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Shawn Ryan GRELL





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: December 2, 1999
Date of birth: February 17, 1975
Victim profile: His 2-year-old daughter, Kristen
Method of murder: Doused her with gasoline, and set her on fire
Location: Maricopa County, Arizona, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on July 9, 2001

photo gallery


Supreme Court of Arizona

opinion CR-01-0275-AP


On December 2, 1999, Grell took his 2-year-old daughter, Kristen, to a remote area in Apache Junction, doused her with gasoline, and set her on fire.

After Kristen was engulfed in flames, she managed to walk around and stomp her feet for up to 60 seconds before collapsing in the dirt.

Kristen suffered third- and fourth-degree burns over 98 percent of her body, and she died from a combination of the burns and smoke inhalation.


Convicted: September 1, 2000 (Guilty Plea)

Sentenced to death: July 9, 2001

Aggravating Circumstances

  • Prior conviction for a serious offense

  • Especially cruel, heinous and depraved

  • Age of victim

Mitigating Circumstances

  • Troubled childhood

  • Alcohol use

  • Remorse

  • Family support


Arizona Department of Corrections "Death Row" Web site "Profiles of Arizona Death Row Inmates," Arizona Attorney General's Office.


State v. Grell

April 4, 2003


On November 29, 1999, Shawn Grell left work early, claiming that he was needed at his girlfriend's house. He never returned to work. He spent the next few days at the home where he lived with his daughter, Kristen, his girlfriend, Amber Salem, and Amber's parents.

On the morning of December 2, Amber dropped Kristen off at a daycare center. Later that day, Grell picked Kristen up from the center, signing Amber's name instead of his own on the sign-out sheet.

That afternoon Grell drove to Mesa with Kristen. At 5:40 p.m., he stopped at a convenience store to purchase beer and a sports drink. About an hour later, Grell bought a red plastic gas container at a department store in Mesa. He continued to drive around Mesa before stopping at another convenience store where he bought just over a gallon of gasoline. Still later that evening, Grell entered a convenience store in Apache Junction, but apparently did not buy anything.

Grell then drove to a remote area near Apache Junction, took his sleeping daughter out of the car, and laid her on the ground in a drainage ditch approximately fifteen feet from the road. Kristen woke up as her father poured gasoline over her. He then lit a match and flicked it on her, setting her on fire. Kristen stumbled around, walking at least twelve feet before falling to her knees and then collapsing face down in the dirt. She died from smoke inhalation and severe burns over 98% of her body. Only the bottoms of her feet were not burned.

After watching Kristen fall to her knees, Grell returned to his car and drove around briefly before returning to see if the fire had gone out. He then returned to one of the convenience stores he previously visited to purchase more beer. He told the worker at the cash register that he had just seen some kids light a dog on fire in the 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."

For several hours, Grell drove around and drank beer. Just before midnight a Phoenix police officer pulled Grell over on suspicion of driving under the influence , Grell handed the officer a bottle of beer he had been drinking, and the officer eventually released Grell to walk home.

Grell apparently returned to his car after the officer left and continued driving because around two a.m., another Phoenix police officer stopped Grell. This time the officer arrested Grell and took him to the police station, where breath tests confirmed that he had a blood alcohol content of approximately .16. After processing Grell, the officer released him and a taxi cab took Grell to Third Avenue and Van Buren.

From there, Grell walked to the state capitol, where he used a call box to telephone the Capitol Police Department. Grell told the capitol police several times that he had killed his daughter and informed them where he left her body. After confirming that an infant's body was found where Grell indicated it would be, the police arrested him on suspicion of murder.

At the scene, police investigators found Kristen's badly burned and lifeless body, tire tracks that were consistent with the tires on the car Grell was driving that day, large and small shoe impressions in the dirt that were consistent with the shoes that Grell and Kristen were wearing, and a book of matches with one match missing. They also found some partially burned candy, a melted hair clip, and various articles of partially burned clothing. Police recovered a red plastic gas container that appeared new and still contained a small amount of gasoline. Grell's fingerprints were found on the gas can. Finally, investigators noted several areas of burnt soil and a strong smell of gasoline in the area.

