CRIME

Mother of woman killed in storage unit fire outraged over accused man’s release to drug treatment

Apr 12, 2023, 10:28 AM | Updated: 4:30 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — A mother expressed frustration and outrage Tuesday after learning a man booked on suspicion of negligent homicide in her daughter’s death was out of jail and instead assigned to an outpatient drug treatment program.

Alexander Wardell, 30, was arrested and booked into the Salt Lake County Metro Jail on suspicion of negligent homicide and kidnapping following a Feb. 18 fire at a storage unit in Murray that left his girlfriend, 27-year-old Morgan Kay Harris, dead.

Family of woman who died in storage unit fire remembers the life she lived

According to a probable cause statement, Wardell admitted to locking the door of the storage unit with Harris and her dog still inside. The document said while Wardell left the area, the storage unit caught fire and Harris was unable to flee.

On Monday, with formal charges not yet filed in relation to the fire, Wardell was at a hearing where sentencing on unrelated probation violations was set for May 8. During the hearing, Third District Court Judge Richard McKelvie ordered Wardell released to an outpatient treatment program.

“When does common sense go, ‘This guy’s not safe to be out on the street?’” said Harris’ mother, Laurice Williamson, during a Tuesday interview with KSL TV. “It’s honestly astonishing and disgusting.”

Wardell’s criminal history includes two domestic violence-related convictions, including for a 2019 case in which court documents stated he pleaded guilty to third-degree felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor criminal mischief after he hit his girlfriend with a towel rack and then with a golf club multiple times.

In a separate 2018 case, Wardell also pleaded guilty to third-degree felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor criminal mischief after breaking through a bathroom door and punching his girlfriend in the head with closed fists.

“There were many reasons to keep him behind bars, and now, this is just stacked on top of it and it doesn’t seem to matter,” Williamson said of the case involving her daughter. “Not only is it a slap in the face to the horrendous way my daughter died and to all of my family and her friends, but it’s negligent to the public and public safety.”

Police: Man locked girlfriend, dog in Murray storage unit that caught fire and killed them

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Tuesday that his prosecutors objected to Wardell’s release to treatment.

“We have a couple felonies that we prosecuted and convicted him on and he is non-compliant with those terms and conditions, and so, because he’s in violation of that, we felt strongly that he should be held until the sentencing, which is scheduled for May,” Gill said.

Gill said the fire in which Wardell was booked on suspicion of negligent homicide and kidnapping remained under investigation.

“Whenever you have an allegation of somebody losing their life and you have family members, of course they feel that grief and they feel that loss, which is completely understandable,” Gill said. “What I would say to them is that this continues to be an open investigation. We have not given up on it and we are continuing to go through our process, working with our law enforcement and fire partners, so while it can seem slow, we have ethical and legal requirements to go through our screening process and fill any gaps we may have from an investigation perspective, and we are committed to doing that and seeing this through to its conclusion.”

Williamson remained frustrated while calling for accountability.

“It’s infuriating and nobody seems to care until it affects them, or maybe they just feel helpless — because I feel helpless — but something needs to be done,” Williamson said.

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Mother of woman killed in storage unit fire outraged over accused man’s release to drug treatment