KENT — A judge said Friday he looked hard for the possibility of personal redemption but didn’t find it in a Tacoma man who bludgeoned a retired Boeing worker to death in a plot to steal the victim’s house and property southeast of Renton.
It’s difficult to imagine a more predatory and cold-blooded murder than the 2018 death of Steven Morphis, said King County Superior Court Judge Matthew Williams, who sentenced Morphis’ killer to more than four decades behind bars.
A jury last month found Jeremy Shaw, 43, guilty of premeditated first-degree murder in the killing of Morphis, a recent retiree who lived alone in a secluded, three-bedroom rambler on nearly 7 acres, court records show. Shaw was also convicted of second-degree arson for torching Morphis’ car in a University Place parking lot three days after the killing.
“He researched different properties in Pierce and King counties, different homesteads he might call his own,” said Williams, who presided over Shaw’s trial. “He did not throw away Mr. Morphis’ life. He took it.”
Williams sentenced Shaw to 548 months — or a little more than 45 1/2 years — in prison, the top end of the standard sentencing range.
Shaw’s wife, 41-year-old Lorena Shaw, was sentenced in October to four years in prison after pleading guilty to three charges for her role in the plot. She served a single day in Department of Corrections custody before being released with credit for the time she spent in the county jail, according to corrections and jail officials.
Jeremy Shaw settled on Morphis’ house, which wasn’t visible from the street and was valued at more than $500,000, after spending weeks researching rural properties and teaching himself about “adverse possession,” or how to gain ownership of land by simply occupying it, according to prosecutors.
Shaw chose not to address the court Friday, at the advice of his defense counsel, because he intends to appeal his convictions.
Defense attorney Scott Carter-Eldred asked that Williams impose a sentence of 34 years, the low end of the standard sentencing range, to afford his client a chance to improve himself and perhaps one day go free.
“Mr. Shaw is going to spend the vast majority of his life in prison,” Carter-Eldred said. “Even if there’s a small window … there’s still a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Gretchen Holmgren countered that Shaw — who has a criminal history dating to 1996 — has wasted myriad opportunities to redeem himself through low-end sentences and treatment options.
Instead, Holmgren said, he went on “to commit more crimes, each one more violent than the last.”
Referencing testimony at trial, Holmgren said Morphis was a kind, gentle person who loved his family and his home.
“All he wanted after his retirement was a simple life and a bit of rest,” Holmgren said. “Jeremy Shaw took that from him.”
Ross Bogue said he’ll never forget the Friday afternoon when two King County Sheriff’s detectives showed up at his house to tell his wife, Brenda, that her brother had been brutally murdered.
Brenda, he said, let out a “primal scream … and collapsed in my arms.”
“Steve is gone from us in a physical way — we can no longer touch or hug him,” Bogue said. “Brenda and I both believe his spirit still exists.”
Shaw knocked on Morphis’ door Sept. 19, 2018, pepper-sprayed himand struck him five times in the face and head, fracturing his skull, according to charging papers. Shaw then slashed Morphis’ throat, the papers say.
A contractor who had recently done yardwork at the property in the 16700 block of 196th Avenue returned to pick up some equipment the evening after Morphis, 67, was killed, charging papers say. But Morphis did not come out to greet him, as was his custom, and the contractor noticed a freshly dug hole in the shape of a grave behind the house, the charges say.
The contractor found Morphis’ body, which had been wrapped in a tarp and bound with zip ties, inside a shed. He called 911.
Sheriff’s detectives learned that Morphis’ debit card had been used in the days after his death. One $4,000 payment was made to Aryan Enterprises, a business owned by Jeremy Shaw, the charges say.
Detectives also tracked Morphis’ cellphone, which showed it had been in the area of the Shaws’ Tacoma house and later returned to the area of Morphis’ property, the charges say.
Jeremy and Lorena Shaw were arrested a week after Morphis was killed.
When detectives searched the Shaws’ house, they found “Star Trek” memorabilia believed to have been stolen from Morphis’ home, as well as methamphetamine and Nazi-themed and “white power” items, according to the charges.
Detectives also recovered a warranty deed, dated Sept. 6, 2018, purporting to transfer the title to Morphis’ property to the Shaws, the charges say.