Kristen's body was found face down, and her clothes, hair, and body were badly burned. An autopsy revealed that she suffered third and fourth degree burns over 98% of her body. According to the lead detective, the positioning of Kristen's body, the burn patterns on her clothes and body, the burn patterns on the ground near her body, and other evidence collected at the scene were all consistent with Kristen having had gasoline poured on her body and then being lit on fire. The autopsy revealed that Kristen's death resulted from thermal injuries and smoke inhalation.

Several months after his arrest, Grell signed a "Prisoner Media Waiver" informing him that "statements made to reporters, newspersons and other members of the media may be used against you in court." Grell then held a news conference at which he admitted killing his daughter. At the news conference, which was video taped, Grell stated:

We [he and Kristen] had gone to Mesa. Went to Mesa. I was going to see my sister's, my sister's house, but I decided not to. I decided to go to the store and get a few beers, and to go drinking, and drive around in the car. Took Kristen to McDonald's, um, then we just cruised around a little bit more. And I just, I didn't, I decided that I was going to go ahead and do it. I went to the gas station to get the stuff and drove around, trying to find a place where I could do it.

During the press conference, Grell also stated that Kristen woke up when he poured gasoline on her and she stood up when he lit the match and threw it on her.

Three weeks later Grell sent a letter to the prosecutor in which he stated, "I took my daughter's life away from her on December 2, 1999; in a very sickening way!" In the letter, Grell stated several times that he was guilty. Police investigators confirmed that the handwriting on the April 21 letter matched Grell's handwriting.

In consultation with his attorneys, Grell elected to avoid a jury trial and the parties submitted the case to the trial court based on stipulated facts. The court found Grell guilty of first degree murder. At the sentencing hearing, the court concluded that the State had proved beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of three aggravating factors: a prior conviction for a serious offense, A.R.S. § 13-703(F) (2) (Supp. 2002); the heinous, cruel, or depraved manner of the murder, id. § 13-703(F) (6); and that the victim was less than fifteen years of age, id. § 13-703(F) (9). Finding no mitigating circumstances sufficiently substantial to call for leniency, the court sentenced Grell to death. Id. § 13-703(E).


Shawn Ryan Grell

My duties as both the editor and a writer for People You’ll See In Hell force me to view the dark side of life, and I see more than my share of the evil that lurks there. Hey, it’s all part of the job, right? In a way all the child murders and abuse cases and the taking of life over reasons as mundane as money and jealousy have hardened me to the point that I’m not touched by a lot of the things I see and read about. The evil men do seems to have lost the shock value it used to have.

But this case, man, this is the kind of evil that takes you breath away. It’s the kind of evil that, after you absorb the horror of it all, changes you forever.

Meet thirty-five-year-old Shawn Ryan Grell. Shawn was one of those kids who grew up hard and mean. He killed his family’s cat, set fire to their dog, and even burned down the house they lived in. In 1988, when he was thirteen, police arrested Grell after he fondled a young girls breasts.

Grell was sent to a juvenile facility after the incident, where he continued to get in trouble. Incidents like assaulting staff and other inmates earned him a reputation for being an unstable kid whose “assaultiveness” needed to be controlled. He was tested and was diagnosed as borderline retarded with an IQ somewhere between 70 and 80.

Grell had a pretty lousy home life, and he spent the rest of his youth bouncing in and out of that juvenile facility, committing offenses like disorderly conduct, shoplifting and assault.

Things did not improve for Shawn Grell with the passing of his eighteenth birthday. By 1992 he had been convicted of assault and sent to prison. In 1995 he was back in jail for robbing a convenience store. Grell was granted parole, but his Parole Officer violated him when he was caught possessing drug paraphernalia in 1998.

During the three years or so that Grell was out on parole, he had managed to find himself a steady girlfriend, Amber Salem, and when he ask her to marry him in 1998, she accepted. He also became a father. Kristen Salem was born in 1997, and by all accounts was a happy, well adjusted little toddler by the winter of 1999. All three had moved in to Amber’s parents home by the time Shawn violated his parole and was sent back to prison.

