Wife killer gets 20 years in prison
Sentence is longest possible with his plea to lesser charge
A man who once owned a Grand Junction hotel has told authorities he struck and killed his wife with his hand in an argument in 1997, an action that led to him receiving a 20-year sentence Wednesday.
Marcus Bebb-Jones, who in more recent years became a successful gambler in England, was sentenced by 9th Judicial District Court Judge Daniel Petre after apologizing in court in Glenwood Springs for his actions.
“I didn’t intentionally kill Sabrina, but what I did do was wrong and I ask for your forgiveness,” Marcus Bebb-Jones said during his sentencing hearing.
Bebb-Jones, 49, originally had faced a first-degree murder charge, but earlier this year pleaded 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 called for Bebb-Jones to serve no more than 20 years. He will get credit for 1,261 days he’s already spent in custody.
The plea agreement was reached under the jurisdiction of new 9th Judicial District Attorney Sherry Caloia, who narrowly defeated former DA Martin Beeson in last November’s election. Beeson continues to criticize the deal, as does Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario.
Prosecutors and Sabrina’s siblings and parents asked Petre to impose the 20-year sentence, as did Bill Middleton, who has investigated the case for the sheriff’s office.
“This terrible man ... He took her life, he took our grandson away and our daughter for no reason,” according to a written statement by Sabrina’s father, Dang Thanh Danh, which was read in court by her youngest brother, Mike Dang. Her family is from Vietnam.
Bebb-Jones and his 31-year-old wife owned the Melrose Hotel and had a 3-year-old son, Daniel, when she disappeared Sept. 16, 1997. Her skull was found by a rancher in 2004 near Douglas Pass in far western Garfield County.
Bebb-Jones sold the hotel after her death and took Daniel back to his father’s native England, where he enjoyed some success in gambling. That included winning 90,000 pounds in a 2007 tournament, deputy public defender Matt Morriss said in court Wednesday.
Neither Bebb-Jones nor attorneys made any specific references during Wednesday’s sentencing hearing about how Sabrina died. However, Caloia said in an interview afterward that he said in a presentence statement “that they had an argument and basically he hit her and she ended up dying.”
The statement is part of a presentence investigative report that is not available to the public. In his statement, Bebb-Jones clearly implied that he had struck her with his hand, but didn’t indicate whether he had done so more than once, Caloia said.
Although Sabrina’s skull had some abnormalities, the rest of her body never was found and the cause of her death never has been determined.
In an interview, Caloia said Bebb-Jones’ attorneys have said he left her body there, and it’s assumed that everything but her skull was carried off by scavenging animals.
Assistant District Attorney Scott Turner said during the sentencing that had the case gone to trial, he thinks the defense would have argued that the couple got into some type of argument while returning from Dinosaur National Monument, and that Bebb-Jones then struck her, pushed her or choked her in a fit of rage, “and then in a panic he hid her body and feigned her disappearance to do what (he thought) was right for her son.”
He said that appears to be fairly accurate based on what authorities know now.
Deputy public defender Tina Fang told Petre that Sabrina died as a result of a split-second “action of rage.”
Said Morriss, “He’s taken responsibility. He’s acknowledged that what he did was wrong.”
His attorneys asked that Bebb-Jones be sentenced to as little as the minimum 10-year sentence. Daniel Bebb-Jones and Bebb-Jones’ mother, Pamela Weaver, who lives in England, also had written the court asking for as short a sentence as possible.
Louise Jew, a reporter with the Express & Star newspaper in England, said Weaver told her after the sentencing that the 20-year sentence was “what we expected.” Jew said Daniel, now 19, told her he and his grandmother were “too upset to talk about it at the moment.”
Standing to address Petre in a quiet voice in court Wednesday, Bebb-Jones said after a long pause that he and Sabrina “were doing exactly what we dreamed of doing” and were happy.
“And in the blink of an eye everything changed, and I’m sorry,” he said.
