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A jury on Tuesday convicted a West Valley City man accused of forcing another man to shoot his best friend on a hilltop near Snowbasin ski resort.
"It was ... a cold-blooded, calculated, intentional, knowing murder, accomplished by that defendant and orchestrated by that defendant," prosecutor Vincent Meister said, pointing to Christopher Leech, 38, who was charged with six first-degree felonies in the death of 34-year old Cleat Knight.
The jury found Leech guilty on all charges: aggravated murder, obstruction of justice and two counts each of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery.
Family of Knight began to cry as 3rd District Judge Randall Skanchy read the verdict against Leech, the accused ringleader in the Nov. 23, 2013 execution-style homicide. "This was the big one," said Carol Knight, Cleat Knight's mother. "We've been waiting almost three years."
The jury returned the verdict after less than three hours of deliberation.
Defense attorneys had said in closing arguments Tuesday that Leech was merely the scapegoat in the murder, arguing that others had far more to lose in the drug dispute that ended with Knight's death.
Attorney Patrick Corum singled out for blame the prosecutors' key witness: Andrew Beck, who testified that Leech shot Knight and then forced Beck at gunpoint to shoot Knight a second time because Knight had disappeared during a drug run for Beck.
Beck said he did not look at Knight, who he described as his best friend, when he pulled the trigger, and did not know the shot had struck Knight in the face.
"He lies. Don't fall for it," defense attorney Patrick Corum said of Beck. "He knows exactly where he shot him. He was looking him right in the eye when he did it."
During the trial, Beck acknowledged that he made numerous false statements to police during the investigation, especially regarding the time during which he said he was kidnapped by drug dealers because Knight had left with Beck's money and rental car and had not returned with the promised drugs.
Beck's ex-girlfriend Tina Soules, who police say arranged the drug deal, also faces charges in the case. Also charged is Theron "T.J." Myore, who is accused of driving the group up to the scene of the shooting.
A jury in April convicted Soules' brother-in-law, 43-year-old Viliamu "Juice" Seumanu, who Beck said led him and Knight to the snowy overlook where Leech ordered both of them to sit and then shot Knight in the back.
"Would any of you really be surprised if there was another major player in the story?" Corum asked the jury. "Chris Leech ... is the only person in this cast of characters that has nothing to do with this transaction. [Knight] steals from T.J. Myore. He steals from Juice Seumanu. More specifically, he steals from Andy Beck."
Meister pointed to witnesses' testimony that Leech was "angry and controlling" as he ordered Beck and Knight to the floor of a Salt Lake County apartment, emptied their pockets and tied their hands before their sweatshirt hoods were pulled over their heads and fastened shut.
"Andy why?" Meister said. "For a car that was returned late, for drugs that were returned late, for phone calls that weren't returned or returned late. ... The customers ... got their dope. But that wasn't good enough for Chris. They had to be taught a lesson. ... It was too late for begging. He was going to show them."
All the while, Meister said, Leech's co-defendants went along with his plan.
That would be out of character, especially for Beck, Corum argued, noting that Beck is a longtime criminal with involvement in the Soldiers of Aryan Culture prison gang.
"[Leech] has such a control over these people that include a SAC general and a gang of drug dealers, that he's able to bend them to his will, and then they sell him out immediately?" Corum said. "Come on. They're not afraid of Chris Leech. [But] it's easy to remember one thing: 'Chris did it.'"
Meister pointed out that multiple eyewitnesses offered the same account of Leech and said their criminal records don't change the heinousness of the crime.
Defense attorneys said prosecutors should have offered more than testimony for instance, some DNA evidence of Leech being at the scene, or reviews of cell phones for communication or deleted messages that corroborated witness accounts.
"If you do not know what the truth is in this case, you cannot convict Chris Leech," Corum said.