LOGAN — A 41-year-old Hyrum man has admitted to “accidentally killing” a California woman last summer and hiding her body east of Hyrum. Stacy R. Willis confessed to murder and will likely face at least 15-years in prison.
Police arrested Willis September 14 after finding Merrilee Cox-Lafferty’s body in a make-shift grave, at a campground eight-miles up Blacksmith Fork Canyon. Evidence showed he had beaten her to death August 18, and buried her body in a rocky area, under a tree.
Willis appeared in 1st District Court Wednesday morning for a preliminary hearing. After attorneys met privately for almost an hour, the defendant waived his right to the hearing and accepted a plea deal. As part of the agreement, Willis pleaded guilty to a reduced count of murder, a first-degree felony. The eight remaining charges were dropped by prosecutors.
Outside the courtroom, defense attorney Shannon Demler explained that he and Mike McGinnis, assigned co-council, had been evaluating the facts of the case during the past four months. He said, Willis always knew that he had done wrong and would have to take responsibility for what happened.
“He didn’t take her up Blacksmith Fork Canyon, intending to kill her when he went up there,” Demler said. “There is allegations that they got into an argument and it got out of hand, and she passed away based on the activity that happened in that argument.”
Cox-Lafferty’s family had reported her missing August 21, three days after several witnesses saw her and Willis fighting. The victim had reportedly traveled to the area to help a friend move and meet up with the defendant.
Willis later told a friend about murdering the woman. He described pulling her from his car at the campground after she backed into a tree, breaking the vehicle’s rear-window. He bragged about killing her with “elbow blows.” The defendant later took the friend to the campsite where her body was buried.
Following Wednesday’s hearing, Demler explained that the plea deal keeps Willis from a possible death sentence. It also prevents Cox-Lafferty’s family from having to go through a lengthy trial.
“It is a very serious situation when you are going to enter a plea to something that carries a 15-year-to-life sentence. Willis knows he has to accept responsibility for what he did but he also knows the seriousness of entering a plea to a charge such as this. There has been a lot of discussion about that, making sure he understood what the ramifications would be of the plea.”
Willis spoke only briefly during Wednesday’s hearing, telling the court he understood the right’s he was giving up by pleading guilty. Most of the time, he stared forward and showed no emotion.
Judge Kevin Allen scheduled sentencing for March 11. He ordered Willis to undergo a pre-sentence report, detailing his criminal history that will be compiled by probation officers.
Willis was recently released from prison, after pleading guilty to shooting at a couple outside the North Logan Walmart in July 2014.