OGDEN — An apologetic Dea Millerberg will serve up to five years in prison for her involvement in the death of 16-year-old Alexis Rasmussen, despite the changes she has made in her life since the drug-related incident in 2011.
It was a harsher sentencing than prosecutors or the defense had anticipated, given that Dea Millerberg, 41, had cooperated in testifying against her husband, Eric Millerberg, a known gang member and drug dealer now serving life in prison.
"I have to balance society's need for punishment and the need for rehabilitation," said 2nd District Judge W. Brent West.
He said he couldn't value Millerberg's need to be with her own children more than the fact that Alexis doesn't get to be with her mother.
"They say addiction is a victimless crime, but this is a case where there was a real-live victim that arose out of the selfishness of Mrs. Millerberg and Mr. Millerberg as they indulged in their drugs," West said, adding that Dea Millerberg's choices to do drugs, get involved with Eric Millerberg and others caused her to "lose all her common sense."
"She was not in a position to save or help Alexis when she needed her the most," West said.
Alexis had been the Millerbergs' baby sitter but had gone to them multiple times with a friend for illicit drugs and sex. Eric Millerberg taught Alexis how to inject methamphetamine and a lethal dose of that, as well as heroin, was found in her body when it was recovered after 38 days of searching for the missing girl.
While a medical examiner didn't rule the death as a homicide, it was clear she died on Sept. 10, 2011, from a drug overdose.
Alexis' mother, Dawn Miera, said she would never treat someone's daughter the way Dea Millerberg had treated hers.
"As a parent, your job is to protect your children and I failed," she said. "I do know Lexi was trying to find herself, and she found Dea."
Miera said she hoped her former friend could "step up and give her kids the mother that they deserve." She didn't say how she felt about prison time for Dea Millerberg.
"I don't know how much she cares, how much she thinks about it," Miera said. "I don't know if she has learned her lesson."
But Miera did say she was grateful that Millerberg had helped to "get someone very bad off the streets."
Weber County Attorney Dee Smith said prosecutors couldn't have convicted Eric Millerberg without the testimony from his wife, who proved to be a credible witness as well as a participant in the crimes.
"He was the one who was most responsible. He's the one with the violent criminal history. He was the one that injected Alexis with that methamphetamine," Smith said.
Dea Millerberg pleaded guilty in June to three third-degree felonies, including obtaining a prescription illegally, obstructing justice, and abuse or desecration of a human body. Prosecutors had offered her "use immunity," meaning what she testified to wouldn't be used against her in her own trial.
Defense attorney Michael Bouwhuis outlined the life Dea Millerberg lived, beginning with a botched childhood, dysfunctional mother, accidental pregnancies and failed marriages. In spite of that, he said, she completed school, bought a house and worked as a nurse.
"Despite this cyclical pattern of being sober and getting back into drugs, she's still able to maintain some regularity," Bouwhuis said of his client, adding that she was also a victim of Eric Millerberg's violent and destructive behaviors.
"These are not excuses, it just helps to explain how we got to this point," Bouwhuis said. "This is a situation where you would hope other people would pay attention and recognize the extreme dangers when people use drugs."
He said Millerberg has remained drug-free since her arrest three years ago, has obtained a mental health evaluation and attended various counseling sessions. She is working, though not as a nurse, has procured full custody of her children and is living in Pinedale, Wyoming, with her aunt and children.
Peggy Noble, Dea Millerberg's aunt who raised her as a child, told the court she is proud of her "daughter" for coming as far as she has since the despicable acts. She said the children have become "able to be children again" after so much uprooting and turmoil in their lives.
Noble begged the judge not to send her to prison and allow the family to nourish the normalcy they've found. She said Eric Millerberg's family may seek to take custody of his two girls.
"I am appalled and disgusted by what I've done," a very emotional Dea Millerberg told the judge, while facing Dawn Miera, tears running down both their faces. "I've hurt your family in a way I can't fix. You're in my prayers and I hope you'll be able to forgive me and that God will bring you peace."
Millerberg accepted responsibility for her actions but nearly broke down as the sentence was read, crying uncontrollably as she was escorted from the courtroom. She was extremely emotional throughout the court appearance, often wailing and rocking back and forth in her chair. Bouwhuis claimed it was evident she is sorry.
"She is not washing her hands of it, and we are not saying she had no role in this," he said. Prison time, however, Bouwhuis said, "is not necessary."
Without giving a sentencing recommendation, Smith laid out many "troubling circumstances" surrounding the case, the lengthy search for a missing Alexis, the impending investigation and the emotional aspects of it all.
"This type of thing makes you hug your kids at night and encourage them to make good decisions through their lives," he said.
West initially said he'd favor a sentence of up to 10 years for Dea Millerberg, but ultimately ordered her to serve three concurrent terms of zero to five years at the Utah State Prison — a reward for cooperating with police and prosecutors.
"I know you have needs. I know you have children. I know you have families, but sometimes you do such acts that are so extreme, so heinous and depraved — burying this girl's body and hiding it from the police. You have to balance that. You have to put it into perspective," the judge said.
Eric Millerberg, 38, was convicted in March of child-abuse homicide, obstructing justice, desecrating a human body and having unlawful sexual activity with Alexis. A judge ordered him to spend a term of at least six years and up to life in prison.
He has filed an appeal to his conviction, which Smith said could take up to two years to resolve.