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KEMMERER, Wyo. — On May 17, 2016, the family of Kay Ricks received a phone call saying the body of their loved one had been found under sagebrush in a remote area of Wyoming off a dirty road.
Exactly one year later, the Ricks family offered forgiveness to one of the men responsible for his death.
“We forgive you so that we may move forward,” Lori Ricks, Kay’s wife, wrote in a letter submitted to the court.
Judge Joseph Bluemel on Wednesday accepted a plea deal worked out by prosecutors and the attorney for Dereck James “DJ” Harrison, and sentenced Harrison to life without the possibility of parole.
“The important thing is this separates you from society,” Bluemel told Harrison as he was sentenced.
Harrison, 23, pleaded guilty last month to kidnapping and killing Utah Transit Authority employee Kay Ricks, 63, and dumping his body in Wyoming. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty.
Wednesday's sentencing brought an end to a violent series of events committed by Harrison and his father, Flint Wayne Harrison, 51, that began May 10, 2016, when the father and son invited a woman and her daughters — ages 13, 15, 17 and 18 — to a Centerville house under the guise of having a barbecue. Once there, the Harrisons attacked the women and tied them up. The girls fought back, and the younger ones broke free and ran for help.
While on the run, the Harrisons took a UTA truck and kidnapped the driver, Ricks, at UTA's Ballpark Station, 180 W. 1300 South.
The three drove toward Pinedale, Wyoming, where Flint Harrison owned a house. But about 16 miles outside of Kemmerer, in a rural area off state Route 189, the Harrisons pulled off the road. DJ Harrison said in court in April that the plan was to let Ricks go at that point.
But "when I turned around, my father was cutting his throat," DJ Harrison said.
Flint Harrison then grabbed a metal bar from the back of the UTA truck and smashed Ricks' head four or five times, his son said. Prosecutors say the brutal attack lasted 18 minutes.
A five-day manhunt for the Harrisons ended when both were arrested in the Half Moon Lake area near Pinedale. DJ Harrison said when he awoke to the sounds of a police helicopter overhead, he walked down to the main road knowing that he would be found and was arrested.
DJ Harrison pleaded guilty in April to killing Ricks during the commission of a kidnapping, and to a second charge of confining him for the purpose of taking his truck. He also pleaded guilty in the Centerville case to five counts of aggravated kidnapping, a first-degree felony. In exchange, prosecutors dismissed 11 other assault, weapons and drug charges.
Flint Harrison committed suicide July 25 while incarcerated at the Davis County Jail.
The Ricks family did not attend DJ Harrison’s sentencing Wednesday in Kemmerer. Family spokesman Richard Massey said it was still “too difficult” for the family, who has not attended any of the hearings, to be there. Instead, they wrote letters that Massey read in court.
In their letters, the family thanked DJ Harrison for accepting a plea deal and not forcing the family to relive Ricks' death in court during a potentially long trial. But in forgiving Harrison, Lori Ricks said she did not condone his actions.
Addressing DJ Harrison directly in her letter, Lori Ricks told him that he "chose" to do the things he did, that he was responsible for his own actions, and that they couldn’t be blamed on his father or drugs.
Ricks' Family did not attend sentencing. But submitted letters to the court offering forgiveness to Harrison.— DNews Crime Team (@DNewsCrimeTeam) May 17, 2017
“You could have stopped these horrible acts at any point, but you did not,” Lori Ricks’ letter stated. “You and only you are responsible for your own actions.”
The family also stated in their letters that because of their faith and the belief that families will be reunited in the afterlife, they will be fine.
“We chose to choose to be a strong family, to be together as Kay would have wanted,” Lori Ricks’ letter stated.
Ricks' family said because they have forgiven Harrison, they will neither speak or think of him again after Wednesday and will move on with their lives.
Massey also addressed Harrison after reading the family’s letters and encouraged him to repent while in prison, saying that in the afterlife, everyone will see each other again, including DJ and Flint Harrison, Kay Ricks and the Ricks family.
“DJ, you are our brother. We will see you in the eternities. We want that to meeting to be sweet,” Massey said.
Outside the courthouse, Massey talked about the family's decision to forgive Harrison.
"The family has felt that it’s best that they soften their hearts, that DJ soften his heart, that everyone can move on through their lives in a peaceful and serving manner wherever they may be,” he said.
Harrison said he originally intended to address the court, but after listening to Massey speak, he informed his attorney his could no longer do it and had his attorney, Ed Wall, read his prepared statement instead.
In the letter, Harrison said he could not believe this is where his life has taken him. He said he felt remorse and pain for what happened, and “regrets it deeply.”
“He’s just absolutely remorseful he made those choices,” Wall said.
Harrison thanked the Ricks family for allowing him to be given the choice of life. He also wanted them to know that Kay Ricks was brave, strong and courageous throughout the ordeal and never once broke down.
After the hearing, Massey said that was something he had heard before by reading Harrison’s statement to the court. He said Harrison described Ricks as acting “like a boss” during his kidnapping and killing.
“It was heartening to know he would give Kay such credit. He said that Kay didn’t plead for his life, he didn’t cry, didn’t scream out for help, that he laid there and just took it,” Massey said.
When giving his reasons for accepting the plea bargain, the judge said there had already “been enough drama in this matter” and that the court didn’t need to add to the Ricks family’s anguish by drawing it out anymore. He also acknowledged the family’s forgiveness of Harrison.
“That is more valuable than anything this court can say or sentence it can impose,” Bluemel said.
But the judge also noted that when Harrison recounted what happened in April, he watched his body language and the fact that he teared up while telling the court what happened, and that his emotions seemed sincere.
Massey said after the hearing that he was pleased to hear that.
“None of us were able to see DJ’s face in April when he was answering the questions … and the judge noted that there were tears in his eyes, (and that) touched me," he said. "It helped me to know that he really was remorseful and his plan was not that this should happen. I’m glad that the judge made those statements because it softened my heart a bit.”
For the murder conviction, Harrison was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He was sentenced to 20 years for the kidnapping conviction, and the judge ordered that sentence to run consecutive to the murder sentence, meaning the clock won’t start ticking on one until the other is served.
In addition, Bluemel ordered those sentences to run consecutive to Harrison’s Utah sentence, which he will serve first.