ELKO – Sixteen-year-old Kylee Leniz loved volleyball, taking funny selfies on her mom’s phone and being a “little mother” to her baby brother.
It was these memories that Kylee’s mother Shannon Sanders recalled as she scrolled through hundreds of photos on her smartphone Friday morning.
Her phone held priceless treasures of moments in Kylee’s life, like pictures of her and her friends dressed up for homecoming, videos from volleyball games, and several photos of Kylee making funny faces alone and with her sister.
As she talked about her daughter, Sanders fingered two necklaces she wears in memory of Kylee and her son Lane who died 18 months ago.
Sanders reminisced about the time Kylee was hit in the eye with a softball that prompted her to switch sports and take up volleyball, which Sanders coached.
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“She would do her homework on our way to the game. We’d all play together, so it was a family thing we did. Every year we did mud volleyball.”
Kylee had saved $700 from working at McDonalds to buy a car, but Sanders said she had to be persuaded allow Kylee to get her driver’s license.
“The week before she was murdered, her grandfather talked me into letting her get her driver’s license. I was worried about her safety,” Sanders said. “I didn’t want her to get hurt. I would rather we take her to work and pick her up.”
Kylee grew up in a close-knit family with an older brother and younger sister and brother. She happily and lovingly took care of her baby brother the first five years of his life. “She mothered him,” Sanders said.
Sanders also recalled Kylee being a daughter who frequently expressed her love toward her family at any given moment.
“The one regret I don’t have is my kids know I love them,” Sanders said. “If nothing else, they knew every single day, every moment. It was an open and complete relationship. They’re like my partners. We’re a very close family.”
But without Kylee, “there’s a huge piece missing. Huge,” Sanders said.
Final day in court
On Friday morning, Sanders, along with several other of Kylee’s family members, sat in Elko District Court Department 3 for the final hearing for Justin Mullis, 24.
On Oct. 24, Mullis was found guilty by a jury of first-degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon and concealing or destroying evidence. He was sentenced by Judge Mason Simons to life in prison without the possibility of parole, 8 to 20 years in prison for deadly weapon enhancement, and one year in jail, with credit for 817 days served.
During the 20-minute hearing, Mullis sat between Elko County Public Defender Matthew Pennell and attorney Gary Woodbury.
Pennell argued for a minimum penalty for his client, pointing to Mullis’ tumultuous childhood where he suffered abuse and neglect from birth, and was in and out of foster care. He also asked the court to consider Mullis’ lack of a criminal history.
“That’s somewhat unusual for a crime like this,” Pennell said. He added Mullis told him “he always wanted to take some kind of responsibility for this.”
Pennell added a minimum penalty “would show that we’re not unnecessarily heavy-handed. It does say something about the temperament of the legal system.”
Mullis spoke when asked if he wanted to make a statement to the court.
“I wanted to let everyone know that I understand what I’ve done, destroying families, and the atrocity that I committed. I ask God to forgive me every day but I don’t expect the family to do the same,” Mullis said.
“I apologize for being so destructive,” he continued. “I ask God to be with them all.”
During victim impact testimony, Inaki Leniz, Kylee’s father, took to the stand, remembering his daughter.
“Kylee was a great kid. She was strong, funny, laughed for no reason,” Leniz said.
He said the past two years were an experience he could have never imagined before Kylee’s death. Meeting another father who lost their child, Leniz said, “You would think I would know what to say, but I don’t.”
“The ability to comprehend losing a 16-year-old child, you can’t,” Leniz said. “The memories left, good and bad, I can’t even say it.”
Leniz said Kylee’s life was in direct contrast to Mullis, who he directed his remarks to from the witness stand.
“In one shift she did more to do better for her life than you ever did in 24 years,” Leniz said. “The only one you ever cared about is yourself. And I lose my daughter because of that? Because you had a bad day?”
“Wherever you end up, I hope you suffer the way you made our family suffer,” he continued. “This is horrible to do what you did to a 16-year-old girl who did nothing but go to work. Nothing. Good luck.”
Elko County District Attorney Tyler Ingram asked Simons to impose the maximum penalty to send a message to Kylee’s family and the community that the court would hold Mullis accountable for his actions in the shooting death of an innocent girl “who was only guilty of being a hardworking” teen.
Ingram said that for those working in the DA’s office, the randomness of the crime on a girl working in a fast food restaurant was difficult to understand.
“What has been troubling for the people in my office who handled this case is that this is all for nothing,” he said. “She had her whole life in front of her and it was taken by a coward. The worst kind of coward.”
Referring to Pennell’s argument to avoid a penalty that would be “heavy-handed,” Ingram said “I think that sometimes that is exactly what should happen. Some cases the court should be heavy-handed. This is that case.”
Simons agreed with Ingram that the crime was “a cowardly act. This was completely senseless and tragic. Simply no reason for it at all.”
He said the crime was “more difficult for the family who has gone through this to process the events of the experience because there isn’t really a logical way to explain why this happened.’
“It is a totally senseless act carried out for no particular reason, leaving a family dealing with a tragic hole in their heart for years and years to come,” Simons continued, adding he wished he could say something to help the family heal or bring Kylee back to them, “but I don’t have the power to do such a thing.”
