By the fifth day, Cache Valley had a pit in its gut — a communal ache resulting from the intense and prolonged search for missing 5-year-old Elizabeth “Lizzy” Shelley.
The evidence continued to mount against Lizzy’s uncle, Alexander Whipple, who would later be convicted for the gruesome sexual assault and murder of the child. And theories of what might have happened wormed from ear to ear in our pained and panicked community — on the streets and online.
A spate of tips had police dragging the landfill and sifting through trucks filled with mulch. Dozens of search teams combed backyards, fields and ditches from Logan to Hyrum for any signs of Lizzy. Yet by the fifth day, the stolid Logan City Police Chief Gary Jensen choked up during a press conference where he said the girl had yet to be found.
“I think at some point in time it just needed to stop — the waste of resources and everything needed to stop,” said defense attorney Shannon Demler, who’d met with Whipple, convinced the young man to cooperate with police and put an end to one of the most hellish weeks in Cache Valley history.
On May 29, 2019, less than two hours after charges had been brought against Whipple, Lizzy’s body was located about a quarter mile from her 5th West home in Logan. Demler worked closely with law enforcement and Cache County prosecutors to provide information leading to the body of Lizzy in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table for Whipple.
For his role in the resolution of the case, Demler has been chosen by The Herald Journal as Cache Valley’s 2019 Resident of the Year. The newspaper staff believes the longtime defense attorney’s efforts were the first steps toward healing not just for the community, but for Lizzy’s family as well.
Demler first heard about the case when Whipple had been arrested and taken into custody for several misdemeanor charges seemingly unrelated to the disappearance of Elizabeth Shelley.
Demler said he knew Whipple and his family since Whipple was a small boy and had represented him on several occasions. He went to the Cache County Jail to offer whatever advice he could.
Demler didn’t pry about facts of the case. He wasn’t Whipple’s attorney at the time and didn’t want to push him to the point of becoming standoffish. He told Whipple his rights would be protected and it would be best not to speak to anyone about the case.
“I knew that someone needed to go meet with him,” Demler said, “mainly because I knew him and his family.”
On May 29, with Lizzy still missing, Cache County prosecutors filed new charges against Whipple, including aggravated murder and child kidnapping, among others.
“We knew when we talked that he was never getting out of prison,” Demler said. “It was obvious with what happened he was going to spend his life in prison, but I think anybody wants to preserve their life, and I think he wanted to preserve his.”
Whipple agreed to tell Demler the location of Lizzy’s body. Unfamiliar with the neighborhood, Demler drew a map that he, along with prosecutors and police, would use to find Lizzy.
“At that point in time, there were two people in the whole world that knew where the body was,” Demler said. “Me and him — and that gives you a weird feeling.”
Demler said he worked to convince Whipple that people needed to know what had happened to Lizzy.
“I told him he owed it to his sister that she would know the truth, so she didn’t have to stay up every night wondering if her daughter was going to walk through the door when we both knew that she wasn’t.”
Demler said he discussed the deal with prosecutors, who needed approval from the family to accept. He spent the next hour and a half driving alone, contemplating outcomes and waiting for the state to accept the terms.
“I think it was the best resolution to put it behind people so they can get on with their lives,” Demler said.
Nevertheless, the deal, championed by law enforcement and prosecutors, was not without criticism.
One commenter on The Herald Journal’s Facebook page wrote:
“So he doesn’t get the death penalty because he doesn’t want to die, but a little girl lost her life because of this disgusting pig? How is that justice for her? Kill this (expletive) after he is tortured to death!!!!”
“This world is so evil. How in the world can someone harm a child ?!?! This makes me so angry. This young man should not have an option of avoiding the death penalty.”
Demler understands. He said many of his friends share similar sentiments, but he believed the state recognized the value in the deal. Moreover, Demler questioned whether execution is actually a harsher punishment than life in prison.
“Is it better to be put to death or live in a cell the rest of you life?” he asked.
“The death penalty isn’t really something that’s moving forward in our society,” Demler added. “I think, if anything, it’s going away.”
On Sept. 24, Demler awaited Whipple’s sentencing in 1st District Court. He stood straight with a friendly yet funereal smile and approached a man sitting near the edge of the gallery.
“I feel like Custer,” Demler said.
During the hearing, the court listened to harrowing case details and censures from family members. Whipple was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder, kidnapping and sexual assault of his niece.
“That’s what you feel like a lot of times,” Demler said about working as a public defender. “There’s not a lot of people on your side sometimes, but I hope they understand that you’re doing your job — you protect a person’s due process rights and do the best you can for them even though they’ve done bad things.”
Demler said he hopes people understand there are rights, guarantees of due process and protections under the law that our system provides to everyone — even a person in Whipple’s position.
According to Demler, the deal has even sparked conversation among academics, who have called to discuss how fast to move forward in similar cases. Demler said he had to act fast to do something good for his client, the family and the community.
“The window of opportunity was from when I was sitting with him (Whipple) until they found the body,” Demler said. “Whatever window that was.”
Demler said the case has affected many people in the community — some of whom have gone out of their way to speak with him about it. Though he doesn’t know the full extent, he knows these cases take their emotional toll.
“The thing that bothers me more, I guess, than it affecting me is if it doesn’t affect me,” Demler said. “I’ve been doing it for 29 years. You get so calloused to bad things, calloused to situations. One, because of all the ones you’ve handled. But two, you have to or you couldn’t keep doing the job.”
Demler said he tries to have a “bathtub memory” — you pull the plug when you go home at night and let the memory drain. Demler said a lot of cases result in lost sleep, the Whipple case being one of them. He couldn’t wrap his head around how someone he could sit and speak with normally could do such a crime.
“I think he’s a very confused person,” Demler said. “Very confused emotionally, mentally. Obviously, there was no reason to do what he did in this case — no justification for it — I don’t know what’s inside of him that would make him do something like this.”
Demler said the majority of people are law abiding and go out of their way to protect children — one incident doesn’t define our entire community.
“It’s hard to sympathize with a guy like Mr. Whipple,” Demler said. “Common sense tells you something like this can’t happen, but it did.”