SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah man was sentenced to life in prison Thursday after pleading guilty to the latest charges filed in a stunning string of crimes that included the slaying of a train worker and the kidnapping of a mother and her daughters.

Dereck James “DJ” Harrison, 23, acknowledged he helped his father carjack train worker Kay Ricks, 63. Harrison pleaded guilty to carjacking and kidnapping charges that could have carried the possibility of the death penalty, but prosecutors agreed not to seek capital punishment in exchange for the pleas.

His grandmother Marlene Brown said in court that drugs made the father and son into different people.

“Dereck is a really great kid that got caught up in a horrible crime that someone who should have protected him filled him with drugs instead,” she said.

Dereck Harrison has already been sentenced to life in prison in Wyoming, where Ricks was killed. Prosecutors said the new charges addressed the carjacking and ensured that he wouldn’t ever be released from prison.

An emotional spokesman for the Ricks family said they’re grateful for the plea, and it’s “settling” to know the case is winding down.

“It just gets tough every time,” Richard Massey said. “It’s another life too short taken away.”

The chain of events started in May 2016 when Harrison and his father invited a woman and her four teenage daughters to a barbecue at a house in a Salt Lake City suburb, then restrained them in a basement and beat them before they escaped, police said.

The Harrisons had been using methamphetamine for days and wrongly thought the mother had reported them to police, authorities said. The men were accused of planning the kidnapping and setting out zip ties, duct tape and a bag to put on the mother’s head.

After the family escaped, the Harrisons went on the run. They snatched Ricks from a light-rail station in Salt Lake City while he was working and drove north toward the Wyoming town where father Flint Harrison had been living, authorities said.

Ricks was killed on the way to a remote hideout near where they were arrested after Flint Harrison surrendered.

The elder Harrison later killed himself in a Utah jail last year.

His son pleaded guilty to aggravated kidnapping charges in Utah and was sentenced to at least 30 years and up to life in prison. Dereck Harrison was then sent to Wyoming, where he avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty to a murder charge. He said Flint Harrison killed Ricks, but he didn’t stop his father.

Dereck Harrison is serving his Utah prison time on the kidnapping charges first, and is expected to be moved to Wyoming afterward.

Author photo
LINDSAY WHITEHURST
The AP is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering. AP is neither privately owned nor government-funded; instead, as a not-for-profit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members, it can maintain its single-minded focus on newsgathering and its commitment to the highest standards of objective, accurate journalism.