Ex-Grand Junction man admits killing his wife
Couple had once owned Hotel Melrose
Former Grand Junction motel owner Marcus Bebb-Jones pleaded guilty to murder Friday in the 1997 death of his wife Sabrina under a plea bargain that calls for him to receive up to two decades in prison.
That’s a deal that former 9th Judicial District Attorney Martin Beeson said left him “very disappointed,” but that his successor, Sherry Caloia, said was appropriate under the circumstances.
“Am I glad he’s going to prison? Yeah, but under the plea agreement he won’t be going to prison nearly as long as he should be,” Beeson said.
Caloia, a Democrat who defeated the Republican Beeson by 192 votes in November’s election, said the plea bargain decision “really had to do with the facts and our assessment of the case and what the possibilities were for the case based on the witnesses and the facts as they were coming out.”
If the sentencing agreement is approved by Judge Daniel Petre, it will bring to a close a nearly 16-year investigation into Sabrina’s death. The deal also would cancel a six-week jury trial that had been scheduled to begin April 1.
Bebb-Jones, 49, who had faced a first-degree murder charge, agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder in the heat of passion. The charge carries a sentencing range of 10 to 32 years in the Department of Corrections, but the plea deal calls for Bebb-Jones to serve no more than 20 years. The court has ordered that a presentence report be prepared before the May 1 sentencing.
The plea agreement includes dismissal of a misdemeanor harassment charge related to an altercation between Bebb-Jones and another inmate in the Garfield County Jail.
In court in Glenwood Springs Friday, the victim’s family presented a statement through prosecutors in which they asked that Bebb-Jones receive the maximum possible penalty for his cruelty, lack of remorse and for taking Sabrina from them.
Sabrina, 31, disappeared in September 1997 and her skull was found on Douglas Pass in Garfield County in 2004. The couple owned the Melrose Hotel at the time of her disappearance. Marcus Bebb-Jones was arrested England in 2009 and later extradited to be prosecuted.
Authorities say Bebb-Jones took the couple’s 3-year-old son to Las Vegas in the days following her disappearance. Sabrina’s sister testified in a preliminary hearing that he came to her Las Vegas home and said he and Sabrina had had an argument at Mesa Mall in Grand Junction and she had walked off.
Prosecutors had contended that while in Las Vegas, Bebb-Jones bought fancy clothes, spent more than $1,000 to rent a red Ferrari and hired prostitutes. They say he then staged a suicide attempt in a hotel there by leaving a suicide note and putting a small-caliber gun in his mouth and firing through the side of his cheek. They say authorities found his son, crying and naked from the waist down, in another Las Vegas hotel room Bebb-Jones also had been using.
They said Bebb-Jones later took his son to England and was a professional gambler there.
Beeson had thought he had reached a plea deal with Bebb-Jones last summer, and Sabrina’s family came from out of state for the proceedings, but Bebb-Jones instead pleaded not guilty. As the outcome of Beeson’s race for re-election was still uncertain in the days after the election, he expressed fears to reporters about how a change in attorneys in the office might affect the ability of Sabrina’s family to get justice. Bebb-Jones’ public defense team recently called for sanctions against the prosecution for those comments, saying they were prejudicial.
Beeson said he thinks the plea bargain shows his concerns were legitimate.
“It’s clear to me that this district attorney never had any intention of taking this case to trial and this murderer played poker with her and won,” he said.
He said the deal is consistent with Caloia’s campaign philosophy of having “compassion for criminals, and I guess for her that also means murderers.”
Asked recently about the possibility of a plea bargain for Bebb-Jones, Caloia said one reason she ran was to “have an open dialogue with all defense counsel in all cases because I think that that is the most efficient way to handle all cases.”
Caloia said Friday that “the plea that was offered and accepted was very much in line with the plea offers that were made by the prior administration.”
“... I think that it was very appropriate under the circumstances and there will be justice for the victim.”
Beeson said last summer’s tentative deal was for a second-degree murder plea with a stipulated sentencing range of 16 to 30 years, which means Bebb-Jones could have potentially gotten 10 more years than under the latest deal.
Sabrina’s family wasn’t clear in its statement on whether it wants the maximum stipulated deal, or the maximum allowable under law. If Petre decides to give Bebb-Jones more than 20 years, Bebb-Jones would have the option of withdrawing his plea, Caloia said.
Beeson said the heat-of-passion part of Bebb-Jones’ plea suggests Sabrina provoked him into killing her, and “is saying that basically it’s not all his fault, it’s partly hers. And I think that’s a travesty.”
Caloia said more information on that part of the plea may come out in sentencing.
She said the age of the case is a challenge in taking it to trial, as is the fact that witnesses are scattered from Europe to the West Coast.
“Some of them would be difficult to get here,” she said.
Proving first-degree murder also would have required showing Bebb-Jones acted with deliberation, which would have been difficult without evidence of how Sabrina died and events leading up to it, which were only witnessed by Bebb-Jones and her, Caloia said.
Another challenge was the failure to recover Sabrina’s body other than her skull, Caloia said.
A forensic anthropologist last year concluded the skull showed indications of having suffered bullet wounds, but she failed to draw that same conclusion when first examining the skull in 2005.
Beeson said determinations of cause and manner of death aren’t necessary for a first-degree murder conviction.
In binding Bebb-Jones over for trial after a preliminary hearing last year, Petre acknowledged the circumstantial nature of the case, but listed numerous pieces of circumstantial evidence. These included:
• Extensive blood found in the couple’s van that DNA testing indicates was hers, and evidence that Bebb-Jones had the van thoroughly cleaned inside and out the day after her disappearance;
• Bebb-Jones’ reluctance to report his wife’s disappearance to authorities;
• Purple thistles found in the undercarriage of the van in 1997 that were like those later found in the off-highway area where Sabrina’s skull was discovered;
• Injuries to her skull consistent with blunt-force trauma;
• Testimony that Sabrina never would have voluntarily left her son.
In a news release, the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office expressed thanks for the work of Beeson, former Assistant District Attorney Jeff Cheney, sheriff investigators and others “who have worked relentlessly over the past eight years building this case against a heinous killer.”
But Sheriff Lou Vallario added, “While we are glad this case is drawing to a close, we are saddened that Marcus Bebb-Jones was not appropriately convicted of first-degree murder, as was apparent by the evidence provided during the preliminary hearing.”