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Jury finds Joshua Binkerd guilty of manslaughter in Jordanelle case

Published: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 7:55 p.m. MDT

HEBER CITY — A Taylorsville man accused of ordering the death of a woman was found guilty of manslaughter by a jury Wednesday.

Joshua Binkerd, 23, had been charged with aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, in the 2008 murder of Ashley Sparks at the Jordanelle State Park. Manslaughter is a second-degree felony. With enhancements for weapons violations, Binkerd faces two to 20 years in prison.

Relatives of both Binkerd and Sparks sobbed as the verdict was announced after six hours of deliberation. The victim's mother, Pam Larsen, clutched a teddy bear that her daughter received while hospitalized with food poisoning the day after her first Christmas.

Twenty-one years later to the day, Sparks was gunned down by Christopher Alvey, now 21, who testified he had orders from Binkerd to kill her to prevent her from snitching on their drug-selling and check-forging activities.

Alvey pleaded guilty last year to aggravated murder and was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.

Larsen said she was glad the trial was over.

"(Ashley) got her justice, that's how I feel about it," Larsen said. "I would have preferred the higher charge. He deserved it. But no more people will be hurt, and that's the ultimate goal today."

Wasatch County Attorney Scott Sweat, the lead prosecutor, said, "It wasn't the verdict we were seeking, (but) we understand the jury's verdict."

Defense attorney Edward Jones told the jury Wednesday in his closing argument that Alvey and other witnesses were unreliable.

"How is (Alvey) biased? Let me count the ways," Jones said.

He said Alvey feared retaliation if he implicated gang members other than Binkerd, and that he also feared losing his plea deal if he did not "throw Josh Binkerd under the bus."

But Sweat said Binkerd had "primed" Alvey to kill Sparks.

"Josh Binkerd loaded Chris Alvey like you would load a gun," Sweat said, arguing that the two men are "equally guilty."

After the verdict, Binkerd's mother, Tina Binkerd, said she was "really disappointed in the justice system," but she praised Jones as an "incredible attorney" for helping her son beat the aggravated murder charge.

"It absolutely could have been worse," she said. "I think Ed Jones saved my son's butt."

Tina Binkerd criticized the investigation, saying she believed authorities decided her son was guilty before all the evidence was in.

"Josh was a victim of Chris Alvey just like Ashley was," she said.

The two men who allegedly delivered Sparks to Alvey in a stolen van the day of the murder, Cody Brooks and Jason Cowdell, have not been charged. Brooks was jailed during the trial for refusing to testify, and Cowdell declined to answer questions in court, citing the Fifth Amendment.

Alvey drove Sparks to a park visitors center overlooking the Jordanelle Reservoir, smoking methamphetamine with her on the way. Then he ordered her out, made her walk through the freshly fallen deep snow and shot her four times, according to his testimony.

Jones argued throughout the trial that Cowdell, a known gang member, was the one who actually ordered the killing after learning that Sparks had copied numbers from his phone.

Speaking outside the 4th District courthouse, Jones noted there is no statute of limitations on murder, and that Binkerd was not charged until Alvey had been sentenced.

Sweat declined to comment on the possibility of charging Brooks or Cowdell.

Binkerd's sentencing is set for June 16.

Jones did not say whether he would file an appeal, but added "we are still early in the process."

"The jury did the right thing in acquitting Josh Binkerd of murder, because he did not commit murder," Jones said. "He is not a murderer."

Salt Lake Tribune
Updated:05/05/2010 09:43:11 PM MDT

Heber City » After six hours of deliberation Wednesday, a 4th District Court jury found Joshua Binkerd, 23, guilty of manslaughter in the shooting death of a American Fork woman at Jordanelle Park.

After six days of trial, the four-man, four-woman jury found Binkerd not guilty of murder or aggravated murder in the death of Ashley Sparks, 22, on Dec. 26, 2008. They did find him guilty of the lesser included offense offered to the jury by Judge Derek P. Pullan.

Manslaughter, a second-degree felony, is punishable by 1 to 15 years in the Utah State Prison. Sentencing is set for June 16. It is unclear whether a firearms enhancement of five years could be added to the sentence.

In a tense and emotional courtroom, friends and family members for Binkerd and Sparks cried as the verdict was read.

Outside the courtroom, Sparks' mother Pam Larsen said, "Ashley got her justice."

Fighting back tears and clutching her daughter's childhood teddy bear, Larsen said she would have preferred a conviction on the murder charge. But she added, "No one else is going to be hurt by this man."

