Pilgrim Downs victim ID’d. Catherine Kelley was a Christian, adventurer, friend

Randy Wyrick
Vail Daily
Catherine Kelley was killed in her Pilgrim Downs home Wednesday, Jan. 24. Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis said Kelley was strangled. Two Denver residents are charged with first-degree murder and first-degree burglary.
Special to the Daily |

EDWARDS — Catherine Kelley’s adult children were on their way to town to visit their mother.

They had no way of knowing they were headed for ground zero of a murder case.

Kelley, 74, was found dead in her Pilgrim Downs home Wednesday evening. She was strangled, and the manner of death was homicide — meaning she died at the hands of someone else, said Kara Bettis, Eagle County Coroner.

Two Denver residents are charged with first-degree murder and first-degree burglary in Kelley’s death.

Leigha Paige Ackerson, 24, and Jacob Taylor White, 23, are being held in the Eagle County jail with no bond. If they’re convicted, then they face life in prison without the possibility of parole.

About Catherine Kelley

Kelley was a devout Christian and attended Calvary Chapel Vail Valley, where she was part of a Bible study group. Friends say she loved to hike, to travel and a huge number of other pursuits. She loved adventures, and went on them whenever she could.

One of her friends had borrowed a cookbook a while back. She recently asked for it back. It had some special recipes, and her children were coming to visit. Her son and daughter are in town now.

Last fall, Kelley had moved from Arrowhead to Pilgrim Downs to be closer to hiking trails. It’s a spectacular home with a gorgeous view. She had scheduled a housewarming party next week.

Word traveled at the speed of social media about the Pilgrim Downs death. Speculation ran wild until people began to narrow it down when Kelley did not show up to Thursday-morning exercise class.

A friend was supposed to have dinner with Kelley on Wednesday evening, but they canceled. The friend tried repeatedly to call Kelley on her land line — cell service is spotty up there — but got no answer. The friend went to the house and knocked on the door, but again no answer.

Suspects are married

Kelley’s alleged murderers claim to share a last name, White — Jake and Leigha. They say they were married Nov. 9, 2013, according to their social media posts. The two moved to Denver from the East Coast according to Leigha’s social media posts. She resigned from her job in September of 2015 to pack for the move west.

Friday’s hearing

Both suspects were somber during their first appearance before District Judge Paul Dunkelman on Friday. Ackerson was emotionless, staring straight ahead during her hearing. After Judge Dunkelman read her rights and asked if she understood, she silently nodded yes.

They were brought to the courtroom for separate hearings, and returned to jail separately.

Plea for Patience

As the case develops, Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek asked for patience from the public.

“While we understand that this is a very traumatic event for family and friends of the victim and our whole community, we want to be as transparent as possible while still upholding the integrity of the investigation, as well as the rights of the victims. Therefore, we limited what information could be publicly released until this afternoon,” van Beek said after Friday’s hearing.

What police say

An emergency call came in around 10:30 p.m. Wednesday from the Pilgrim Downs neighborhood. Deputies responded to a possible home invasion. While checking the home for suspects, the victim’s body was found, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Moments after arriving at the scene, law enforcement cordoned off the area, sent an alert warning to Lake Creek residents to stay inside, or “shelter in place,” and began a systematic search. Officers from a half-dozen agencies took part, as well as the Eagle River Fire Protection District, which provided boom trucks and lights to help with the search.

White and Ackerson were hiding, but not far away.

As deputies and other law enforcement began to close in on them, as well as a tracking dog from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, White and Ackerson gave themselves up less than two hours after the initial emergency call.

Judge Dunkelman ordered that any other charges be filed by Feb. 9.

White and Ackerson are back in court at 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 16.