March 5, 2008 in City

Murder suspect trying to better life, friend says

Meghann M. Cuniff Staff writer

Service planned

A memorial for 18-year-old homicide victim Sarah A. Clark will begin at 3 p.m. Thursday at First Church of the Open Bible, 8303 N. Division St. A memorial room is open today from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Riplinger Funeral Home, 4305 N. Division St.

Justin W. Crenshaw came to Spokane a few weeks ago to meet his sister and decided to stick around. A recovering heroin addict, the 20-year-old Las Vegas man told a childhood friend he hadn’t used in more than three months and was eager for a fresh start.

“He was trying to head down the right path,” said Alexandra Ragan, 19, of Newport Beach, Calif. “He was just so sick of getting in trouble all the time.”

Ragan called Crenshaw, who is charged with the grisly killings of 18-year-old Sarah A. Clark and 20-year-old Tanner E. Pehl, “the kindest, most sweetest guy” and said she believes he’s innocent.

But just hours after Pehl’s and Clark’s bodies were found in a burning Elm Street home early Thursday, Crenshaw’s aunt, Charlotte “Kate” Crenshaw, called 911 and said she had a “knot in her gut”: She thought the nephew she’d just met, who was staying at her north Spokane home, had been involved in the crime.

Police were already familiar with Justin Crenshaw. A friend of Pehl’s approached them at the crime scene and told them about a new friend Pehl had met at work named Justin, according to court documents.

The friend said “that Tanner told another person that Justin liked to fist fight and was very violent when he got drunk,” according to the documents.

The sister Justin Crenshaw had just met, Ashley “Nikki” Vanvlymen, who had been given up for adoption by Crenshaw’s parents, told police he acted “strange” when she told him police were investigating a homicide near Pehl’s home and didn’t call to see if Clark or Pehl were OK. Police questioned and fingerprinted Crenshaw, then arrested him early Friday.

Crenshaw told police that the three were drinking Hennessy and beer at Pehl’s house Wednesday night but that Crenshaw got sick from the alcohol and was driven to a friend’s apartment. But police believe Crenshaw killed Pehl and Clark, set the home on fire, then drove Clark’s car to that apartment to clean up and change his clothes. Police believe he then parked the car five blocks from his aunt’s home, where police found it, a court document states.

While friends and family remembered Pehl in a Tuesday afternoon memorial service, Crenshaw remained in Spokane County Jail on $1 million bail, charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Crenshaw’s grandfather is traveling to Spokane to visit him, Ragan said, and she plans to come here soon, too.

Before his arrest, Crenshaw told police he’d served 18 months in jail for stabbing someone as a juvenile. Ragan knew of the incident but didn’t know any details.

But she said the stabbing was the only major trouble Crenshaw had been in. He never showed signs of mental health problems and didn’t have a temper, she said.

Crenshaw was born in California but moved to Las Vegas in elementary school, Ragan said. They kept in contact, and he moved back to California about four years ago, then returned to Las Vegas. She last saw him in September when she stayed with him in Las Vegas for a week.

A recovering drug addict, Ragan said she hasn’t used in more than three years and was helping Crenshaw fight his heroin addiction.

He planned to live in Spokane for a while to save money, then move in with her in Newport Beach and work for her father’s flooring business.

It was important for Crenshaw to get away from Las Vegas, Ragan said.

“It’s Vegas, and everyone gets caught up in the wrong scene,” she said. “He didn’t want to get caught up in that.”

She last talked to him a couple of weeks ago, the day he was to interview at Brooklyn’s Woodfire Grill. He was hired. Pehl worked there, too, and the two began hanging out, according to police.

Court documents say Clark was Crenshaw’s girlfriend. But her friends are adamant the two were not in a serious relationship. Clark liked Crenshaw but had been spending time with Pehl for a week or so before her death, said Taylor Nay, who worked with Clark at a Spokane Albertsons store.

Ragan said a family member who spoke to Crenshaw after his arrest told her he didn’t remember the crime.

“He, I guess, blocked out everything that happened,” Ragan said. “He just doesn’t really know why he’s in there right now.”

She maintains her friend is innocent.

“This is not the Justin that I know,” she said. “He’s just an amazing guy.”

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