(Rick Egan, Salt Lake Tribune, courtesy photo)
KEMMERER – After pleading guilty Monday to first-degree murder and kidnapping for last year’s killing of a Utah man, Lincoln County inmate Dereck “DJ” Harrison now faces sentencing on May 17 – one year to the day since the victim’s body was found on a dirt road near Kemmerer.
During his arraignment Monday, Harrison told Third District Court Judge Joseph Bluemel he and his father, Flint Harrison, kidnapped Utah Transit Authority (UTA) employee Kay Ricks, 63, with his truck from a location near Salt Lake City as they evaded police investigating assaults in Centerville, Utah.
After turning themselves in during a Sublette County manhunt they were charged for the Utah incident – but Flint Harrison killed himself before that court process, leaving his son to stand alone for the Utah assaults and Wyoming charges for Ricks’ murder.
Those were first-degree murder with premeditation and malice, first-degree murder while perpetrating a kidnapping, kidnapping, and wrongful taking of property.
On Monday, Judge Bluemel asked if Harrison still wanted to waive his pretrial conference; he said, “Your Honor, I’ll stand by my waive.”
After the judge read the charges, Lincoln County Attorney Spencer Allred presented him with a written plea agreement made with Harrison to avoid Wyoming’s death penalty, one of two sentencing options for first-degree murder.
“We will not be seeking the death penalty,” Allred said, explaining Harrison agreed to plead guilty to murder and kidnapping for the prosecution’s recommendations of a life sentence without parole for the murder and 20 to 22 years for the kidnapping.
Harrison said he made the plea agreement voluntarily and to establish his guilt, related what occurred as the Utah manhunt for them intensified.
The pair had fled with Ricks into Wyoming before law enforcement connected the missing man with them. Ricks’ body and his truck were not found until after they turned themselves in as a Sublette County search mounted.
He said they spent the first night after the assaults at a Ramada Inn in Utah and the second night by a power station near the UTA, and woke up looking for a vehicle to steal, he said.
“My dad saw the UTA vehicles and we took off from there,” Harrison said Monday.
They waited for someone to show up – which turned out to be Ricks. Flint Harrison asked Ricks for help with his phone; his son jumped in the passenger seat and as Ricks tried to drive away, they pushed him out, tied his hands and put him in the back seat.
They then argued about where to go, with Flint wanting to head for his Pinedale home, saying, “We can live off the land there.”
DJ wanted to hide with friends in Utah, he told the judge. But this father drove on I-80 toward Wyoming.
“We knew they would be looking for the truck so we got off the highway before the port of entry,” he said. They took a dirt road from Evanston U.S. Highway 191, with Ricks silent although he was not gagged, he added.
At the Carter cutoff, he said, “We decided we would drop (Ricks) off so we wouldn’t have to deal with him.”
“We pulled over on a dirt road near (Cumberland Bridge). It was getting dark and cold. I went back to the truck to get (Ricks’) jacket. When I turned around my dad was cutting his throat. I then got into a fight with my dad. I was freaking out.”
Ricks began running to the river and DJ caught up to him in the water, he said. His father had gone back to the truck and returned with an iron bar, hit Ricks four or five times and “then we pulled him onto the shore.”
Harrison told Judge Bluemel that Ricks was not responsive and he believed he was dead.
“We wanted to leave him where no one could find him like in the bushes or something,” he said.
Both were under the influence of meth, perhaps for days, when the initial Utah assault occurred, according to records. Harrison said he washed off blood and his father spray-painted the UTA truck logo. They drove into Kemmerer, stopped at the Arctic Circle to eat, bought cigarettes and arrived late at Flint’s home between Pinedale and Fremont Lake with the plan to hide out and hunt for food.
DJ slept in the truck as his father went inside the home, returning with two backpacks and three guns – a 9-mm, a .300 Winchester, and a 10/22 Ruger rifle – as well as warm clothes and ammunition, he told the judge.
They drove to White Pine to “dump the truck” and burned their clothes. They disconnected the truck battery to disable the GPS and hiked “over the mountain” to Half Moon Lake. The guns were not to battle law enforcement but “to hunt for meat,” he said.
Harrison said Monday they planned to return to southern Utah and hide out because searchers were now focused on Sublette County. They set up camp but in the morning, Flint was gone – hiking out in the dark to turn himself in at the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office.
DJ said he went back to sleep but woke up hearing a helicopter overhead.
“I juked and dodged for a bit. Then I ditched my gun and gear and walked to the road and gave myself up (to a Forest Service ranger),” he said.
After both were taken into custody, they refused to talk about how they went from Utah to Pinedale. The multi-agency search continued and on May 17, 2016, Ricks’ body was discovered near Kemmerer and his truck abandoned in the trees at Kelly Park.
After an investigation, charges were filed in Kemmerer.
Harrison was not extradited to Lincoln County until after he faced the Utah assault charges and was sentenced there – alone. Flint Harrison had hung himself in July while they were both in custody in the Davis County, Utah, jail.
Monday, Judge Bluemel ordered a presentence investigation and set Harrison’s sentencing hearing for May 17 in the Kemmerer courtroom.
Michelle Tibbetts, of the Kemmerer Gazette, contributed to this story.