EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – An Eagle County jury found Leigha Page Ackerson guilty of murder, burglary, robbery and trespassing charges Friday. She now faces a mandatory life sentence.
Ackerson and her husband, Jacob White, were both charged with the murder of 74-year-old Catherine Kelley in January 2018.
White pleaded guilty to 2nd Degree Murder and burglary months after the crime and was sentenced to 68 years in state prison.
Ackerson, however, fought the charges and went to trial.
“It is the most cold-hearted thing I’ve ever seen,” said Heidi McCollum, Assistant District Attorney for the 5th Judicial District.
McCollum responded to the scene that early January morning. She also led the prosecution team.
In McCollum’s words, Kelley was a single woman living in a large house by herself and who often left during the day. Her immaculate, four-bedroom, more than 4,000 square-foot house was part of the gated Pilgrim Downs community in the forested hills south of Edwards. Kelley, according to McCollum, had overseen construction of the home — built to accommodate a high number of friends and family visiting from out of state — and had only lived in it for seven months.
Ackerson and White were there, in secret, at least a day.
The husband and wife duo broke through a bathroom window and stayed in an adjacent back bedroom of the home. Investigators never fully determined the duration of the couple’s stay, but believed the couple hid out there for at least 24 hours.
“It certainly possible it was longer than a day,” McCollum told CBS4.
Kelley often left the home for the entire day, McCollum said.
“This is when Leigha and her husband had free run of the house.”
They secluded themselves at night when she returned, hoping to never cross paths.
The versions of what happened next differ greatly.
Per McCollum, a cellmate of Ackerson’s testified with one version — that Ackerson and her husband took a frozen chicken out of a freezer with the intent to make a meal of it. They were interrupted when Kelley came home unexpectedly. And then stayed home.
The couple retreated to the back bedroom and instead cooked up a plan that came to a boil the next morning.
“They decided to come out and confront Ms. Kelley,” McCollum said. “This woman was literally standing in the way of them starving to death. They walked out of the bedroom. Ms. Kelley was in the living room.”
The cellmate relayed the following: Ackerson led the way, snatched the cellphone from Kelley’s hand, and told Kelley that God had led she and her husband to this house. Kelley replied that she believed in God as well and, according to the Ackerson’s re-telling of the events to the cellmate, Kelley offered to provide the couple meal.
Kelley walked to the refrigerator in the kitchen. When she opened the refrigerator door and leaned in, Ackerson nodded to White, who then produced a looped cord and strangled Kelley with it.
Kelley’s body was dragged into a shower stall where further injury was added, McCollum explained.
That night, the couple carried some of Kelley’s possessions to the curb and called an Uber. A neighborhood property manager noticed Kelley’s property and the lights left on in the house at a strange hour. He called police after not received an answer at the front door.
Officers found the broken bathroom window and footprints leading away from it. More personnel were called in, and White and Ackerson were found in the snow about 400 yards from the home. They were arrested after treatment at a hospital for exposure.
While on the witness stand, Ackerson offered a stark defense.
“She said she couldn’t make a decision in her husband’s presence,” McCollum told CBS4. She claimed severe abuse at the hands of White, that she only showered when he told her to and sat naked until he let her have a towel to dry off with.
And that she entered Kelley’s living room that January day with the intent to apologize to the homeowner.
“I don’t think they jury bought the story,” McCollum said.
The jury returned a guilty verdict for all charges, including 1st Degree Murder. That’s a higher charge than her husband’s because, as 5th Judicial District Bruce Brown explained, White accepted responsibility for the crime while Ackerson contested the charges.
The trial last four weeks, the longest in the 5th Judicial District since March when COVID-19 protocols were put in place to protect participations. During the trial, in fact, a substitute juror was inserted into the panel of 12 based upon an outgoing juror’s COVID-19 symptoms, the DA’s Office stated.
Ackerson’s cellmate, Heather Sellers, has a long criminal record, McCollum said.
“We don’t choose who our witnesses are.”
McCollum added that Seller’s testimony did not change the terms of her previous 6-year sentence, but Sellers is now out on parole in Florida.
Meanwhile, McCollum takes over as 5th Judicial DA in two months. She recalls the descriptions of Catherine Kelley – an active person who skied, hiked, rode horseback and traveled – and would prefer to never have to prosecute another case like it.
“That’s the real tragedy of this case,” she said, “that an amazing, beautiful woman in my community isn’t here anymore.”