In April 2009, Christopher Alvey, 21, pleaded guilty to driving Sparks to the Jordanelle Reservoir and shooting her four times. He left her to die in the snow.

He is serving a sentence of 20 years to life. As part of that plea bargain, Alvey promised to testify that Binkerd had ordered the killing.

According to court testimony, Binkerd and Alvey were members of a gang in which Alvey was a subordinate. The pair trafficked in methamphetamine and forged checks.

After the verdict was read, Binkerd's mother, Tina Binkerd, said she was disappointed in the criminal investigation and the jury's verdict.

"Josh is another victim of Chris Alvey," she said. "We have no ill will toward Ashley's family. She was a victim, too."

Tina Binkered added, however, that she was relieved her son was not convicted of murder. She credited Binkerd's lawyer, Heber City-based attorney Edward Jones, for his efforts. "I think Ed Jones saved my son from life in prison."

Binkerd did not take the stand in his own defense at trial. The jury, however, did watch two hours of videotape where Binkerd was interrogated on Dec. 28, 2008, two days after Sparks' murder. Throughout the questioning he denied telling Alvey to shoot Sparks.

Binkerd told police that he had instructed Alvey to take Sparks out of town and drop her off and to make sure she didn't come back. Alvey testified that he believed those instructions were an order to kill Sparks.

When the verdict was read Wednesday, Binkerd showed little emotion. At one point he turned toward his family and put a finger to his lips in an attempt to quiet their grieving.

During closing arguments, Jones identified Jason Cowdell, also known as Flaco, as the one who told Alvey to shoot Sparks.

"It's more than maybe that Jason Cowdell should be sitting here [on trial for murder]. Not Josh Binkerd."

Cowdell was called as a witness by the prosecution but refused to testify, citing his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

After the trial Wednesday evening, Wasatch County Attorney Scott Sweat refused to comment when asked if charges would be filed against anyone else in the Sparks murder.

Jury Rules Orem Real Estate Investor Not Guilty of Fraud

Published: March 31, 2014 09:50PM
Updated: March 31, 2014 10:46PM
Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo Rick Koerber, right, faces charges of fraud, money laundering and tax evasion. His trial is set for Feb. 10, 2014.

A jury late Monday found an Orem man not guilty of fraud-related charges involving an associate of Rick Koerber, the real estate guru who took in $100 million in investments before his Provo-based empire crashed in 2007.

The federal court jury heard final arguments at the end of a five-day trial during which Jason Vaughn, former chief instructor for Koerber’s real estate investment seminars, took the stand and said he relied completely on assurances from Koerber that the investments were safe because they were backed by equity in real estate.

Vaughn, of Orem, faced four counts of interstate transportation of money obtained by fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. He was found not guilty on all four counts.

Prosecutors did not comment after the verdict.

Vaughn owed investors nearly $2.9 million when Koerber’s Founders Capital company stopped payments to investors in mid-2007. Vaughn testified Monday that Koerber told him there were 200 properties with equity that guaranteed the investments.

However, pressed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Stewart Walz about his and other companies that poured money into Koerber’s operation, Vaughn admitted he never tried to gauge the accuracy of the information Koerber provided.

“But you never verified it?”

“No.”

“Did you do a calculation relative to the equity?”

“No.”

In fact, any equity in the properties was never recovered for investors, Vaughn admitted.

Koerber was first indicted in May 2009 and accused of running a Ponzi scheme in which he allegedly used half of the $100 million he took in to pay to investors or lenders. Koerber’s companies, generally known as FranklinSquires, were not profitable and his alleged promises of returns of up to 10 percent a month came from other investors or lenders, the indictment says.

Koerber has pleaded innocent and a six-week trial is now scheduled to begin June 13 to hear evidence of the 18 fraud-related charges he’s facing.

On the witness stand, Vaughn repeatedly denied he had intended to defraud investors in his Freestyle Holdings company. He said monies that he had used for a family trip to Disneyland and other personal expenses had come from his portions of the profits from Founders Capital. Vaughn took 2 percent a month of the 5 percent return that came from Founders Capital before it crashed.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Stewart Young pointed to a testimony from an investor who said Vaughn had told her he had used her $200,000 investment to pay interest to other investors.

“What’s that? A Ponzi scheme,” Young told the jury in closing arguments.

Vaughn’s was one of a number of companies formed by Koerber associates that took in money from investors and then poured it into Founders Capital for what was supposed to be secure real estate investments. But, according to indictments, Koerber used at least half of the $100 million to repay some investors to make his companies appear profitable.

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