December 2, 1999
Near Apache Junction, Arizona
Shawn Ryan Grell drives his 2-year-old daughter Kristen Salem to a remote location, douses her with gasoline, and sets her on fire
Warning: The details in this article may be considered graphic. Discretion is advised.
For reasons that remain unclear, Grell signed Kristen Salem out of her daycare, drove around the Mesa, Arizona area with the toddler in his vehicle, purchased a gasoline can and gas, placed Kristen on the ground in a ditch, and doused her with gasoline. Kristen said, “No, daddy no,” before her father flicked a matched toward her and lit her on fire. Kristen walked at least 12 feet while on fire before collapsing to her knees and eventually falling face down in the dirt. She died from smoke inhalation and severe burns, suffering wounds over almost her entire body with only the soles of her feet left unburnt.
Grell drove off but circled back to ensure the flames had been extinguished. He was arrested for drunk driving a few hours later and was released, despite telling the police he had killed his daughter. He confessed to the murder again the following day. “I really did this,” Grell told officers at the State Capitol police office, “I killed my daughter, but no one believes me.” Grell then detailed the events and directed authorities to the location of his daughter’s burned body.
Grell’s defense team attempted a diminished mental capacity defense, arguing he suffered from severe “brain dysfunction,” though the tactic was not immediately successful. He was found guilty and handed a death sentence. On appeal, Grell’s sentence was reduced to life due to a mental disability.
Grell and Kristen’s mother, Amber Salem, were on good terms at the time of the murder, and Grell had not shown Salem any troubling behavior to suggest he would hurt Kristen. Some family members have suggested Grell possibly killed Kristen to cover up sexual abuse, citing medical records and autopsy results showing signs Kristen had been abused, but at this time Grell has not offered a motive for the murder of his daughter.
Amber Salem passed away in 2013 and has been buried next to Kristen.
Enea, Joe. “Old Time Crime: Shawn Grell burned his daughter to death in 1999.” ABC 15. December 3, 2017. updated: December 3, 2019. Accessed: December 2, 2020. https://www.abc15.com/news/crime/old-time-crime-young-child-burned-and-killed-by-her-father-in-1999
Arizona Department of Corrections Inmate Search. Inmate 092899. https://corrections.az.gov/public-resources/inmate-datasearch
“Amber Lee Salem.” Find A Grave. Accessed: December 2, 2019. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/110548637/amber-lee-salem
STATE OF ARIZONA v SHAWN RYAN GRELL. Arizona Supreme Court. No. CR-09-0199-AP. Maricopa County Superior Court. No. CR1999-095294. Justia. Accessed: December 2, 2019. https://cases.justia.com/arizona/supreme-court/cr-09-0199.pdf?ts=1462297170
State v. Grell. 66 P.3d 1234 (2003). 205 Ariz. 57. April 1, 2003. https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=16775039894935488957&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr
Walsh, Jim. “Grell sentenced to death.” Arizona Republic [Phoenix, Arizona]. July 10, 2001
“Man to die for burning daughter, 2, to death.” The Morning Call [Allentown, Pennsylvania]. July 10, 2001
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Harris, Craig. “Killer’s motive still a mystery.” Arizona Republic. December 5, 1999