KEMMERER – Dereck James “DJ” Harrison, 23, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder, with a consecutive sentence of no less than 20 and no more than 22 years for kidnapping.
Harrison pleaded guilty on April 17 in Kemmerer’s Third District Court to charges of first-degree murder and kidnapping of Utah man Kay Ricks, 62, as the result of a plea agreement with Lincoln County prosecutors.
“There’s been enough drama in this matter,” Third District Court Judge Joseph Bluemel said during Wednesday morning’s proceedings. “I will accept the plea agreement. There’s no reason for the court to draw this out.”
However, Harrison will first serve prison sentences in Utah for the May 2016 kidnapping and assault of a Centerville woman and her daughters – the initial incident with him and his father Flint that led to their fleeing the state.
Harrison will go to Utah first to serve four 15year to life sentences at the same time, followed by another term of 15 years to life. When he completes those sentences, Harrison would then be transferred to Wyoming and serve life without parole for Ricks’ murder, also serving 20 years for Ricks’ kidnapping at the same time.
The sentencing, which took place in a tense courtroom in Kemmerer, was the conclusion of a bizarre and grisly murder case that captivated the Wyoming and Utah public.
Harrison’s father, Flint Harrison, hanged himself in a Davis County, Utah, jail last year before the court process for their trial on previous charges filed there could begin.
Both had been on the run after the kidnapping and assaults in Centerville, Utah.
As a manhunt developed and widened to Wyoming, the disappearance of Ricks and his Utah Transit Authority (UTA) work truck were reported. The chase ended in Sublette County, where both mean turned themselves in for the Utah crimes. They were not connected with Ricks until he was found near Kemmerer. The truck was found near Pinedale hidden in trees and brush.
Prior to Judge Bluemel’s sentencing, Ricks’ family spokesperson Richard Massey addressed the court by reading letters from the Ricks family to Harrison.
Massey also thanked police and law enforcement officers who helped solve the case and bring justice for Ricks.
Massey first read a letter addressed to DJ Harrison from Ricks’ wife, Lori.
“We, the Ricks family, forgive you,” the letter read. “That doesn’t condone the act that took away my husband of 42 years, but you haven’t taken our hope away. We choose to be a strong family and continue as Kay would want us to. You could have stopped these horrible acts, but you didn’t. You and only you are responsible for your choices. The Ricks family will be fine, but you will live with those consequences.”
A letter from Ricks’ oldest son read, “Please make sure he knows my dad forgives him, and I’m working on forgiving him myself.”
Massey also read letters from Ricks’ grandchildren.
“I miss my grandpa,” one letter read. “I’m sad and mad that we don’t get to play with him anymore.”
Massey became emotional as he read a closing statement from the Ricks family: “All of us have a savior, even Jesus Christ. Hopefully you will find it in yourself to repent in this life. You are a child of God, and so are we. Please choose to put your family back together.”
Need for closure
Judge Bluemel provided two primary reasons for accepting the plea agreement, the first being the Ricks family’s desire to move on.
“The victim’s family has expressed need for closure. You have received one thing that perpetrators of crime don’t always receive, and that’s forgiveness,” Judge Bluemel said.
Bluemel acknowledged Harrison’s conduct throughout courtroom proceedings, including his willingness to plead guilty to his crimes, was another reason to accept the plea agreement.
Otherwise in trial, Harrison could have faced the death penalty if found guilty.
“You admitted your wrongdoings. … I saw you tear up a few times, and I don’t think that was fake remorse,” Judge Bluemel said.
“Those statements from the judge touched my heart,” Massey said after the sentencing.
Lincoln County Attorney Spencer Allred addressed Judge Bluemel and those in the courtroom.
“We find it interesting that this is the anniversary – one year ago today, 16 miles from this courtroom, Ricks’ body was found.”
Allred talked about Kay Ricks and the events of May 12, 2016, when Flint Harrison and his son DJ Harrison kidnapped Ricks outside of Salt Lake City, stole his UTA truck, drove to Wyoming.
“Kay was helpful – he was always looking to help people,” Allred said. “I cannot imagine the thoughts and feelings in a man’s head as he is tied up in the back of his truck and driven for over two hours. I can’t imagine what he thought as the truck turned off onto a dirt road and he was forced out of the truck and onto his knees.”
Allred recapped the details of Harrison’s murder that took place off of a lonely dirt road outside of Kemmerer.
“This act was brutal, horrific, and very selfish on behalf of Flint and Dereck,” Allred said.
Allred recognized the plea agreement as fitting to Harrison’s actions.
“This plea agreement at least gives some satisfaction to the family,” Allred said. “They will be able to move on.”
DJ Harrison’s attorney, Ed Wall, read Harrison’s allocution after Allred’s statements because he said Harrison “couldn’t do it” after hearing Massey read the letters from the Ricks family.
“Mr. Harrison cannot believe that this has happened in his life,” Wall said. “It wasn’t in line with how he lived his life. His heart goes out to the family. He regrets it deeply. He wishes he had more control during the incident; parts of it he had blocked out because of the influence of drugs, and he wishes he hadn’t lost his ability to objectively see the consequences of his actions.”
Wall also said that Harrison “wants the Ricks family to know that Kay was brave, strong, and courageous.”