Detective Brian Taylor and prosecutor Donna Kelly at the scene of the Provo rape, one of their most brutal cases.
“A frugal criminal”
Though it is Utah’s second-largest city, Provo, the home of Brigham Young University with its fame as the nation’s “No. 1 stone-cold sober campus,” manages to remain an overgrown small town. The young woman lived in a well-kept sprawling apartment complex just north of downtown along with hundreds of other students attending BYU and the nearly as straitlaced Utah Valley University.
On the morning of June 9, 2010, Shawn Michael Leonard, a 34-year-old Utah County Jail inmate, began his second day in a work release program at a business in nearby Lindon. Leonard, a handsome and powerfully built man who prosecutors say could be “charming,” had been sentenced to prison six times for theft and drug possession. But he qualified for the minimal-security work program because he hadn’t been convicted of a violent crime.
“He didn’t have a violent record,” says former Utah County prosecutor Donna Kelly. “But he was very violent. We just didn’t know it. He was a meth user, and I have no doubt he suffered brain damage.”
When the work release supervisors took attendance at lunch, “Leonard had walked away,” says Kelly. “Escaped.”
He made it the seven miles from Lindon to the freshman’s apartment complex, and along the way he found the thick bootlace he would use in the attack and put it in his pocket.
After the rape, as Leonard left his unconscious victim, he inexplicably pocketed the bootlace.
“What can I say?” muses Kelly. “He was a frugal criminal.”
It was the first of the mistakes that would lead to his conviction. The second came when Leonard washed the coed’s blood from his hands in the river and noticed his jail identification bracelet. He cut it off and threw it into the fast-moving Provo River, where it lodged against a rock. “He figured it was on its way to Utah Lake. I wish every criminal would leave his ID at the scene,” says Detective Brian Taylor, who became deeply involved in the case.
Leonard made his way three miles to The Shops at Riverwoods, where less than two hours later, he robbed a children’s clothing store clerk at knife point, forced her into a storage room and bound her hands with the same bootlace.
She too struggled fiercely to loosen the lace, rubbing her skin tissue into it. Then Leonard fled in the clerk’s car with her credit card and some cash from the till.
At about 6:30 p.m., the freshman, blinded by the blood covering her face, crawled out of the bushes and onto the trail where walkers found her. Barely able to breath through her crushed throat, she mumbled through blood and broken teeth, “Please help me. I’ve been raped.”
A struggle for life and justice
When she arrived at the emergency room, her throat had swollen closed and doctors were not sure she would survive. Describing her shattered face in court later, the ER doctor wept.
Yet the freshman was desperate to describe her assailant. Taylor recalls the slender teen’s determination in the ER to identify her attacker, even though the damage to her throat from the bootlace and her broken jaw made it impossible for her to utter words.
“She had enormous fortitude and dignity,” he says. “She answered my questions in sign language. She told me a lot about her attacker despite being horribly injured.”
Terror in Happy Valley
Word quickly spread. A brutal attack and rape on a jogging trail in broad daylight in one of Provo’s quiet neighborhoods stunned the city and surrounding Utah County, nicknamed “Happy Valley.” Within hours, the shock wave had reached the small world of Cedar City, where the freshman was well known and loved. “It was a grievous crime, and it set the community on edge with the idea that there was a violent rapist at large,” says Kelly.
As soon as investigators finished with the crime scene, the owners of the apartment complex bulldozed the bushes along the riverside trail and posted signs reading, “Warning: Rapist at Large.”
Kelly, who is now a Utah assistant attorney general, recalls, “The crime pulled the rug out from under a lot of people. It was a very safe part of Provo. He attacked her in the middle of the afternoon. It was shocking and made people realize, ‘It could happen to me.’”
Kelly remembers the attack as among the most heinous she has seen in a 22-year career prosecuting sex crimes. “To beat someone’s face with a cinder block—that’s very intimate violence.”
Catching the rapist became the highest priority of regional law enforcement. With backlogs of up to a year at the state’s DNA lab, the mayor of Provo released money to pay for DNA testing at Sorenson Forensics, a private lab that offers a 60-day turnaround.