It was a nightmare scenario for the little girl’s parents. Destiny Norton, five, went missing on July 16, 2006. She wandered out into the backyard of her home in Salt Lake City. Then around five minutes later, when her dad came looking for her, she had vanished. The garden was, furthermore, fenced in on all sides, making Destiny’s disappearance all the more puzzling.
Destiny had green streaks running through her blonde hair and a playful smile often painted across her face. Her parents look back fondly on memories of her dancing for their wedding photographs. And Jesse Garcia II, 22, a family acquaintance, told The New York Times, “She was a loving little girl. Always talking to everybody. She always wanted to be your friend.”
Destiny lived with her parents, Rachael and Rick Norton, as well as her younger sister, Trinity, who was close to reaching her first birthday at the time of the incident. The Nortons’ home was a ranch house in which they co-habited with numerous friends. They were also involved in the local drum circle scene. So, when Destiny vanished, the collective scoured the city to find her.
In fact, thousands of other Utah residents, along with police officers and FBI agents, took part in an eight-day search for Destiny. People put up missing child posters, and the police inspected local houses, including many of Destiny’s neighbors’ basements. According to the Deseret News, relatives of Elizabeth Smart, who’d been abducted four years earlier but had survived, also supported the search for Destiny. This time, however, a terrible discovery was soon to be made.
The hunt ended on the evening of July 24, 2006, when Destiny’s body was found inside a storage bin in a neighbor’s basement, just a stone’s throw from the Nortons’ home. Local residents said that the suspect, Craig Gregerson, 20, had lived there for around 18 months. Meanwhile, Jeannie Hill, a spokesperson for the bereaved family, stated that they were not familiar with Gregerson. He was described as something of a hermit whose wife sometimes stayed with him.
Gregerson was charged with counts of murder and kidnapping. According to a probable cause statement, he had seen Destiny outside his residence. The 20-year-old had subsequently opened his back gate and coaxed the little girl into coming into his property. She’d then reportedly begun shrieking, so Gregerson had covered her mouth with his hand and applied pressure to her body. As a result, she’d stopped moving – and then he’d placed her lifeless body upon the floor.
Following the disappearance, when detectives had knocked on doors throughout the neighborhood, they’d spoken to Gregerson inside his house. Their dogs had failed to notice Destiny’s scent, however. And the fact that Gregerson had not permitted officers to inspect all of the rooms in his house was, according to police chiefs, not sufficient probable cause to search his residence. A warrant was required to do so.
Rick and Rachel Norton had, furthermore, apparently not suggested that Gregerson might have been involved. Yet the police’s failure to properly search Gregerson’s basement initially provoked outrage from Destiny’s family and their friends, who accused the authorities of bungling the investigation – and indeed those same authorities later publicly apologized. Neighbor Sara Woods told KSL, “We’re sick. This is right behind the wall of my house!”
Craig Roger Gregerson had previously been arrested, two years earlier, for alleged domestic assault, but no charges had been brought against him. Court papers detailed a reportedly violent past, with his wife Catherine Gregerson having apparently often been the target of his abuse. According to the papers, his physical assaults on her in fact once led to the loss of her unborn child. Gregerson’s mother-in-law, meanwhile, formally accused him of once hitting and choking her. And in addition, an attorney for Catherine claimed that Gregerson had once hurled the couple’s infant daughter over a bed.
Court papers also stated that Gregerson had told Catherine that he wouldn’t mind causing her death and that he would have preferred to serve prison time than live with her. The files further claimed that Catherine had been in a physically abusive relationship and suggested that she’d tolerated Gregerson owing to codependency issues.
According to witnesses, Catherine had been spotted on various occasions close to Gregerson’s home before the disappearance and then again once shortly after his arrest. Jeannie Hill, the Nortons’ spokesperson, told KSL, “She came up last night and says, ‘Oh, where’s my husband?’ And she said the guy’s name, and somebody said, ‘You need to go; he was just arrested for murder.’ And she didn’t even seem surprised; she just walked away.”
In fact, Catherine had been among those who’d helped scour the city to find Destiny. When asked on KSL radio whether she had seen anything odd in the home during those eight days, she replied, “You know what, the house smelled like it normally does. I didn’t smell a single thing. I’ve been in that house several times since she was missing, and I haven’t smelled a single thing.” Catherine added that the basement of the house was an area that she’d never visited.
Gregerson then admitted, via his legal team, to child kidnapping and aggravated murder. In court, the accused’s lawyer read out a plea statement from him that said, “I placed my hand over her mouth, and she suffocated and died.” After Destiny had drawn her last breath, Gregerson had, police stated, engaged in intercourse with her corpse before pushing it into the basement storage box. Under questioning by an FBI agent, Gregerson had reportedly confessed to taking Destiny’s life – as well as having imagined kidnapping her prior to the incident.
Due to Gregerson’s plea deal, he escaped the death penalty. Instead, he was sentenced to life behind bars for murder, without the opportunity for parole. For kidnapping Destiny, he was also handed a further sentence of 15 years to life. And it was in fact Destiny’s family who asked for the plea deal to be made, as they did not want to endure the additional trauma of lengthy court proceedings. Rachael Norton told the Deseret News, “He’s not going to hurt anybody else. In the end, he’ll get what he deserves.”
A handwritten message from Gregerson to the Nortons read, “You have every right to hate me, every right to want me dead and every right to never forgive me. I take full responsibility for your daughter’s death. But her death was not the worst part; what I did after she was dead was unexcusable, sick and disgusting. I hate myself for what I did. I am in terrible pain every day because your daughter is dead by my actions.”
Destiny’s mother then spoke about her daughter in front of the court. According to the Deseret News, as her voice quivered, Rachael said, “She was a good kid with lots of dreams about life, [and] she always wanted to do the best at everything that she could. She wanted to be a vet when she got older; she told me one day that she was going to buy me a house and her dad a motorcycle.” The Nortons’ extended street family sat and listened in the courtroom.
Rachael branded Gregerson a “monster” and explained how the incident had impacted upon the Nortons. She said, “That man took everything from us when he took her. She was what kept me and my husband going all these years.” In a statement read out to the court by a prosecutor, Destiny’s grandmother added, “That monster not only murdered our little angel, [but] he has also murdered a big part of who I am.”
After the hearing, those officially involved in the search for Destiny subsequently gathered outside Matheson Courthouse. Salt Lake D.A. David Yocom said, “This was an ordeal that tried us all. We all fell in love with Destiny as if she was one of ours.” In spite of these kind words, though, Gregerson’s avoidance of the death penalty angered some of those who’d taken part in the search.
In the aftermath of the crime, Rachael Norton gave birth to another child: Faith LeeAnn. The name was in fact one that Destiny had suggested. Destiny’s parents therefore once again had two children to cherish. As for Gregerson’s sentencing, it took place a matter of days following what would have been Destiny’s sixth birthday – on November 30, 2006.
Rachel said, “I’m just glad that it’s over with, so she can rest in peace.” After the discovery of Destiny’s body, toys, cards and candles had piled up outside the family’s residence. And at the little girl’s funeral, her mother remarked, “She was a very brilliant little girl; she had high dreams in life, [and] she wanted to become a veterinarian. She loved everything: she loved animals, she loved nature, [and] she loved people in general.”