The courtroom where the sentencing of the man who plead guilty to the murder of Matthew Holt, 46, was so full the judge had some sit in the witness box. Family and friends of Holt were allowed to testify before Third District Court Judge James Blanch announced Jeffrey Ray Shepherd, 35, would spend 15 years to life in the Utah State Prison.
In an emotional display, Blanch had the courtroom, including Shepherd, sit in silence for 20 seconds to show the agony and suffering Holt experienced on the day Shepherd robbed him of his money, then shot him in the head.
For his part, Shepherd apologized to the family and, through his lawyer, explained that a meth addiction was largely to blame.
“The effect of this terrible drug has played the biggest role in what’s happened here,” said defense attorney Heather Chesnut of Salt Lake Legal Defenders.
Holt’s friend of 18 years and owner of the salon he worked at, Megan Oviatt, said he was exceptional.
“There are a lot of good people in the world,” she said. “And an exceptional one was taken from us that day for no reason whatsoever, because of somebody’s bad, selfish choices.”
“Matt was harmless. He weighed 100 pounds, and he was defenseless,” Oviatt said. “Anyone who knew Matt knew all he would have had to do was ask him. He did give him the money. He didn’t need to shoot him. [Shepherd] could have walked away and Matt would still be with us here today.”
“The hardest part — losing Matt is one thing — losing Matt to [being] murdered is a totally different ball game we’re dealing with,” Oviatt testified. “And the hardest part is closing your eyes sometimes and [knowing] that that is how his life ended. For someone who lived his life trying to make others happy — he was kind; he was generous.”
“He never even had so much as having a speeding ticket, never even broke the law,” Oviatt continued. “If there was someone who fought for their life to live, with all of the health problems he had, it was Matthew. It’s just unfair.”
Oviatt had health struggles for much of his life. He spent much of his childhood as a patient at Primary Children’s Medical Center and, later in life, had two kidney transplants and an open-heart procedure — enduring 35 surgeries in all.
Holt’s mother, Maxine Holt, said the murder of her only child is exceptionally difficult as the holiday season approaches, calling the grief the family feels “crushing” and full of “deep pain and sorrow” in a “cruel and senseless act.”
The family put up a Christmas tree with the ornaments Matthew bought over the years, but Maxine couldn’t see the tree without the sorrow of missing her son. They donated the tree to the Festival of Trees “to remember him and help other children,” donating the money raised to Primary Children’s Medical Center.
Shepherd avoided the possibility of the death penalty when he pleaded guilty in October to a reduced charge of first-degree felony murder. He admitted to confronting Holt on Easter afternoon, April 16, robbing him with a gun and demanding money.
Shepherd’s lawyer told the judge that Shepherd was addicted to methamphetamine at the time of the shooting, and said he will work the rest of his life to overcome that addiction.
“I just want to say I’m sorry for my actions and the poor choices I’ve made,” he said. “I’m truly sorry for what happened and all the pain and suffering I’ve caused.”
Prosecutors said Shepherd downloaded a police scanner app on his phone before he drove to the area of Oxbow Park, approached Holt at random and tried to rob him, shooting him in the head at close range. The entire crime took 20 seconds.
“This individual who feared death his entire life, and who beat the odds, had to experience terror and fear for that period of time before his life was taken from him,” the judge told Shepherd, who was shackled in the courtroom. “That was because of your actions.”
Blanch had everyone in the courtroom sit in silence for 20 seconds.
“He had to experience terror and fear for that period of time and that was because of your actions,” he said. “Society deserves to be protected from you.”
Surveillance video of the incident from a nearby business showed Shepherd approach Holt’s car with his hand under his sleeve, which prosecutors said was to keep his fingerprints off Holt’s car. After killing Holt, Shepherd collected the bullet casing, which he later melted down, and ditched the gun in a McDonald’s dumpster. One of the few leads South Salt Lake Police had in the case was the surveillance video showing Shepherd’s Chevy Sonic. An off-duty officer located the car weeks later in Tooele County, where he was arrested and eventually charged with the murder.
Holt’s parents said they appreciated hearing the apology and that they often think and pray for Shepherd’s family, knowing they are experiencing a loss as well.
Judge Blanch also presided over the trial of Craig Crawford, whose lawyer testified he was addicted to methamphetamine at the time he murdered his husband, John Williams, by setting their house on fire. Blanch sentenced Crawford to life without the possibility of parole.
Blanch runs the Alternative Substance Addiction Program, one of the branches of drug court that deals with low-risk offenders that are highly addicted. In its first three years, 54 people completed the course with only three re-arrested.