He said he found it difficult to forgive himself, and he acknowledged that his actions after Sabrina’s death contributed to her family’s pain.
“We all lost so much,” he said, referring to his loss of his partner, Sabrina’s family’s loss of their loved one, and his son’s loss of his mother.
Bebb-Jones, who never looked at family members while addressing Petre, said he wants to say he’s sorry to his family and Daniel, “and I want to say sorry to Sabrina. I am very sorry.”
In sentencing Bebb-Jones, Petre said he could have turned himself in immediately after killing his wife.
“Had he done that, the prolonged pain that he has caused with his well-documented lies ... over 16 years could have been avoided,” Petre said.
Bebb-Jones was arrested in England in 2009 and brought to Colorado for prosecution after going through extradition proceedings.
In the days after his wife’s disappearance, Bebb-Jones took his son to Las Vegas, where he told her sister Linda that the two had argued at the Mesa Mall in Grand Junction and she had walked off.
While in Las Vegas, he bought expensive clothes, rented a red Ferrari and hired prostitutes, prosecutors have said. He eventually shot himself through the side of his cheek in a hotel room and left a suicide note in what prosecutors contend was a staged suicide attempt designed not to cause him serious injury.
In a motion late last year, Bebb-Jones’ attorneys challenged characterizations by prosecutors that he had become a pro gambler. In an interview Wednesday, former DA Beeson said Bebb-Jones won a total of more than 230,000 pounds while gambling. A pound currently is valued at more than $1.50.
Bebb-Jones had shot himself with a .25-caliber gun. Morriss said Wednesday that a hole in Sabrina’s skull was about 0.23 inches wide, too narrow for a bullet of that caliber.
Expert witnesses disagreed on whether any injuries to the skull may have been caused by a bullet, with even some prosecution witnesses having differing opinions on the matter.
“Only one person can tell what happened, and that is Mr. Bebb-Jones,” Caloia said.
The plea bargain and case’s outcome have infuriated Beeson, and followed an election campaign during which he worried that Caloia would show too much compassion toward criminals and she said prosecutors need to maintain an open dialogue with defense attorneys about the possibility of reaching plea agreements.
Beeson, who attended Wednesday’s sentencing, said in an interview that the plea bargain was “a windfall to the defendant” that will likely result in him serving seven to 10 more years behind bars before being paroled.
He objects to the heat-of-passion aspect of the guilty plea, saying it’s a crime that requires a victim to have done something that provoked the violent response. No such evidence has been shown, he said.
“And yet both sides have pointed the finger of blame at Sabrina at least in some measure” by agreeing to the charge, he said.
Defense attorneys cited witness statements that the couple were both quick-tempered, and that Sabrina sometimes became jealous of her husband’s innocent flirting with hotel guests he took on tours of national parks and other regional attractions.
Beeson said he feels badly for the family, including Sabrina’s father, who flew missions as a lieutenant colonel for the South Vietnamese before getting his family out and then escaping himself during the fall of Saigon.
“I have lost my country and now lost my daughter,” Sabrina’s father said Wednesday, speaking through her brother.
In a statement Wednesday, Vallario said he was pleased that Petre imposed the maximum allowable sentence under the plea deal, but he continues to oppose the deal itself.
“Considering what (Bebb-Jones) would have faced in the sentencing range of a first-degree murder conviction, this plea agreement allows him to skate around spending the rest of his life in prison,” Vallario said.
Defense attorneys said there was no evidence that the killing was planned or premeditated, as the original charge implied, and Beeson originally had overcharged him.
Caloia said the outcome was a fair one, given the difficulties involved in prosecuting it.
“It’s a very sad case but it’s 16 years old and when you don’t have a body, you don’t have a cause of death and all you’ve got is basically lies about where she is, it makes it difficult.”
Fang said in a statement from defense attorneys, “It is our sincere hope as well as that of Mr. Bebb-Jones that the Dang family finds some closure.”