Shawn Grell is behind bars for murdering his 2-year-old daughter, Kristen Salem, by burning her alive in a remote area in Apache Junction, Arizona.
On Dec. 2, 1999, Grell, of Phoenix, purchased a 32-ounce beer before he went to Kristen’s preschool to pick her up because he said he wanted to take her to see Christmas lights in Mesa.
When they got there, Grell stopped to get food at a McDonald’s. They ate in the car while it was parked in a parking lot at an apartment complex.
That’s also when Grell, who was 24 years old at the time, said he drank his beer.
He then drove around town and showed Kristen Christmas lights, but after a while, she started to get cranky, and she kept asking for her mother, Amber Lee Salem.
Grell became agitated, then he slapped the toddler in the mouth. She stopped crying a few moments later and said, “Sorry, daddy.”
He said she was okay for a while, then “she went nuts” and started asking for her mother again.
That’s when he drove to Target at Southern Avenue and Gilbert Road and purchased a red three-gallon gasoline jug.
Grell filled it up with gas at a gas station at Broadway and Gilbert roads, then drove around for 45 minutes before coming to a stop at a drainage ditch in a deserted area in Apache Junction.
It was about 15 feet from the roadway.
Kristen was asleep, but she woke up when he pulled her out of the car and put her in the ditch.
Grell then poured gasoline, and it was during that time that she reportedly said, “No, daddy, no.” But that didn’t stop him from lighting a match and hurling it in her direction, setting his daughter ablaze.
Kristen was on fire when she took a few steps, then fell face down in the dirt.
She took a few steps before falling face-down into the dirt. “I couldn’t even look at her,” Grell said. “I just had to get in the car and go.”
Grell drove back and forth on a nearby road, watching the flames. When the fire went out, he drove back to the crime scene to see if Kristen was dead, and she was.
He then left the area and drove to a convenience store, where he purchased more beer. As he was checking out, he told the store clerk that he saw a group of kids setting a dog on fire in a nearby desert.
He said, “I can’t believe that kids would set a dog on fire; this is what the world is coming to when kids set dogs on fire.”
On Dec. 3, 1999, Kristen, whose mother reported her missing the previous day, was found dead in the ditch.
An autopsy showed that Kristen died from burns and smoke inhalation. She also sustained third- and fourth-degree burns over 98 percent of her body.
Here feet were the only part of her body that wasn’t burned, according to the medical examiner.
Grell later walked into the police station and confessed to murdering his daughter, and he didn’t have a reason for doing what he did.
Sgt. Dave Trombi, a Maricopa County sheriff’s spokesman, said: “He basically said he didn’t know why he did it. We looked at the obvious things like domestic relations and problems but there were no indications as to domestic problems.”
According to the Arizona Republic, Grell became angry after getting fired from his job two days before the murder.
Apparently, the company found out about his criminal record and decided to let him go, just like in his previous jobs.
Grell was arrested and booked into the county jail on charges of first-degree murder.
Following a short bench trial in July 2001, Grell was found guilty. He was sentenced to death.
Grell told the court that he accepted the death penalty. He also apologized to Kristen’s family for intentionally killing his daughter. He said, “I’m extremely sorry for what I did to my daughter.”
“There is not a day that’s gone by where I haven’t thought about it. I wish I could take back what I did.”
His defense attorneys claimed that he should not be put to death because he suffers from “severe brain dysfunction.”
According to ABC 15, as a result of his disability, when he was a child, he was “placed in a group home for mentally changed children for five years.”
A judge overturned Grell’s death sentence in 2013 and reduced it to life in prison after it was determined that he was mentally disabled and could not be put to death for that reason.
According to the East Valley Tribune, “The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it would be constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual punishment to execute someone with mental retardation.”
In May 2013, Kristen’s mother passed away in her sleep. She is now buried next to her daughter at the Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery in Phoenix, Arizona.