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Testimony ends in trial of Ugandan woman decapitated in Arches National Park

Posted at 6:43 PM, Dec 09, 2022

SALT LAKE CITY — The widower of the woman decapitated by a traffic control gate in Arches National Park testified Friday about being covered in blood and not understanding what had happened.

“I recall myself shaking my hands trying to get rid of some blood,” said Ludo Michaud.

Michaud was the last plaintiff witness in the civil trial over the June 13, 2020, death of his wife, Esther Nakajjigo. Michaud and his in-laws are asking a federal judge for $140 million.

The defendant – the U.S. government – rested its case Friday, too. Closing arguments are Monday. Federal Judge Bruce Jenkins is expected to issue his ruling on damages sometime in the coming weeks.

Much of Michaud’s Friday testimony was about the 365 days he knew his wife and her future plans. Nakajjigo wanted to continue using her celebrity in her home country of Uganda to support health and education for women and children there.

But, Michaud testified, Nakajjigo wanted to do much of that work in the United States, where she could earn money for causes and her own family.

“She cared about people,” Michaud said, “but she wanted to be well-off herself.”

The government has admitted liability for the accident, and federal attorneys have apologized to Michaud and expressed sympathy multiple times.

But the defense has argued the plaintiffs should receive a sum closer to $4.25 million. Government attorneys contend the plaintiffs are overestimating Nakajjigo’s future earnings – the defense’s lone witness was an economist who testified Nakajjigo’s after-tax and after-consumption income would have been between $751,892 to $937,917 – and the plaintiffs are seeking too much for Michaud’s trauma.

Plaintiff lawyers have sought to minimize retraumatizing Michaud during the trial. Most of the questions focused the couple’s lives together. They met on a dating app exactly one year before the accident. They married about 10 weeks before the accident.

To enter evidence of what happened to Nakajjigo, they called bystanders and first responders to testify about the gruesome scene that happened after wind blew the unsecured gate into the bath of Nakajjigo and Michaud’s rented Chevy Malibu.

Earlier in the week, Jenkins saw scene photos and a video from a camera on the Arches visitors center that captured the accident.

“I just want to ask you one question,” said plaintiff attorney Deborah Chang. “Did you see everything in that car?”

“Yes,” Michaud replied.

Under further questioning, Michaud said he remembers smelling his wife’s blood and the smell of the metal gate.

After the accident, Michaud received a ride back to the couple’s apartment in the Denver area. He still had Nakajjigo’s blood on him, he testified.

Days later, he said, he put a cotton swab in his ear and found more blood.

“I could not believe what happened,” Michaud said.

“I could not describe what happened,” he added.

He could not sleep or eat in the days immediately following the accident. He testified he never spent another night in the apartment he shared with Nakajjigo.

His therapist advised he quickly return to his job programming software for streaming services. Once there, Michaud said, he felt his co-workers avoiding him so they wouldn’t have to talk about what happened.

There was a Colorado funeral for Nakajjigo. Michaud testified he wanted to bury her there, but her family begged her body be returned to Uganda.

He agreed, but the separation caused more anxiety.

“That’s not how you want to say goodbye to your wife, at the airport in a cargo box,” Michaud said.

Outside Salt Lake City’s federal courthouse after Friday’s proceedings, Nakajjigo’s brother, John Ssenkindu, said the plaintiffs did a good job telling the judge about his sister, whom most people called Essie.

“We brought Essie into life,” Ssenkindu said.

Michaud said he waited 2 ½ years to testify.

“I got to tell how it impacted me,” Michaud said outside the courthouse, “how it impacted my life, what was my life before what it is now and it’s a really big thing to let that out.”