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2 ordered to stand trial in death of woman bound crucifixion-style

2 ordered to stand trial in death of woman bound crucifixion-style

By Emiley Morgan | Posted - Jun. 3, 2011 at 8:25 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — The first photo prosecutors displayed of Christina "Nina" Harms showed the woman's body laid out on an autopsy table, a massive bruise spanning her side and fading as it crawls up her back.

Photo after photo was shown depicting the woman's injuries during a preliminary hearing Friday in 3rd District Court. The injuries were allegedly sustained while she was living with Cassandra Shepard, Dale Beckering, 52, and Sherrie Beckering, 50, who are all charged in connection with Harm's death in March.

Other photos depicted a closet in the home that one child described as "Nina's room." There was little inside except a bar with zip ties on either end, a soiled swatch of cardboard on the floor, a bag of scented pine cones, a box of baking soda, and a photo tacked to the wall of Jesus Christ wearing a crown of thorns.

Attorneys for both Beckerings were adamant Friday that their clients lived in the basement of the home — the closet was upstairs — and Shepard was the guardian and caregiver of the woman who had fetal alcohol syndrome and functioned at about the level of a 12-year-old.

Still, Judge L.A. Dever ordered both Dale and Sherrie Beckering to each stand trial for aggravated abuse of an disabled adult, a first-degree felony. A preliminary hearing for Shepard has not yet been scheduled.

The evidence

Harms, 22, was found March 25 with ligature marks on her ankles consistent with plastic zip ties, severe bruising on her thigh and head, bloodshot eyes, a pepper seed in one of her eyelids and her hands were completely covered with bandaging material, which would have prevented her from getting the pepper seed out.

Police say she was bound crucifixion-style to a bar inside the small closet depicted in the photos.

Shepard, who is Sherrie Beckering's daughter, became Harms' legal guardian in an agreement with Harms' biological mother. Shepard met her in South Dakota not long before the mother died of cancer. Harms' grandfather and Shepard's father were apparently brothers.

Photos spanning 2008 and 2009 when Shepard and Harms were living in South Dakota show Harms smiling while attending birthday parties and unwrapping Christmas gifts. In February through September 2010, though, Shepard sent Harms to Utah to live with the Beckerings. The only photo detectives found in that year shows Harms wearing an orange stocking cap with lacerations to her face. Prosecutor Chad Platt pointed out the difference in Harms' demeanor in the photos.

Unified police officer Warren Dallof testified that after Harms' body was found, Sherrie Beckering was emotionless at the scene.

"(Sherrie Beckering) made the statement that 'Christina's been a little (expletive) lately,'" Dallof recounted. "She said, 'I'm sorry to put it that way, but it's the truth.'"

Neighbors testify

A married couple whose balcony faced the couple's balcony said they would often see Harms on the balcony performing exercises or choking down food from a coffee can. Both reported seeing Shepard and Sherrie Beckering shouting at Harms about having a sexually transmitted disease.

When neighbor Amber Whitman came home from work one cold day in December and saw Harms on the balcony with very little clothes on, she placed an anonymous call to police.

"She looked at me like she needed help," Whitman said. "She was just crying."

She saw police arrive later, but never spoke to them.

Another neighbor, Lacey Bazinet, spent almost a full day with Harms in July 2010 when the woman showed up at her door.

"I woke up to a knock on the door and there was a young lady with a suitcase, bag and pillow," Bazinet said. "She was panicking, saying she was being abused."

She testified she let Harms into her home and saw bruises on the woman's chest and wrists. She called around, trying to find a place at a shelter and ultimately took Harms on errands with her.

"She told me she was only allowed to eat one cup of uncooked rice a day, one cup of water a day," Bazinet said.

Later, Bazinet heard police talking about Harms and told them she knew where the woman was.

"(Harms) went in my bathroom and shut the bathroom door," Bazinet said. "She sat down in the dark, rolling back and forth, crying hysterically and begging me not to let them take her."

Arguments from the defense, prosecution

Before the judge's decision, attorney Rudy Bautista, who represents Dale Beckering, argued that his client works 12-hour days and had no legal or custodial obligation to Harms. Nor did he believe prosecutors proved the intent or knowledge of abuse, as required by statute.

"The state overcharged (Dale Beckering)," Bautista said, arguing that the man's involvement warranted a misdemeanor charge as opposed to a felony. "The state has not proven he knew or wanted to see (Harms) suffer death or physical injury."

Platt said Harms went to Bazinet in July 2010, within the time frame it is believed the Beckerings were watching Harms because Shepard was overwhelmed.

"There were bruises when (Shepard) wasn't even in the picture," Platt said. "There isn't some magical moment where (Shepard) comes onto the scene and they said, 'We aren't involved anymore.' That is simply not reasonable."

Shepard is charged with murder and aggravated abuse of disabled adult, first-degree felonies, and obstructing justice, a second-degree felony. Her next court appearance is slated for July 11. The couple will have an arraignment on June 20.


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Emiley Morgan


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