Police say they found what they believe to be the body of Elizabeth Shelley early Wednesday afternoon, less than two hours after they announced that her uncle, Alexander Whipple, was charged in connection with her death.
According to Logan City Police Chief Gary Jensen, defense attorney Shannon Demler worked closely with the Cache County Attorney’s Office, which agreed to take the death penalty off the table in exchange for information leading to the location of Elizabeth’s body.
The Cache County Attorney’s Office filed charges in 1st District Court including aggravated murder, a capital offense; child kidnapping, a first-degree felony; abuse or desecration of a human body, a third-degree felony; and two counts of obstruction of justice.
Jensen was visibly emotional when he announced the filing of those charges during a press conference Wednesday morning and provided some context to the charges filed, particularly the desecration of a body.
According to Utah State Code, "a person is guilty of abuse or desecration of a dead human body if the person intentionally and unlawfully … disturbs, moves, conceals, or destroys a dead human body or any part of it.”
Even though Elizabeth’s body had not been located when the charges were filed, Jensen said there was significant evidence to believe Whipple was responsible for her death.
Whipple and 5-year-old Elizabeth were reported missing early Saturday when the child’s mother woke up and found the front door of her home wide open. Whipple was located southeast of Hyrum later that day and arrested on new charges and outstanding warrants.
While he was being questioned by police, searchers were combing the neighborhood looking for Elizabeth.
According to a probable cause statement, they didn’t find her body at that time, but they found numerous pieces of evidence tying Whipple to her disappearance, including Elizabeth’s blood found on a household knife, Elizabeth’s blood on Alexander himself, and Alexander’s partial right palm print found in the red substance on a PVC pipe.
Jensen, who referenced the probable cause statement during a press conference Wednesday morning, described the knife as one that matches a set of kitchen knives in the home, with one knife missing. The knife was broken, indicative of “traumatic use,” he said.
The knife was reportedly found in the northwest corner of the Bear River Charter School parking lot at 75 S. 400 West; Elizabeth's skirt was found nearby.
“Approximately 50 yards due west, investigators located a teal skirt with white lace that appeared to have been hastily buried under some dirt and bark … the skirt has stains on it that are consistent with blood,” according to the probable cause statement. “Near the skirt was a small concrete block with blood on it.”
Jensen said investigators created a DNA profile for Elizabeth, and rapid DNA testing on all of these items was a positive match.
Additional evidence leading to the filing of criminal charges came from Whipple himself.
According to the probable cause statement, investigators obtained a search warrant and collected DNA from Whipple, along with his shoes, his clothing and his watch. DNA on his watch and a hooded sweatshirt were also a positive match to Elizabeth.
The probable cause statement also sheds some light on the circumstances leading up to Elizabeth’s disappearance and reveals some of Whipple’s earliest statements to police.
Whipple’s sister — Elizabeth’s mother — apparently put her children to bed at about 9 p.m. Friday night and then invited her brother to the home she shares with her boyfriend. Whipple arrived between 10 and 10:30 p.m.
She told police that she, her boyfriend and Whipple were drinking and playing video games. She went to bed around midnight, after telling Whipple he could sleep on the couch. When she went to her room, she observed her daughter asleep in her bed. That is the last time either she or her boyfriend saw the child.
The boyfriend said when he went to bed, soon after Elizabeth’s mother, Whipple looked like he was going to pass out, according to the probable cause statement.
When Whipple was in custody following his arrest on Saturday, he denied visiting his sister’s home the night before, changing his story multiple times until he finally admitted he had been there, but he said he left shortly before sunrise to walk to Hyrum and “enjoy the scenery,” according to police.
Whipple allegedly talked a lot about the evil of the world and his struggles as a child.
“At times, Alexander would state that alcohol makes him 'black out' and sometimes he does ‘criminal things’ when he blacks out. Alexander would not elaborate on what these 'criminal things' were,” according to the probable cause statement.
Demler said he did not feel that alcohol was involved in Elizabeth’s death, but he did believe there was cause to pursue a mental health evaluation as Whipple’s case moves forward.
Whipple is expected to appear in court, along with Demler, on Monday.
The recovery of Elizabeth’s body may provide much-needed closure not only for her family, but for the hundreds of personnel who were deeply involved in the investigation and the five-day effort to find her.
Jill Parker, a victim's advocate from the Cache County Attorney's Office and a spokesperson for Elizabeth’s mother, read a formal statement on behalf of the family.
“There are not words to express the sadness and heartbreak we feel today. This did not end the way we wanted it to. But in this sadness we are comforted that so many people put forth so much effort to help us find Lizzy. You made the difference and we are so very thankful.
"We would never have expected this outpouring of help and support, we could not have gone through this by ourselves. We were able to feel the love of so many people most who we never met. You all didn’t stop, we have never seen so many people trying so hard and it was beautiful.”
A donation account has been set up for the family at Zions Bank under the name of "Elizabeth Shelley Donation."
Parker said this is currently the only family-authorized account.
The Logan City Police Department shared a statement on its Facebook page on Wednesday:
"The hearts of all law enforcement involved in this search are heavy with the unfolding of today's events. Thank you to this community, our partners and everyone who has assisted and supported us in this difficult investigation.