Inside the newsroom: A shocking Utah story captures the nation

SALT LAKE CITY — The town of Amalga, Utah, hasn’t grown much since it was named in 1916 after the Amalgamated Sugar Co., which set up a factory near the border of Utah and Idaho.

About 500 residents live there now, including 14-year-old Deserae Turner, who would head to Smithfield 7 miles away, catch a bus at Sky View High School and travel to North Cache 8-9 school in Richmond. That was part of her routine in these simple places with dairy farm roots — places marked by good people who look out for each other and ripe with the pleasures of Cache Valley.

But that bucolic landscape was interrupted on Feb. 16, when Deserae failed to return home at 4 p.m. that Thursday, the time she usually arrives. She’s never late, said her family, as they began the calls, then a search, then a search joined by friends and then by police.

By nightfall the formal search was suspended, but would be ready to start again in the morning. Still, the social media messages continued asking for any news, any help, and that caught the attention of Sue Hintze, an elementary schoolteacher, and Christy Lane, who works for the Army, family friends who got to know Deserae’s mother.

As the clock pushed toward midnight, Deserae’s disappearance continued to nag at them. Her last known location was in Smithfield, not far from their homes. So they gathered up flashlights, knives and a dog, and headed out on a nearby trail to look for her. They had to do something.

About 12:45 a.m they came upon a dry canal east of Sky View High. There was someone there.

“They could tell she was cold. She spoke enough to say her head hurt. They put their coats on her. One of the two called 911, and Christy then laid on top of her after checking her vitals, to keep her warm,” Deseret News reporter McKenzie Romero told me this week, recounting the toll this story has had on reporters, court personnel, the public and a horrified nation.

The first thoughts were that the young girl had suffered hypothermia. When it was later discovered at the hospital that she had been shot in the head, it would reveal a crime as dumbfounding and painful as any ever recorded in this northern Utah enclave.

Two 16-year-old acquaintances of Deserae had allegedly lured her to the site near the canal under the guise of purchasing a knife. One then took out a .22 caliber gun and shot her in the back of the head as she was walking away from them, police said.

Why? How could such an act occur here? How could it occur anywhere?

Those are the questions that followed headlines out of Utah and across the nation on print, digital and broadcast media. Deserae’s story affects us all.

As Romero reported last week: “According to a statement the alleged gunman gave to police, the boys were playing video games one day when one said he would like to ‘get rid of’ 14-year-old Deserae, who was sending him messages on social media.”

He said he didn’t like Snapchatting her anymore, so a plot was allegedly hatched to get rid of her. Whether that’s the only motive remains to be revealed.

The two teens are both accused of attempted aggravated murder, aggravated robbery and four counts of obstruction of justice.

Deserae remains hospitalized. Thursday she was moved into a unit where she can begin rehabilitation. The bullet remains in her head, and may always be there. Doctors say she has a long road ahead. But she’s able to make that journey thanks to the one taken by Sue Hintze and Christy Lane on a dark, cold night in February.

Are there lessons to be learned from an unfathomable crime? I posed the question to Romero, who reported on the preliminary hearing this week, wrote the difficult news accounts and appeared on HLN with Ashleigh Banfield this week offering context.

Says Romero: “Care for your neighbor, know that tragedy can happen in any community, but the difference is made when that community is there to hold each other up.”

That is a small town value that is not just worth preserving, it’s lifesaving.

Doug Wilks is editor of the Deseret News.

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