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'Throw away the key,' wife of Utah shooting victim tells judge

Published February 21, 2014 8:01 am

Her son-in-law, who shot her husband at church, gets prison.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ogden • James Evans doesn't remember exactly what caused him to turn his head during a Father's Day church service last year. But he knows that whatever it was, it saved his life.

Moments before, his son-in-law, Charles Jennings Jr., had walked into the St. James the Just Catholic Church, hand-in-hand with Evans' daughter. At the exact moment Evans turned his head, Jennings pulled out a silver handgun and fired one shot.

But instead of hitting the father-in-law in the base of his skull as intended, the bullet went through Evans' right ear and exited through his cheek — causing neither death nor brain damage.

On Thursday, Evans — mostly healed from the gunshot wound — stood before 2nd District Judge W. Brent West and asked him to punish Jennings harshly for the June 16 crime.

"I ask that you sentence him to the maximum prison time the law allows," Evans said, an audible slur still apparent due to gunshot damage to his teeth and tongue.

Tara Evans told West that after Jennings shot her husband, her son-in-law turned and pointed the gun at her chest. If it weren't for a number of unarmed parishioners who rushed toward the shooter, she said she felt he would have tried to kill her too.

"He needs to be locked up and throw away the key," Tara Evans told the judge.

Jennings, 36, pleaded guilty — but mentally ill — to attempted murder and two counts of aggravated burglary, all first-degree felonies, along with a misdemeanor possession of firearms charge.

On Thursday, West sentenced Jennings to prison for four years to life for the attempted murder count, six years to life for each burglary count, and one year in jail for the firearms charge. But the judge gave Jennings a break by ordering the sentences to run concurrently, rather than consecutively.

The mentally ill plea gave West the option of sending Jennings to the state hospital for additional treatment before the defendant went to prison, but West sent the defendant straight to prison.

"This was a horrendous act," Judge West told Jennings. "You shook the foundation of our entire community."

Jennings did not speak in court on Thursday. His attorney, Michael Bouwhuis, said Thursday that while his client was found competent for trial, he definitely is mentally ill. The attorney said that doctors believe Jennings has auditory hallucinations and a psychotic disorder.

"He was mad and the voices influenced him to shoot the victim," Bouwhuis said, adding that the claim is not a "cooked up scheme" to get a plea deal.

Prosecutors said Jennings' long-term drug abuse has contributed to his mental illness.

"I think he put himself into this position by using methamphetamine," Deputy Weber County Attorney Dean Saunders said outside of court.

After the shooting, Jennings fled the church, located at 495 N. Harrison Blvd, and went to a nearby neighborhood, where he allegedly stole a truck from a resident at gunpoint, according to charging documents.

He was found several hours later walking along Interstate 84 in Box Elder County after the truck ran out of gas. Officers say he was trying to flee to Idaho.

Tara Evans said her daughter told her that Jennings came to shoot them on that June day because the daughter was "coming to look at vacation photos after Mass." She said Jennings was abusive and possessive of her daughter.

"Jim and I were to be killed execution-style," Tara Evans said. "The taking of innocent lives because he was mad at his wife."

After the sentencing, the Evanses said they felt the sentence was fair.

"I pray for his soul, but I think he needs to be kept in jail for as long as he is dangerous to society," James Evans said. "And I think that will be his whole life."

Rev. Erik Richtsteig said he felt the sentence will help his parishioners heal. He has said that many of them have received counseling to help them overcome the traumatic events that unfolded in front of them.

"I wish there had been some part of the law that punished him for the desecration of the church," Richtsteig said after the sentencing.

jmiller@sltrib.com