Arizona man pleads guilty to killing 8-year-old girl
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – A man charged in the killing of an 8-year-old Bullhead City girl four years ago pleaded guilty Tuesday to first-degree murder, days after he made a surprising decision to represent himself in the case.
Justin James Rector entered the plea in Mohave County Superior Court. He will be sentenced to life in prison with a possibility of parole after 35 years, according to the plea agreement. A judge has the final say at a sentencing hearing set for Jan. 30.
Rector also was charged with kidnapping, child abuse and abandonment of a body in the death of Isabella “Bella” Grogan-Cannella, and assaulting a jail officer in 2017. Those charges were dropped as part of the agreement.
The plea came as a relief to Isabella’s maternal grandmother, Toni Page, who once had custody of the girl and who said she was frustrated at times waiting for justice.
“Thank goodness it’s over now,” she told The Associated Press. “Nobody deserves to have their children or grandchildren lost at such a young age.”
Bullhead City police Chief Brian Williamson said Isabella’s death deeply affected the community on the Arizona-Nevada border.
“We are glad that not only her family has some closure but our whole community as well,” Williamson said.
The case came to an abrupt end after years of delays as Rector’s legal team changed and prosecutors decided against seeking the death penalty, partly because the cost to defend Rector had risen to nearly $1 million.
Rector’s latest attorney, Julia Cassels, withdrew Tuesday morning. Another attorney who was advising Rector solely on representing himself became his adviser on the plea agreement minutes before Rector acknowledged responsibility for Isabella’s death.
That attorney, Ron Gilleo, said Rector wanted to “get it over with” and did not speak at length in court.
Rector, 30, was a guest in the home of Isabella’s mother and stepfather on Sept. 2, 2014 when she was reporting missing.
He told police he smoked methamphetamine throughout the day in the Bullhead City home. Isabella’s other grandmother was babysitting while the girl’s mother was at the store, authorities have said.
Her disappearance turned more tragic when her partially clothed body was found in a shallow grave the next day. A police detective testified in a 2016 court hearing that authorities had evidence she was sexually assaulted.
A medical examiner said the girl known at school as friendly, loving, obedient, beautiful and inquisitive had been strangled.
Rector’s plea means he will avoid a trial that had been scheduled to begin in April.
Cassels and prosecutor Greg McPhillips did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.
Page said she often visits a rock garden that honors Isabella at a local park, and cleans the area where the girl’s body was found, maintaining a cross and leaving items such as candy at Halloween and a stocking at Christmas.
“She was full of life and she was just beginning to start her life when this happened,” Page said.