VERNAL — A Uintah County murder suspect lost his bid Wednesday to have his guilty plea set aside in an unrelated rape case.
Jesse Anthony Saenz did, however, receive a reduced prison term after Judge Clark McClellan ruled that he had improperly sentenced the Fort Duchesne man.
In August, Saenz admitted that he followed a woman off a shuttle bus in the summer of 2012 and attacked her, dragging her into a field where he beat and raped her.
"I knew that I was going to die in that field," the woman told McClellan through tears during a sentencing hearing for Saenz.
"I thought about my kids. My grief for them was overwhelming," the woman said. "They were going to grow up without me, and their mother's body would be found in the bushes."
McClellan imposed a mandatory sentence of 15 years to life in prison for Saenz's guilty plea to one count of aggravated sexual assault. He then tacked on two five-year enhancements based on a pair of sex offenses Saenz committed as a juvenile.
On Wednesday, defense attorney Ryan Holtan argued that state law bars McClellan from using juvenile court adjudications to mete out an enhanced sentence in Saenz's case. He also claimed prosecutors promised to only seek a sentence of 15 years to life during plea negotiations, then notified the judge of the enhancement statute during the sentencing hearing.
"I believe the state breached their plea agreement (by mentioning the enhancement statute), and based on that, the defendant should still be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea," Holtan said.
Uintah County Attorney Mark Thomas countered that he never agreed to recommend a 15-to-life sentence.
"There were discussions of that (during plea negotiations)," the prosecutor said. "However, ultimately, at the sentencing … the state recommended 15 to life.
"The state complied with the plea agreement," he added, before conceding that the enhancement statute should not have been applied in the Saenz case.
"I think that my recommendation to the court to consider those (enhancements) was not proper," Thomas said.
McClellan agreed that he erred when he added 10 years to Saenz's sentence based on his juvenile record, and resentenced him to serve at least 15 years in prison.
The judge declined to rule on Holtan's claim that prosecutors breached the terms of the plea agreement though, and rejected his request to withdraw Saenz's guilty plea.
"I don't see any reason for me to allow the plea to be set aside," McClellan said, noting the mandatory nature of the sentence in the case.
"What ultimately happened here is exactly what would have happened anyway," he said.
Despite the reduced sentence, Saenz's legal woes are far from over.
On April 21 — while out on bail in the sexual assault case — Saenz shot and killed Elvis Zachary Olsen, according to Uintah County sheriff's detectives. The 22-year-old's body was found about 100 feet from the Fort Duchesne home where Saenz's grandfather lived.
Three law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation say Saenz cut his electronic ankle monitor off after the shooting. He was driving Olsen's car when he was arrested the following day by police in Glendale, Ariz.
Saenz is charged with murder, theft and possession of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person in connection with Olsen's death. He also faces one count of forcible sodomy, based on allegations made by one of his female relatives.
Pretrial conferences in the pending cases are set for Dec. 17. Saenz remains in the Uintah County Jail, where he is being held without bail.