After Grell was released in 1999, he tried to walk the straight and narrow, but his criminal record made it difficult for him. Because of his felony convictions, companies would either not hire him, or, if he lied and didn’t tell them about his record, fire him in a couple of months after his background check was completed.

His inability to remain employed caused a great deal of conflict in the home, especially between Grell and Amber Salem’s parents.

Grell was at home December 2nd, 1999, when his girlfriend’s mother found out he’d lost his job once again. Amber Salem then called to meet Grell for lunch. Grell cashed his last paycheck, put in some job applications at Desert Sky Mall and met Amber outside the food court. She told him how upset her parents were, and that they were threatening to throw Grell out of the family home.

When Amber returned to work, Grell bought some 32-ounce bottles of beer and drank in her car. He went to a bar in Phoenix, then met Amber for her break about 2:45 p.m. After that, Grell said, he decided to pick up two-year-old Kristen and drive out to visit his sister.

Grell picked up little Kristen Salem at the daycare she attended, then took her to McDonald’s for a hamburger. They ate in an apartment complex parking lot, then cruised around for a while, looking at Christmas displays.

Kristen started whining.

”I just got tired of it and slapped her in the mouth. After she stopped crying a few minutes later, she said, ‘Sorry, Daddy,’ and then she started being good, and then she just went nuts again because she wanted to see her mom again.”

Grell snapped.

He took Kristen to the Target store and purchased a red plastic 3-gallon gasoline jug for $4. He filled it at a gas station, then he drove around the desert for about 45 minutes until he found a ditch on the side of the road that appeared to be just what he was looking for.

“Kristen was already asleep, so I got out of the car, then I picked her up out of the car. I said, ‘Kristen, Mommy’s here. Let’s lay down,’ so I laid her in the dirt next to the car. “I took the gasoline and poured it on her.”

Even Kristen’s screams and pleas of ”No, Daddy, no!” weren’t enough to stop him.

“I took the match and threw it on her.”

Detective Donald Walsh of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office testified in court that Kristen was lying on the ground when the blaze began on the front of her body. She got up and ran about 12 feet, walking in circles at one point as the flames spread upwards to her face, he said.

The heat was so intense, Walsh said, that a barrette on the left side of her head melted, the plastic running down her face. She finally collapsed face-first in a ditch and died.

In my mind’s eye I see a little child, running with that stumbling gate that two-year-olds have, screaming in abject agony, her face blistering, then melting away.

God help me.

Grell drove back and forth until he couldn’t see the flames anymore. Then he went back, got out and walked over to Kristen.

‘I just looked at her.”

Six hours after he burned his daughter to death, Shawn Grell was pulled over in downtown Phoenix for suspicion of drunk driving. He was arrested and, during a 30 minute interview with police officers, laughed, joked, and even suggested a lingerie bar he thought the cops might enjoy. Not once did he mention his two-year-old daughter.

Two days later, his conscience tearing him apart, Shawn Ryan Grell turned himself in and confessed to the murder of his daughter, Kristen Salem. He plead guilty to first degree murder and threw himself on the mercy of the court.

Judge Barbara Jarrett had sat on the bench for 12 years. During her long and illustrious career, she presided over many cases where capital punishment was an option, but never found cause to use it. Not once.

On July 9th, 2001, in one of her last acts before she retired from the bench, The Honorable Judge Barbara Jarrett sentenced Shawn Ryan Grell to Death.

Sadly, Judge Jarrett’s sentence was not the end of this story.

On June 6th, 2006, the Arizona Supreme Court unanimously decided that Shawn Grell did not give up his right to a jury sentencing when he waived his right to a jury trial in 2000. His death sentence was vacated, and it was ordered that a new sentencing hearing be held. That hearing is going on right now.

At the center of the issue is whether the trial court erred by failing to find that Grell is mentally retarded and appropriately weighing that factor in mitigation of his sentence, and whether the execution of a mentally retarded person violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.


Hearing set for father who lit 2-year-old on fire

By Jim Walsh - The Arizona Republic

March 3, 2009

A father convicted of dousing his own 2-year-old daughter with gasoline and lighting her on fire a decade ago in east Mesa will get a second chance later this month to avoid the death penalty.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanders has a hearing scheduled on March 17 to hear motions on jury selection and other issues on the resentencing of Shawn Grell.

