A New Man
Alexander moved to Utah from Philadelphia with her mother and two sisters in 1996 when she was 14. Six months later, she says, she was brutally stabbed multiple times by a white supremacist, who later served five years in the Utah State Prison. She graduated from Hillcrest High School in Midvale and eventually opened her own hair salon, Urban Hairz, in South Salt Lake, where she made “more money than I knew what to do with.” Alexander’s services were sought by a growing number of loyal clients, among them UCASA’s Miller. “Finding a hair stylist for a black woman in Salt Lake City was a hard thing,” Miller says. “When you do, you hang on to her.”
By the time Alexander met Helaman Pragana while signing up for classes at Salt Lake Community College, she was a divorcee with four children. He had been adopted by a Brazilian family in Recife, Brazil, before his family moved to Florida, and then, when he was 16, to Utah. His adoptive family raised him in their LDS faith—he’s named after a Nephite prophet and warrior. Letters submitted to court pre-sentencing from family members, friends and supporters paint a picture of a hard-working young man who struggled with education and communication issues. He also had problems with the law in December 2007, beating a store detective who’d caught the 18-year-old stealing two $200 shirts from Nordstrom. Pragana was convicted of assault and theft and got a suspended year-long jail sentence.
Pragana convinced Alexander to move into his Kearns home with him in March 2011. At the beginning, Alexander says, she loved Pragana “with my soul. But one day, I woke up and the man I loved never existed. I was in love with an idea, a fabrication.”
Alexander told detectives that after she started living with Pragana, “I was getting my ass whipped all the time.” She says her partner slowly escalated his violence against her, at first interspersing it with pleas for forgiveness, with excuses as to his own history as an abuse victim. “After he hit me, I ended up sympathizing with him; he seemed so crushed.” Now, she looks back and finds his behavior “nauseating, sad. He’s completely textbook. It doesn’t matter how smart and strong you are—anybody can be a victim.”
After a few months, “I couldn’t tell what was up from down. I lived in constant fear.” He had so entwined himself in her life and finances, she couldn’t find an easy way to leave him. “He was warping everything in my life so I’d be under him.”
Pragana told her he lost his job as a Certified Nursing Assistant in April but was coming home with a wallet full of ones, fives and tens. “Who gets paid like that?” she asked herself, she told detectives in the November 2011 interview.
While detectives believe Alexander knew from the beginning about her partner’s criminal activities, Alexander says she first learned about Pragana’s robberies after he held up a Dollar Tree on May 29, 2011, and she saw it on the TV news. When she confronted him, she says, “he spilled his guts about everything.” He told her he robbed people to get money because he “felt less than a man since I was paying his bills.” It was at this point, she says, that she started learning much of the information she later revealed to detectives on the phone and in the UPD offices in November 2011.
Through a record request, a City Weekly reporter watched the first four hours of Alexander’s videotaped interview with detectives. It provides little clarity. The timeline of many of Alexander’s statements are unclear. “He told me all his dreams and aspirations of robberies,” she says at one point. “I told him, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it.’ ” She recalled details of how he planned his robberies of ATMs that were near bushes, how he felt bad after robbing an elderly African man, or how little money he got from sticking up a “crackhead.”
Such details indicated to detectives that she was very familiar with Pragana’s activities. On the other hand, she told detectives, “I drank myself half to death while he did what he did.” She also talked about the abuse, including the fact that after Pragana got her pregnant the first time, “he beat me so good, I lost the pregnancy.”
Alexander says Pragana begged her in June not to turn him in after she confronted him about the dollar store robbery. “I only robbed the store to take care of you,” she says he told her. “He was beating me so bad, what was he going to do if I turned him in?”
Alexander helped Pragana get a Social Security number and a job, after which, she told detectives, she believed his robberies stopped. The abuse, however, only got worse. Friends recall regularly throughout the summer seeing new scars on Alexander’s body, bruises, slash marks on her legs and dig marks on her arms. One friend was also concerned about how Pragana would take charge of her children, separating Alexander from them, almost as if they were hostages to ensure she kept silent in public.
When Miller went to their Kearns home to get her hair cut, she suspected that things weren’t going well for the young stylist. Alexander had previously talked about having a beautiful wedding in Las Vegas. But now, with Pragana sitting nearby, glowering, while Alexander worked, the stylist told her friend in hushed tones that he hit her. “The only reason he was there, she told me, was because he didn’t want her to tell me anything,” Miller says. She couldn’t interfere because, “I didn’t want her to have to deal with the aftermath after I left.”
On Sept. 10, Alexander says, by chance, she saw surveillance footage on TV of an unidentified man who had robbed and sexually assaulted a woman at a Holladay ATM on Aug. 17, 2011. After an unsuccessful attempt at robbing a Smith’s gas-station attendant, the man carjacked the woman and ordered her to drive to a cash dispenser. Alexander recognized Pragana from the way he ran. “When were you raping women? When did this start happening?” she told detectives she shouted at Pragana, who denied to her that he had sexually assaulted anyone.
But Alexander’s involvement with the events of that night was more complex than that. In the hours before Pragana attempted to rob Smith’s and then raped a woman, he and Alexander had been fighting. That evening, Alexander told detectives, Pragana elected to go jogging while she visited a friend, so she dropped him off near her friend’s apartment complex, a few blocks from Smith’s. Shortly after, she noticed police cars heading from multiple directions near Smith’s, stoking her suspicions that Pragana was up to no good. Rather than meeting up with her friend, Alexander parked at Smith’s and went in to buy a NeuroSleep drink. Before she got out of her car, she told detectives, she saw a tall, dark man get into a woman’s car at the gas station. Alexander insists it wasn’t Pragana, but her convoluted story of that night left detectives convinced that she took him to the gas station, knowing he planned to rob it.
That’s an accusation she emphatically denies. “It just so happens I take him to this one, what sense does that make? It was a crime of opportunity [by Pragana]. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
But that night, she also told detectives in the interview, he counted out and hid the $500 he’d gotten that night in front of her, and swore to her, “I’ll never do anything again.”
After seeing the news footage about the rape, she says, she told Pragana he had 30 days to “get your shit fixed” and then she was turning him in.