Jury returns verdict in case of murder, child abuse of 2-year-old Christopher Leader, Jr.

Gavin Michael Haar, pictured far left, was found guilty of murder and child abuse in the case of Christopher Leader Jr's death, Cedar City, Feb. 13, 2020 | Photo by Kelsey Cooke, St George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY — After a 3 ½-day jury trial, Gavin Michael Haar was found guilty of the murder of 2-year-old Christopher Leader Jr. on Thursday.

Christopher Leader Jr, date and location unspecified | Photo courtesy of Tina Woolf, St. George News / Cedar City News

The jury found Haar guilty of first-degree felony murder and second-degree felony child abuse and not guilty of one count of third-degree felony child abuse.

On June 12, 2018, Christopher Leader Jr. was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead at 1:49 a.m. His cause of death was found to be internal bleeding from lacerations to his internal organs caused by blunt force trauma. The state medical examiner determined the manner of death to be a homicide.

According to court documents, Christopher’s body was “covered with numerous bruises on his forehead, eyes, ears, mouth and several circular bruises on the chest and abdomen.”

Christopher’s mother, Brittany Hall, and her boyfriend, Haar, were questioned by investigators about his death. It was discovered that Hall left the couple’s residence around 11:45 p.m. to go to work on June 11, 2018, and Haar was watching Christopher. Around 12:30 a.m. on June 12, 2018, Haar texted Hall that she needed to come home because Christopher wasn’t breathing. Shortly after, Hall received another text from Haar saying that if anyone asked about the bruises, “we got them four-wheeling.”

This is what the couple said about the injuries, but investigators found many inconsistencies between the version of events Hall was describing and the version Haar was explaining. Additionally, the couple’s roommate told investigators the couple had been home all day on the day Christopher was supposedly in an ATV accident.

Hall was charged with two counts of child abuse and one count of obstruction of justice, and she was sentenced to 1-15 years for each charge in May 2019.

‘A vicious, devastating and fatal beating’

The trial by jury for the case of state of Utah versus Gavin Michael Haar began Monday. County Attorney Chad Dotson offered the state’s opening statements.

“Mr. Haar’s going to ask you to ignore all the evidence, ignore all of his prior statements, ignore what the medical professionals will say, and to take his word for it,” Dotson said.

Gavin Haar (right) was found guilty of murder in the case of Christopher Leader Jr., Cedar City, Feb. 12, 2020 | Photo by Kelsey Cooke, St George News / Cedar City News

Dotson added during his opening argument that the evidence would point to Haar.

“The evidence in this case will clearly show that Gavin Haar, and Gavin Haar alone, is responsible for the death of Christopher, not Brittany (Hall),” he said. “Because the truth is that when Brittany Hall left for work … Mr. Haar was left alone with Christopher, who had been throwing up. He lays Christopher down and says they watch a movie together, but he becomes enraged after Christopher throws up again, this time he throws up on Mr. Haar. In his anger, he throws little Chris off the bed and he engages in what can only be described as a vicious, devastating and fatal beating. Blow, after blow, after blow, to the abdomen of little Christopher.”

Attorney Troy Sundquist, representing Haar in the case, provided the defense’s opening statements.

“The state has made a lot of promises to you today,” Sundquist said. “They’ve told you what they’re going to say. They’ve said they know certain things. I would ask you to weigh everything you hear from them, and from the defense, and at the end of all this, determine ‘Do we actually know that?'”

On Monday, Officer Addison Adams, who responded to the 911 call; emergency room doctor Mike Wilson; and medical examiner investigator Michael Bleak were called as witnesses, and on Tuesday, the state called medical examiner Edward Leis to testify.

Leis described the process of a medical exam and an autopsy and answered questions about his findings. Leis testified that Christopher’s cause of death was tearing to his mesentery and small intestine, which resulted in substantial blood loss, and his manner of death was homicide.

Haar, Hall and Christopher lived with a family member in Cedar City for a short time during May 2018, and this family member also testified on Tuesday, answering questions about their interactions and behaviors while the three of them were in the family member’s home. The family member stated Haar was kicked out of the house in the beginning of June 2018 due to aggressive behavior. Hall was welcome to stay with Christopher but chose to leave with Haar. The family member also discussed interactions with Haar at the hospital on the night of Christopher’s death.

The person the couple lived with after leaving the family member’s home testified that Haar and Hall were both home on the Saturday prior to Christopher’s death and that everyone in the house went to the Lake at the Hills the following day.

The roommate also said everything appeared normal the day before Christopher’s death, other than seeing bruises on the child while he was in the bath. She said Hall left for work around 11:45 p.m. The witness said she went to sleep around midnight and woke up around 1 a.m. to her own child asking for a sippy cup. At that point, first responders had arrived at the home.

Christopher Leader Jr., Cedar City, June 10, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Tina Woolf, St. George News / Cedar City News

Cedar City Police Department Matt Topham’s testimony also began Tuesday. Topham explained what happened when he arrived at the hospital on June 12, 2018, and said that after viewing Christopher’s body, “the trauma that he (Christopher) experienced was obviously significant.”

