Double-killer Justin W. Crenshaw sat stoically as dozens of his victims’ family members fought through tears to put words to their pain and suffering.
The 22-year-old never told investigators why he used a knife to kill and nearly decapitate 18-year-old Sarah A. Clark, or why he stabbed and repeatedly plunged a sword into the lifeless body of 20-year-old Tanner E. Pehl.
No answers came Thursday, either. Twice Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen asked Crenshaw to speak and reminded him that this would be his only opportunity.
“I don’t want to take anything away from the families,” he said. “I’ll leave it at that.”
But Eitzen had no problem finding words to describe Crenshaw.
“You are a damaged person that you could find yourself in these circumstances,” Eitzen told him. “It is a terrible, terrible tragedy to sit at your age and look at the destruction and havoc caused by your behavior. I’m so sorry you all had to go through this.”
A jury last week convicted Crenshaw of two counts of aggravated first-degree murder in connection with the slayings on Feb. 28, 2008. Eitzen sentenced Crenshaw to the only legal option available: two terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“This has been a long journey to get to this point today,” Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I don’t remember one as brutal as this case.”
Driscoll talked about having to take long walks to process his thoughts after staring at the gruesome crime-scene photos.
“He’s just flat-out dangerous,” Driscoll told Eitzen. “Because of that, we need to be protected.”
But any protection came too late for Clark, who was described by friends and family as a vivacious girl who at times struggled to find her identity. She could flash her dimpled smile and make people around her feel good, said her mother, Teesha Clark.
“I took flowers to her grave on graduation day,” she said. “A parent’s greatest fear is to lose a child. But to lose Sarah to such horrific violence … has become my living nightmare. I have been sentenced … to life without Sarah.”
Sarah Clark’s father, Steve Clark, spoke about the waves of grief and physical pain of losing his beloved daughter. He described listening to the “echoing travail” throughout his house as his three sons and two remaining daughters mourned the loss.
“If he knew of the devastation he has caused by his brutality – if he could experience our pain, maybe he would be remorseful,” he said.
But Crenshaw – who had moved to Spokane from Las Vegas a couple weeks before the slayings – gave them nothing. He sat at his table flanked by two corrections deputies. His eyes tracked the action but he showed no emotion and wore an aloof, almost uninterested, look on his face.
His defense attorney, Chris Bugbee, tried to persuade the jury that Crenshaw suffered from a rare disorder that causes him to forget things and sometimes act violently after drinking even small amounts of alcohol.
After the hearing, both families gathered around five jurors who attended the sentencing. One juror was asked about Bugbee’s defense, that Crenshaw may have suffered from pathological intoxication. The woman waved a hand dismissively and said. “That was a no-brainer.”
The juror said she did not want to be identified. “I was here out of respect for the families and their loss,” the woman said. “Justin’s family lost their son, too.”
But nobody spoke for Crenshaw, not even his grandmother, Sandy Morningstar, who attended every day of the trial.
Laurie Pehl, Pehl’s mother, spoke of the day she called in sick so she could spend it with her son. It’s what Tanner called “Mommy and Tanny time.”
Tanner planned to cook stir-fry for dinner that night so they went to Rosauers and spent hours as he picked particular types of steak and vegetables and cooking oil. Tanner encountered a new barista and took the time to show her how to make a proper latte.
When the barista learned they were shopping for stir-fry, Tanner encouraged her to tag along to learn how to do that, too, Pehl said.
“This would be the last day I would be able to fully spend with him,” Laurie Pehl said as she wept. “He told me I was the best mom on the world … and that he loved me. It was one of the most satisfying days of my life.”
Later that night, Tanner asked his mother to help him select one of three outfits to wear at an upcoming first date with a girl.
“Little did we know we were picking his funeral clothes,” Pehl said as she trembled. “Without him, there is a hole that will never be filled. It is a sad, senseless shame that Justin Crenshaw took this away from us.”
Dave Pehl asked Crenshaw to look at the full-size cutout photo of his son dressed in a pin-striped suit, complete with hat and cane.
“You killed the most amazing, loving, talented, gentle, kind and thoughtful young man – my son Tanner,” Pehl said. “We will put your evil name behind us and climb out of the evil death pit you threw our families into … and start to rebuild our lives without Tanner and Sarah.”
After the hearing, the families gathered at the Clarks’ house and invited the jurors to join them. Asked if the she could ever expect closure, Laurie Pehl replied: “I’ve been a different person since the jury came back. I didn’t even think I could move on. But I can feel it now.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.