No charges for Idaho's Renee McKenzie

Divorced from Sen. McKenzie, she says she wants to wed an inmate and continue her fight for prison reform.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comFebruary 25, 2014 


    On Nov. 21, 1988, parolees Lance Conway Wood and Michael Anthony Archuleta met a Southern Utah University theater student, Gordon Ray Church, at a 7-Eleven in Cedar City, Utah.

    Wood, 20; Archuleta, 26; and Church, 28, decided to cruise downtown in Church's car. Later, they drove to nearby Cedar Canyon, where Church told his new acquaintances he was gay. Archuleta began to have sex with Church, but then thought better of it, according to Utah Supreme Court records.

    Wood then attacked Church, breaking his arm, dislocating his elbow and cutting his throat to produce a wound in the shape of an "X." Wood and Archuleta bound Church with tire chains and a bungee cord. After putting him in the trunk of a car, they drove 76 miles to a remote spot in Millard County called "Dog Valley."

    Removing Church from the trunk, the pair attached battery cables to his testicles and the car battery in a failed attempt to electrocute him. They beat Church's head with a tire jack and tire iron and inserted the tire iron 18 inches into Church's rectum, puncturing his liver, according to the records. They carried Church's body, naked from the waist down, up a hill, covering it with branches and dirt. He was found with his mouth gagged and tire chains wrapped tightly around his neck.

    At trial, the medical examiner testified that Church's face was "completely distorted and that the left side of his head was concave due to multiple blows to the jaw, cheek and eye areas with a blunt instrument," according to the records. Church also had multiple bruises and lacerations, including puncture wounds consistent with having been poked with pliers. The cause of death, the examiner said, was multiple blows to the head; a contributing cause was injury to the liver and abdomen caused by the tire iron.

    Convicted in separate trials, Wood received a life sentence, with the possibility of parole. He was transferred to Idaho in 1990. In 1995, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, which retains jurisdiction, ordered that Wood remain in prison for life.

    Archuleta was sentenced to death. In a state court appeal, Archuleta cited a 2009 affidavit from Wood, who took primary responsibility for torturing Church. That contradicted Wood's earlier testimony. In 2011, Utah Chief Justice Christine Durham said Wood's confession wasn't sufficient to clear Archuleta of his role in the assault.

Ada County Prosecutor Greg Bower says he won't file charges against Renee McKenzie for practicing law without a license or smuggling contraband into a state prison.

But in a letter to her lawyer, Bower called McKenzie's conduct "troubling."

"We are confident you will counsel your client on the law to ensure she understands not only what constitutes the practice of law but what constitutes the unauthorized conveyance of prohibited items into a correctional facility and the potential danger to staff and inmates from such conduct," Bower wrote attorney Phil Gordon.

Practicing law without a license can be a misdemeanor contempt of court. Introducing contraband can be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the contraband.

McKenzie said Monday that the idea she smuggled anything during visits to murderer Lance Conway Wood at the Idaho State Correctional Institution south of Boise is "just crazy."

"It's ludicrous," she said. "There's no truth to it."

The Ada County Sheriff's Office said in April 2013 that it had opened a criminal inquiry into allegations McKenzie was claiming to inmates she was an attorney. No mention was made then of contraband.

Bower's letter closing the case came Feb. 4, a year after the Idaho Department of Correction ended McKenzie's in-person visits to Wood as his legal assistant.

Asked if his admonition to Gordon about contraband was intended to suggest McKenzie may have attempted to smuggle, Bower said Monday, "If we had proof beyond reasonable doubt we would have charged her. So, no. That's about all you're going to get out of us."

Gordon declined comment Monday.

Sen. Curtis McKenzie, R-Nampa, is a lawyer and chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee. He and Renee McKenzie divorced in November and have two teenage children.

Sen. McKenzie also declined comment Monday, including on the validity of his ex-wife's allegations of corruption at the Department of Correction.


Renee McKenzie, 44, said she plans to marry Wood, 46, who is serving two life sentences for the grisly 1988 kidnapping, torture and murder of a gay man in Utah. Wood and another man were convicted of attempting to electrocute a third man before beating him with a tire jack and puncturing his body with a tire iron. Wood has done most of his time in Idaho.

Renee McKenzie has become an advocate for prison reform, saying the Department of Correction wrongly monitored her phone conversations with Wood and opened their mail. She also is president of the Coalition of Idaho Charter School Families and is urging lawmakers to boost funding for charter schools.

On Thursday, Renee McKenzie will be in 3rd District Court in Caldwell asking a judge to change her name to Renee Shereen-Anderson Wood. Anderson is her maiden name and she told the Statesman she wants her last name to be Wood, hence the unconventional use of the hyphen.

In a written statement, Renee McKenzie said: "The dissolution of my marriage to Curt McKenzie has been years in the making due to the commitment that being a public servant entails: putting the constituents and the public before family.

"My name change is the result of my life commitment to Mr. Lance Wood. Mr. Wood and I made a promise to the Idaho prison inmates and current and past IDOC staff members who came forth to both Mr. Wood and myself to be advocates for prison reform in Idaho.

"Our goal is to help both expose and facilitate the end of the corruption and misappropriation of taxpayer funds to the IDOC budget and to encourage the increase in the Idaho education budget."


In April 2013, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill issued an order suggesting Renee McKenzie may have engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. While working as a legal assistant at her then-husband's law firm, Renee McKenzie was allowed to assist Wood in a civil lawsuit against the state. Sen. McKenzie's law firm, however, has never represented Wood.

Winmill said Renee McKenzie engaged in an "inappropriate" relationship with Wood. According to state transcripts of their phone calls, she told Wood she loved him and wanted to spend her life with him.

The Department of Correction said it mistakenly believed Renee McKenzie was Wood's lawyer and allowed in-person visits. She introduced herself as "Renee McKenzie of McKenzie Law Office."

In his April order, Winmill rejected Wood's motion for a hearing on whether the surveillance was legal, saying Renee McKenzie's presence in the case was a "side show taking up far too much time and far too many resources of the court, counsel and the parties."

Wood was transferred from Utah to Idaho in 1990, where he remained until June 2013. He was moved to the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton in June "to ensure the safe and orderly operations of our facilities," said Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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