VERNAL — A Fort Duchesne man accused of killing an acquaintance in April 2013 and then stealing his car was convicted Friday of murder and theft.
A jury of five men and three women deliberated for about two hours before finding Jesse Anthony Saenz, 24, guilty of murder, a first-degree felony, in the death of 22-year-old Elvis Zachary Olsen. Jurors also convicted him of theft and possession of a firearm by a restricted person, second-degree felonies.
Saenz, whose hands were cuffed for the first time during the five-day jury trial, showed no visible emotion as the verdict was read. Olsen's mother, Denise Olsen, said the jury's decision gave her a sense of "overwhelming relief."
"The stress alone has been so overwhelming, but we've got a great family here and we all helped each other through it," Denise Olsen said outside the courthouse. "We were just so glad that we had the Lord behind us, Elvis behind us and, like I said, the family behind us that we came out with a guilty verdict."
Saenz shot Elvis Olsen on April 21, 2013, and left him dead in a field of tall, yellow grass 100 feet from the home where Saenz's grandfather lived, Uintah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas told jurors during his closing argument Friday.
"Elvis Olsen was shot three times," Thomas said. "Once in the arm at an indeterminate range, through the chest close enough that gunpowder stippling can be seen on his skin and through the face when the muzzle was placed against his face."
Olsen and Saenz met while they were serving time in the Uintah County Jail. Text messages between the men on the day of the shooting show that Olsen agreed to give Saenz a ride to his grandfather's house in Fort Duchesne. Saenz's grandfather was out of town at the time.
Prosecutors presented evidence during the trial that showed a .44 magnum revolver was missing from the grandfather's home when it was searched shortly after Olsen's body was found. The same gun was found when Saenz was arrested the following day in Arizona while driving Olsen's car.
Defense attorney Ryan Holtan, who did not call any witnesses during the trial, countered that the gun had been mishandled by police when it was discovered. It was initially picked up with a McDonald's sack and then held by officers who were not wearing gloves so that photographs could be taken, he said.
"What we got here was 'good enough,'" Holtan said, telling the jury that police never had the gun or the cartridges inside tested for blood evidence or fingerprints.
The defense also raised questions about the decision by investigators to focus on Saenz to the exclusion of other individuals who may have wanted to harm Olsen so early in the case. "They liked who they found, so why look at anybody else?" Holtan said, adding that his client had no motive to kill Olsen.
Thomas acknowledged that even he doesn't know what led to the shooting, but he reminded jurors that the state is not required to prove that a motive existed for a person to be convicted of murder.
At the time of Olsen's death, Saenz was out on bail in an unrelated rape case. He was facing several decades in prison, if convicted. The jury, however, was not allowed to hear that information during the trial.
In August 2013, Saenz pleaded guilty in the rape case, admitting that he followed a Vernal woman off a shuttle bus in the summer of 2012 and brutally attacked her. Judge Clark McClellan imposed a mandatory sentence of 15 years to life in prison for Saenz's guilty plea to aggravated sexual assault, a first-degree felony.
McClellan, who also presided over the murder trial, set sentencing in the murder case for Oct. 22.