In court filings, prosecutors and defense attorneys have agreed to a pool of 225 potential jurors but disagreed on numerous other issues, including whether or not Grell even should be referred to as "the defendant."

Among the unsettled issues is defense attorney Gary Bevilacqua's motion to dismiss the death penalty on procedural grounds.

Bevilacqua argues that Grell was found guilty of first-degree murder, rather than capitol murder. Grell waived his trial in 2001 and was found guilty by now retired Judge Barbara Jarrett based upon stipulated facts. The proceedings occurred before the state's death penalty law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court and overhauled.

"The death penalty is not available for the crime of first-degree murder, the noticed aggravating factors are not supported by probable cause, the indictment cannot be amended to charge the greater offense of capitol murder," Bevilacqua wrote in a recent court filing.

Grell's Dec. 2, 1999 murder of his daughter, Kristin, ranks among the most horrific slayings in the east Valley in recent memory. It drew the only death sentence meted out by Jarrett during her 12-year career on the bench.

Jarrett concluded twice that Grell's attorneys did not prove he was functionally mentally retarded, a requirement of state law, despite his low intelligence.

The Arizona Supreme Court agreed, but still ordered a resentencing because the U.S. Supreme Court issued two important rulings after Grell's conviction.

One ruling found it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded. The other was that only jurors, not judges, can find that aggravating factors exist to qualify defendants for a death sentence.

That second ruling forced a change in Arizona's death penalty law, with juries deciding whether to give defendants death sentences rather than judges.

But the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Grell's death sentence.

Grell's first sentencing in 2001, and additional hearings in 2005, focused on a war of dueling psychologists and psychiatrists.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that Grell's intelligence fell within the range of mental retardation, citing several tests. They clashed, however, on whether his life demonstrated that he was capable of functioning in society.

In a court document, prosecutor Jeannette Gallagher wrote that Det. Steve Lewis, of the County Attorney's Office, had been recontacting witnesses disclosed by the defense in 2001 in preparation for the resentencing.

The potential witnesses include 16 school employees in Iowa, Indiana and Phoenix who had dealings with Grell as a child, past employment records and a woman with whom he lived briefly as a teenager.

Kristin Grell's family could not be reached for comment, but Gallagher's filing said they are anxious for the resentencing.

"In this case, Kristin's mother, Amber Salem, has been waiting for over eight years for a 'final conclusion' in this case," Gallagher wrote in an April 7, 2008 court filing.


Grell sentenced to death in daughter's murder

By Jim Walsh - The Arizona Republic

Jul. 27, 2009

Eight years after a judge sentenced to Shawn Ryan Grell to death for murdering his 2-year-old daughter, a jury reached the same conclusion and ordered that he die by lethal injection.

The victim’s mother cried and hugged the victim’s grandmother when the verdict was read. At least two jurors also cried.

“It’s been a long 10 years but it’s worth the wait,” said Lee Petruso, victim Kristen Salem’s grandmother.

But defense attorney Gary Bevilacqua said he’s still hoping that the state Supreme Court will reduce Grell’s sentence to life in prison. “You can’t have a procedure where you execute the retarded,” Bevilacqua said. “He’s been diagnosed as retarded since first grade.”

Shawn Grell’s murder of Kristen on Dec. 2, 1999 in the desert just east Mesa, is considered among the East Valley’s most heartbreaking and senseless crimes.

Grell waived his trial in 2001 and was found guilty by now retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Barbara Jarrett, who sentenced him to death after rejecting arguments he is mentally retarded.

In reaction to two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, the Arizona Supreme Court rejected Grell’s mental retardation claim but still sent the case back to Superior Court in 2006 for re-sentencing by a jury.

The nation’s highest court ruled that only jurors, not judges, can determine aggravating factors that qualify defendants for a death sentence.

The U.S. Supreme Court also ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded.

Bevilacqua argued that Grell suffers from a cognitive disorder that leaves him unable to control his impulses.

But prosecutor Kristen Hoffmeyer said, “the only penalty that fits this crime is that he spend the rest of his days sitting on death row. Justice demands no less.”



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