Topham discussed his investigation at length, including interviews with the couple, Hall’s phone records, the autopsy, the 911 call audio and letters Haar wrote in November 2018 and March 2019.

Topham said there were many inconsistencies in the information provided by Hall and Haar, and even within Haar’s version of events as he retold them. He added that Haar’s letters showed “a fundamental shift,” going from claiming that neither Haar nor Hall would hurt Christopher, to claiming that he witnessed Hall being abusive to Christopher on multiple occasions.

Hall was also called to testify and said she believed Haar killed her son and that he was verbally abusive to her. Hall testified that she did not ask Haar to make up the lie about a four-wheeler and did not have feelings of hatred for or an intent to kill her son.

Sundquist called for Haar to testify as well, at which point he said he was not truthful with investigators about “pretty much everything.” Haar said Hall begged him not to tell the truth, and he lied in order to protect her and therefore protect his relationship with her other children. He also said he witnessed Hall abusing Christopher in the days leading to his death, and he said she had confessed to him that she felt relieved that Christopher was gone.

‘I don’t know if any of us will be the same’

The trial continued Thursday with closing statements. Iron County Chief Deputy Criminal Attorney Shane Klenk submitted to the jury that the state had provided evidence which showed Haar was guilty.

“None of the injuries inflicted by Mr. Haar were accidents; they were all intentional,” Klenk said. “Based on the evidence that you have heard during this trial, you can find Mr. Haar guilty of murder and two counts of child abuse, and you can feel good about that decision, proud of that decision. … At 2 years old, Christopher’s life was cut far too short — too short for more hugs, too short for more Cheerios in yogurt, too short for more laughs with his cousin Alex — and this because of a man who barely knew Christopher.”

Sundquist posited that the state had not proved Haar’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“When we started, they made you a lot of promises,” he said. “Think about those promises made and if the state has satisfied them and proved their case to you. They promised you they could show beyond a reasonable doubt that Gavin inflicted the injuries upon Christopher, including the lethal injury that ultimately caused his death. They have not done that.”

Shane Klenk, at the podium, provided the state’s closing statements, Cedar City, Feb. 13, 2020 | Photo by Kelsey Cooke, St George News / Cedar City News

After deliberating for approximately two hours, the jury returned with its verdict of guilty on the count of murder and one count of child abuse.

Following the verdict, Dotson told Cedar City News he was proud of the collaborative efforts involved in the case.

“I think the jury got it correct. I think that justice will be served when we have Mr. Haar sentenced,” Dotson said. “I’m proud of everybody involved. The investigation was fantastic. … Everybody did a tremendous job.”

He also said it was an incredibly difficult case.

“When there’s a child who’s murdered in a senseless manner such as this … I don’t know if any of us will be the same, just having the impact and emotion of this case,” he said. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to be able to tell Christopher’s story.”

Topham said he was grateful to be able to tell the story as well.

“I’m glad we finally got a chance to tell the story for little Christopher, let the world know what happened to him,” Topham said.

Klenk said he appreciated the efforts of law enforcement in the case.

“From the very beginning, it was very clear for our law enforcement, particularly Detective Topham, that this was a labor of love and duty, and he went to painstaking efforts to document and investigate,” Klenk said. “I am just grateful for the work on the front end, it makes our jobs a lot easier.”

Christopher Leader Jr, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of Tina Woolf, St. George News / Cedar City News

Victim and Witness Coordinator Jessica Cramer said cooperation with families and witnesses goes a long way in cases the state prosecutes.

“Christopher’s family was here for every single hearing, whether anything happened or not, they were here,” Cramer said. “That was great to see.”

Kristen Bell, Christopher’s grandmother, told Cedar City News that Christopher had been living with her son, Austin Stewart, prior to May 2018 as he was one of two potential biological fathers.

“My son raised him (Christopher) from 8 months old when she (Hall) showed up and dropped him off and left,” Bell said. “After a few months, they came to an agreement on visitation. Austin wound up with him 90% of the time. When Brittany finally did get him back this last time she got him on May 8. She only had him four weeks and three days before he was killed.”

Bell also said Christopher’s death was shocking.

“I’m just so thoroughly shocked by what happened and what I saw,” she said. “I don’t understand how somebody can do that. He was such a sweet little boy. He (Haar) took so much from us, and honestly, I don’t think either Brittany or Gavin care.”

Kenchetta Aldrich, Christopher’s aunt, said she just wanted to know why this happened.

“I want to know why,” Aldrich said. “What made him so angry? What could Christopher do to make you so angry? … I think he resented Christopher, because when Christopher wasn’t there, he and Brittany got to do whatever they wanted, go wherever they wanted, and when Christopher came here that ended.”

Haar is scheduled for a sentencing hearing on March 25 at 9 a.m.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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