AMERICAN FORK — A Utah man who killed his girlfriend and her toddler and then buried them under a cedar tree in the desert failed to secure a lesser prison sentence Tuesday in exchange for helping police find their remains.
Christopher Poulson had already pleaded guilty to charges including murder when crews uncovered bones belonging to Emily Quijano and her 3-year-old son Gabriel Almiron on Sept. 6.
As part of a plea deal that prosecutors say is unique, the discovery of the mother and child in a shallow grave allowed Poulson to try to withdraw his pleas and admit to reduced charges that would cap his time in prison at 30 years.
But 4th District Judge Robert Lunnen said Tuesday he wouldn’t accept that part of the deal, even though he typically approves agreements between a defendant and the state. He wasn’t swayed by arguments from Poulson’s defense attorney Matthew Morisse, who noted his client gave a full confession and all the information he could to help investigators.
Lunnen said it was difficult for him “to accept a 30-year limit on two very important lives.” Justice is better served, he said, by allowing Utah’s parole board to evaluate Poulson over time and ultimately determine when he is released.
Poulson faces 16 years and up to life in the Utah State Prison when he is sentenced Sept. 26. Last month, he admitted that in 2015 he fatally injured the boy and then panicked and shot Almiron as she slept before she could discover what had happened.
Quijano’s mother supported the deal, Deputy Utah County Attorney Lance Bastian said. Her father, however, did not favor the agreement.
On Sept. 6, a volunteer searcher found the bodies of the mother and son in a shallow grave near Eureka in Juab County, Bastian said. The crew member spotted a tree he believed matched one described by Poulson and found the remains just below the surface.
Investigators were not certain they would ever be found. Poulson led investigators to the stretch of central Utah desert this summer but could not pinpoint their location.
“It was such a huge area. So many little dirt roads, so many trees,” Bastian said. “I got to the point where I didn’t think we were going to find them.”
The Utah State Medical Examiner’s Office issued a preliminary finding identifying the remains as those of the mother and son, finding a bullet casing and shell in Quijano’s skull, Bastian said. The autopsy could not confirm Poulson’s explanation that a head injury caused the boy’s death.
Bastian said he has never seen a conditional agreement like the one his office had offered Poulson.
“There were a lot of aspects of this deal that didn’t necessarily sit well with all of us. But in totality, we decided that we could live with some of those concerns in order to accomplish the result that we were trying to accomplish here, which was to find Emily and Gabe,” he said.
Poulson, of Smithfield, Cache County, admitted last month he had been using methamphetamine and drinking alcohol when he babysat Gabriel on Sept. 8, 2015, and somehow injured the boy. He put the child to bed and later checked on him to find he had died. He lost his nerve to tell Quijano and instead shot her with a handgun while she slept.
He will be sentenced for murder, a first-degree felony, and manslaughter, a second-degree felony. Shackled and in glasses and a red jail uniform, he showed little emotion Tuesday.
He sought to admit to 30 lesser, second-degree felony counts: one each of murder and manslaughter, plus 28 of obstructing justice. Utah law precludes a person from serving more than 30 years in prison if the highest conviction is a second-degree felony.
Quijano’s family members have described her as a happy young mother who loved to spend time with her son, sing and play her Fender Stratocaster. She went by the last name Almiron for a time but returned to using Quijano after her divorce, according to her father, Jesse Quijano.
Authorities have said they did not initially focus their criminal case on Poulson, but became suspicious when they perceived he was lying to them. In October 2017, Poulson was arrested in Hawaii, where prosecutors say he moved after FBI investigators spoke to him about the case.