Sheriff's Department receives a tip. The big break is the result of a routine traffic stop. A woman was picked up for speeding and put behind bars. That woman, Morgan Henderson, is the woman who exchanged Facebook messages with Breezy and Riley the night the teens went missing. Henderson originally told cops that the couple came to her house and then left after about 40 minutes. Now she's telling detectives that they're dead, and she knows where their bodies are buried. The location is a piece of private property east of Eureka, an abandoned mine running 1,800 feet deep, with an opening large enough to drive a semi-truck through.
One hundred feet down, on a ledge, investigators discover two bodies. Tragically, they are positively identified as 17-year-old Breezy Otteson and 18-year-old Riley Powell. The teens' bodies were discovered in the Tintic Standard Mine in Eureka, just 22 miles from the Cheery Creek Reservoir where Riley's Jeep was abandoned.
"It was actually on our list of ones to check. It was actually the first one we were going to check," said Amanda Hunt.
But the mineshaft was on private property, which meant investigators needed a warrant in order to get permission to enter the mine.
Not only did Morgan Henderson lead investigators to the bodies, Henderson also pointed the finger at the man she told cops killed Breezy and Riley, her boyfriend Jerrod Baum, 41. Henderson tells detectives that Baum became enraged after discovering the teens hanging out with her without his permission. Henderson claims in charging documents that "Baum bound the victims' hands and feet, duct-taped their mouths, and placed them in the back of Riley's Jeep."
Then, according to Henderson, Baum drove the teens to the abandoned mineshaft, where she claims that Breezy was "forced to kneel near the open mine pit and witness the beating of her boyfriend Riley Powell, and his stabbing, before she had her throat cut and was also thrown into the open mine."
Baum, who was already behind bars in Juab County on unrelated parole violations, was booked into the Utah County Jail. Baum is facing eight felony counts, including two counts each of aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping, and desecration of a human body, among other charges, and he could face the death penalty.
As for Baum's girlfriend, who claims she witnessed the gruesome slayings, Morgan Henderson was charged with obstruction of justice. Then it's time for Jerrod Baum to face his victims' families during his first court appearance. He doesn't speak, but courtroom observers say Baum looked directly at Riley and Breezy's family members. Riley's father was in the courtroom front and center, staring right back at the man who allegedly took his son's life.
According to police documents, Morgan Henderson told investigators she was the one who moved Riley's Jeep to the location where it was found, but only because Baum threatened to take her life. She also says Baum told her "It was too bad because he has never killed an innocent before" and that he felt bad about killing Breezy, so he made her death "quick and painless."
Neither Henderson nor Baum has currently entered a plea.