“All I can do is give a sentence to Mr. Mullis that is commensurate with the tragedy that he has caused, and I agree with the State of Nevada that the sentence should be the maximum sentence that I am able to issue, even though it is largely symbolic in this case.”
Ingram had pursued the death penalty against Mullis when filing charges of open murder. After the jury’s verdict was returned, Ingram – on behalf of Kylee’s family – asked Mullis if he would agree to life in prison without parole in exchange for the death penalty to be dropped before the jury deliberated on his fate.
Mullis signed an agreement to the option a couple of hours following the jury verdict.
A senseless tragedy
“As her mom, she talked to me about anything and everything,” Sanders said about Kylee.
Sanders said she was confident Kylee had never met Mullis before Nov. 1, 2020, because her daughter would have said something.
“We had such a relationship that if there was a positive or negative interaction she would have mentioned it,” Sanders said.
Many years ago, Sanders and her family lived in Boise, Idaho, before a shooting took place in their neighborhood. It prompted Sanders to move her family to Elko.
“It’s not what I wanted my kids to be around or how I wanted them to grow up,” she said.
Sanders pointed to Ingram’s statement in the courtroom on Friday that Kylee’s death was inexplicable and random, and called his words “accurate.”
“The worst part of this is that there’s never been a reason. I’m not saying a reason would make it right,” Sanders explained. “[Mullis] didn’t know her. He didn’t love her. He didn’t hate her. There was nothing. He didn’t demand money.”
“We were a very close family. The only way to break that was to shoot her in the back. Shoot her in the back for nothing,” Sanders continued.
During the trial, Mullis took the stand in his own defense, claiming he had a fight with his girlfriend in their room at the Motel 6 before walking down Idaho Street and toward McDonald’s. He said anger toward his biological mother was building up as he neared the fast food restaurant.
Mullis said he didn’t remember anything afterward, and learned about the shooting after waking up the next morning in a Spring Creek home. But surveillance cameras at McDonalds showed him walking to the drive-thru window with his face covered. Also, video cameras at the Best Western Motel across the street recorded him walking through the hallway shortly after the shooting.
Police found a duffle bag with clothing that was similar to the McDonald’s video. DNA analysis from the Washoe County Crime Lab determined the bag and items within it – including a 9mm bullet from what was later found to be the murder weapon – belonged to him.
The next day he was taken to the Elko Police Department by a friend who saw his picture on social media as a suspect in the shooting.
The explanation from Mullis on the witness stand was “a very hard part for me. Also it’s the senselessness” of the crime, Sanders said.
“It’s like, ‘Why don’t I have a daughter?’ Because he had a girlfriend he’s mad at?” Sanders said. “Why her? Not that I want it to be anyone else, but why her? Why McDonald’s? Why not some other place? Those questions will haunt me the rest of my life.”
Speaking about Mullis, Sanders said she knew he had an abusive childhood but wondered why he didn’t take one of “many opportunities to change his life and many opportunities to choose to go another way. There’s so many times he could have made a different choice.”
Advocating for mental health services
The night Kylee died, Sanders recalled herself and her family standing in the hospital parking lot “alone and lost,” not knowing what to do in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
“We’re like, ‘What do we do now?’” Sanders said. The first 30 days after Kylee’s death, Sanders said she was in shock and was going through the motions of daily living before the overwhelming emotions of grief took over.
Looking back, she said she wished someone had been there to guide them in how to prepare for the days and weeks to come. “Like somebody saying, ‘Go home and get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a long day.’ Something. Anything.”
The family also followed Mullis’ court proceedings closely, attending the trial in October.
Sanders requested to sit in the courtroom after giving testimony on the first day of the trial and sat with Elko Police Department Systems Advocate Amber Huff.
Huff and others from the DA’s office, including Ingram, helped Kylee’s family get through the trial, Sanders said. She sat in the back of the courtroom with Huff, as a member of the DA’s office sat in front of her to shield her from the eyes of the jury.
She praised Ingram for being “open and transparent and very good to us.”
With the final court hearing behind her, Sanders said her ordeal has given her insight into the need for more mental health services in Elko, especially to help families when a loved one becomes a victim of a violent crime or a sudden death.
They need someone to guide them through the first day and weeks afterward, she stated.
Sanders remembered calling for local mental health services for her and her family immediately after Kylee’s death, only to be told she would be put on a priority list that was booked two to six weeks out.
“The average person can’t get in to those. They’re not accepting new patients because they are so overbooked and so far out, they’re not accepting them,” Sanders said.
Anyone needing to see someone sooner would have to be admitted to the Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital for 72 hours, Sanders said.
“You need help in that initial” stage, she said. “Especially when it’s the unnatural death like your kids.”
Sanders said her fear is that the few locally available therapists, counselors and advocates could burn out due to the increase in patients every day.
Right now, Huff is the only full-time advocate who works with families assigned to her through the Elko Police Department, but Sanders said she believes there needs to be more paid staff instead of volunteers.
“You can’t do that as a volunteer due to the emotions of it. You can’t keep volunteers on call. If they have a day job, they have to call in sick because they were up all night for a murder,” Sanders explained.
Looking ahead, Sanders said she plans to use her experience to hopefully “help one person.”
Thinking of her children, Sanders said she now has a “platform as the woman who lost two kids” to advocate for more mental health services.
“We’re going to make a difference,” Sanders said of her children. “I hope to make their deaths count for something.”