Sunday , April 02, 2017 - 5:00 AM4 comments
OGDEN — James Evans was the one shot in the back of the head, teeth blown out, tongue shredded, his blood pouring onto the church pews.
But he says his wife, who saw and heard it happen, and the children in the congregation who ran screaming from the shooting, suffered lasting damage that couldn’t be fixed by the surgeons who saved Evans’ life.
Maybe now their healing may hasten.
Charles Richard Jennings Jr., who shot his father-in-law at St. James the Just Catholic Church on June 16, 2013, recently begged parole commissioners to release him from the Utah State Prison in Draper, where he’s serving a sentence of up to life for attempted murder.
But the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole decided Monday, March 27, that Jennings, 39, will spend at least 21 more years behind bars before he receives another parole hearing.
“I do believe you are sorry for it,” senior hearing officer Curtis Garner told Jennings at his March 23 parole hearing. “But it is a horrible crime and there is going to be a horrible price that has to be paid.”
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In an interview Thursday, March 30, Evans said he and his wife, Tara, are happy and relieved about the setting of the far-off next hearing date, June 2038.
“I’ll be 90 then,” Evans said, ”so I probably won’t be at that parole hearing.”
Evans, 69, is especially happy for Tara.
“She’s been dancing around the house for most of the rest of the day when we found out, knowing we wouldn’t have to worry about him getting out for a long time,” he said.
In her testimony to the parole board, Tara Evans, 60, said if Jennings went free, “he will no longer be in prison but the rest of us will. He will come to shoot us again, he will come to shoot whomever does not meet his demands.”
James Evans added, “I personally think that’s rather unlikely, but you never know. It’s just a fact that he’s a danger to society — anyone who makes him mad.”
The couple had been urging their daughter, Cheryl, to leave Jennings because he had beaten her and was controlling.
“We had talked to our daughter that morning, and she asked if we could come pick her up after church for a Father’s Day visit,” James Evans said. “That was the trigger. He had ordered her not to come to our house and he thought I had disrespected him by agreeing to pick her up.
“He brought her to the church so she could watch him execute both of her parents because she had disrespected him.”
Tara saw Jennings approaching.
“I didn’t even know he was in the room, so I just got shot and then I had to deal with the physical problems afterward,” James Evans said. “She saw him walk up behind me; she watched him pull the gun out and 12 inches from the back of my head, he shot me, and it’s still in her memory. She’s still dealing with the thought that her husband was dead, and what would follow.
“Then he pointed the pistol at her, and she expected him to shoot her. She was looking him in the face, seeing that gun pointed at her.”
But then several parishioners charged Jennings and he ran out of the church, as James Evans lay critically injured.
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At the parole hearing, Tara Evans spoke in a strong voice.
She said Jennings wanted to show “the wife he was beating up every day the consequences of disobeying his orders.”
“It was a trauma for those who had to hear the shooting, the screaming, and then see the blood, bone and teeth gushing out of my husband, when all they intended to do that day was to worship God,” she said. “This does tear at the fabric of our community, when one no longer feels safe even going to one’s church.”
She lamented the “imprinting of evil on innocent minds.” The church was packed with kids for the Father’s Day service.
Tara and James Evans both lauded several military men in the congregation who chased Jennings outside, crediting them with preventing further bloodshed.
Hearing voices, sensing hypnotism
Jennings blamed everything on his methamphetamine addiction.
“I had been up on meth for seven days,” he told Garner, according to an audio recording of the hearing. “I would sleep for one or two hours, then I would stay up again. I was seriously out of my mind at the time. I was hallucinating and hearing voices. I was thinking he (Evans) was hypnotizing me for some reason.”
After shooting Evans, Jennings ran into a neighboring house and tried to rob a woman — naked, having just stepped out of the shower — of her car keys. He ran to another house and stole a truck at gunpoint. He drove toward Idaho, but ran out of gas and called police to turn himself in.
“Looking back, I can’t really understand it myself,” Jennings said. “I don’t think like that when I’m sober. I don’t have any explanation or justification.
“I’d been doing meth my whole life,” he said. “I’m a good person. I’m not a monster. I just had a terrible problem with meth and drugs, you know, and I made a terrible mistake and I really am sorry for it.”
In a prepared statement to the board, Jennings said, “I beg you to allow me the chance to show you the person I am clean and sober. I am eager to be released so I can work and pay restitution to Jim and also pay child support. I have a job waiting when I get out.”
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Cheryl Jennings, now 34, said in a letter to the board that her husband beat her regularly, threatened to kill her, threatened to burn her with gasoline and raped her several times.
“Those things are not true,” Jennings said.
But Garner quoted a court record that said Jennings admitted he had “beaten her more times than you could count.”
“So you did beat her,” Garner asked.
“Yes. there were times I thought she was cheating when she wasn’t,” Jennings said.
James Evans said Cheryl divorced Jennings after the shooting and is doing well now. She and Jennings have a 7-year-old son.
“She’s pretty much over the trauma of it, but she didn’t go to the hearing because she didn’t want to have to look at him again and have him look at her,” James Evans said. “She wants him out of her life.”
Parishioners still traumatized
Garner asked Jennings if he had threatened to kill his wife’s parents before.
“Never,” he said. “If I had threatened to kill them before, wouldn’t there be police reports? I’ve never threatened them. I think they just find it hard to believe that meth can cause something so terrible.”
Asked about his tattoo, which shows a person with a slit throat and the number 187 beneath (a California police code for homicide), Jennings said, “I was drunk as a skunk when I got that. It’s just a stupid tattoo.”
Garner said the board has received letters from a large group of friends and fellow parishioners of the Evans family, describing the trauma they have suffered.
“Apparently, a lot of them have been unable to go back to church,” he said.
The Rev. Erik Richtsteig, St. James’s pastor, sent a letter urging the board not to release Jennings and “described the extreme trauma that this inflicted on his congregation,” Garner said.
The hearing officer said Jennings’ mother and sister submitted letters of support for him. Jennings’ family members also attended the hearing. Board rules prohibit supporters of an inmate from testifying at parole hearings.
Garner noted prison officials had written up Jennings for possessing homemade alcohol and having an unprescribed narcotic painkiller, Tramadol, show up in a urine test.
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James Evans said Jennings made several contradictory statements, and the hearing officer caught them.
“He apologized profusely, but for every apology, he said the drugs made him do it,” Evans said. “That was what did him in. He obviously hasn’t accepted responsibility.”
Evans, who endured several surgeries and has a slight speech impediment from the shooting, was asked Thursday if he still goes to church.
“Every Sunday,” he said. “I was back in that church two weeks after it happened. I had an oxygen tank and a feeding tube and bandages on my head. There were so many kids in that church, because it was Father’s Day. A lot of those kids are still afraid to come to church because of that. I thought I had to get right back to church to show that evil hadn’t won that day. I had to show them I was going on with life.”
You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.
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