Jury finds Leigha Ackerson guilty of murder

Tom Lotshaw
Vail Daily

EAGLE — After deliberating for more than 27 hours, the jury in Leigha Ackerson’s first-degree murder trial delivered its verdict Friday evening: Ackerson will spend the rest of her life in prison without a possibility of parole.

Ackerson, 27, faced nine criminal charges for her alleged role in the January 2018 killing of Catherine Kelley at Kelley’s home near Edwards. The jury found Ackerson guilty of six of those charges.

Ackerson’s husband, Jacob White, whose DNA was found on the rope used to strangle Kelley, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary for his role in Kelley’s killing and was sentenced to 68 years in prison. He must serve at least 75% of that prison time due to the violent nature of his crimes.

The jury found Ackerson not guilty of first-degree murder after deliberation and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder after deliberation. But the jury did find Ackerson guilty of first-degree murder, felony murder, a charge that carries a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Jurors also found Ackerson guilty of first-degree burglary, aggravated robbery, conspiracy to commit first-degree burglary, conspiracy to commit aggravated robbery, and first-degree criminal trespass.

“At the end of the day, no one won,” Assistant District Attorney Heidi McCollum said of the case and the 12-day murder trial. “Ms. Kelley lost her life in a vile and horrific and violent manner. Ms. Ackerson is a very young woman who because of her own actions is now going to spend the rest of her life in prison. The community was traumatized from this. The family has suffered a loss they will never get over.”

But the system worked, McCollum said.

“We presented the evidence, Ms. Ackerson’s attorneys presented a defense and the jurors decided based on the information in front of them what the appropriate outcome was. We accept the jury’s decision in this case and thank them for their incredible service,” McCollum said, giving her deepest sympathies to friends and family of Kelley.

McCollum also thanked the many law enforcement agencies, detectives and investigators who helped prosecute the case and quickly acted to arrest Ackerson and White after Kelley’s murder.

Tearful friends and relatives of Kelley awaited the jury’s verdict Friday evening. So did a friend and relative of Ackerson.

Authorities alleged Ackerson and White broke into Kelley’s home in the gated Pilgrim Downs community near Edwards, hid in a back guest bedroom for two days without Kelley knowing they were there, and then murdered Kelley on Jan. 24, 2018.

Ackerson’s defense attorneys argued that she had no choice but to follow White into Kelley’s home because of his violence and abuse and threats to harm her.

Judge Paul. R. Dunkelman scheduled Ackerson’s sentencing hearing for Friday, Dec. 18.

Tom Lotshaw can be reached at