Utah teen ordered to stand trial after organist recalls attack in church

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FARMINGTON — The organist had just finished practicing hymns at her Centerville church and began rehearsing her prelude for the next morning's services when she heard tapping and then harder knocking on the door.

It wasn't her responsibility to let visitors in, so she ignored the noise like she usually did. Moments later, she felt an arm wrap around her neck and drag her backward, toppling the bench she was sitting on.

The attacker then gripped the 71-year-old organist's neck so tightly that she dipped in and out of consciousness, she recalled Wednesday in a Farmington courtroom.

“This cannot be happening to me," she recalled thinking.

"There were times I was no longer being choked and it was pleasant and it was lovely, and all of the sudden I was back in the chapel," Margaret Orlando, now 72, testified. "It was like, 'Oh no, the arm is what’s real.'"

Prosecutors say her assailant is a 17-year-old boy whose family lives near the church. The teen cut himself when he hurled a rock through a church window and climbed in, leaving three small drops of blood matching DNA that police lifted from a plastic milk bottle he later tossed one day after lunch, according to police.

After testimony from Orlando and a detective, a judge on Wednesday ordered the 17-year-old to stand trial on each criminal charge he faces: aggravated burglary, a first-degree felony; aggravated assault, a second degree felony; and criminal mischief, a class B misdemeanor.

Second District Juvenile Judge Robert Neill agreed with prosecutors, who argued the evidence shows there were only two people in the church at the time.

While DNA ties his client to the break-in, Joseph Jardine had argued that it does not prove that he carried out the attack.

"It could have been anybody," Jardine said. "We don't know." The teen, whom the Deseret News has chosen not to name at this time, is being held in a juvenile detention facility and did not attend Wednesday's hearing.

Prosecutor Kathi Sjoberg emphasized that a member of the church tasked with making sure the building was secure had finished his rounds shortly after Orlando began practicing. He had locked windows and saw nothing out of place, Sjoberg said.

Orlando was alone in a meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 270 N. 300 East about 9 p.m. on Nov. 17. She had gone to practice earlier in the day, but someone else was there, so she returned later that night to play the organ, she recalled Wednesday.

She couldn't see the person who attacked her, she said, but she managed to scream and turn her head to bite the arm wrapped around her. After a time, the attacker let go of her, and she said she saw someone with a slight frame and wearing a sweatshirt with a hood up leaving the church. She believed the person to be male.

"I couldn't imagine a woman doing that," she said.

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She said she then called her bishop, who lives across the street, and spoke to police, who photographed red marks on her neck and bruising on her face.

Police later found a trash can that had been pulled from a neighboring home to a church window, determining the glass had been shattered with a large rock, Centerville police detective Mark Taggart testified Wednesday.

Early in his investigation, blood found on the windowsill and on a doorknob failed to match anyone in the FBI's national DNA database, so Taggart sent the genetic information to a private lab for DNA analysis, he testified. Genealogists searched for a link on the database GEDmatch, the same technique that led to the 2018 arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, the alleged Golden State Killer.

Genealogists from Parabon Labs identified a relative of the teen who had a nephew who lives near the church and had a 17-year-old son living with him, Taggart said. He asked a school resource officer to keep watch as the boy ate lunch at school one day and tossed his trash, which investigators tested for genetic information. The blood at the church matched the DNA on the milk container, he said.

The judge will next weigh whether the case should remain in the juvenile system or if the 17-year-old should face the charges as an adult. To help him make the decision, Neill heard Wednesday from experts who reviewed the teen's mental health and family history. That testimony was closed to the public.

The hearing is set to continue next month.

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