SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) – Torrential overnight rains had washed away the blood so the searchers at first thought the pale form lying on the earthen berm might be a mannequin.
“I almost didn’t believe it,” recalled former Lincoln County Sheriff Ken Albers, the first officer to approach the body of 9-year-old Becky O’Connell. “You don’t mess up a crime scene, but I had to walk over and touch the body to convince myself that it was real.”
The shocking discovery that night in 1990 began a 22-year legal and emotional saga that is expected to end Tuesday, when Donald Moeller, who was convicted of abducting and murdering the girl, is scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection in the state penitentiary.
After decades of appeals, Moeller, 60, now accepts his fate without protest. But the end leaves behind a community still marked by the crime and its experience with capital punishment.
Moeller’s death sentence in 1992 was the first handed down in South Dakota in 45 years. Until this month, when the killer of a prison guard was executed, there had been only one other execution in the state since the 1940s.
The child’s mother, Tina Curl, plans to drive the 1,400 miles back to Sioux Falls from her native New York state to watch Moeller take his last breath. She didn’t have the money for the trip but did fundraising events to pay her way.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Curl, who said she fell into alcoholism after her daughter’s death. “All this is just bringing what I tried to push way in the back, back up front.”
Some residents said the murder changed how they felt about their city, where violent crime is rare.
“It’s just like society as a whole just kind of tightened up for a long time,” said Jeff Masten, the former Lincoln County state’s attorney who prosecuted the case, and who later changed careers because of the strain of criminal law.
LaVonne Martley, a juror, said she knew the execution would bring the case back into the public spotlight _ “and I’ve dreaded it.” But she has never questioned the outcome. “He definitely did it,” she said.
Curl thought she was escaping the dangers of big-city life when she moved her family in 1990 from New York to Sioux Falls, a well-kept, medium-size city along the Big Sioux River that serves as a market center for the sprawling expanse of farmland where South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota come together. Homicides happen, but not many _ about a half dozen a year, most involving people who know each other, and where there is no mystery to solve.
On May 8, 1990, Becky, a fourth-grader who lived with her mother and stepfather in a Sioux Falls mobile home, began walking a couple of blocks to Omer’s Market to buy sugar to make lemonade. She never returned.
Authorities say Moeller, a felon with a history of assaults who lived nearby, lured the brown-haired girl into his truck and drove her to a wooded area near the Iowa state line, where he raped her, stabbed her and left her to bleed to death.
Moeller was interviewed shortly after the killing but disappeared before investigators could follow up. Detectives later tracked him down in Tacoma, Wash., and brought him back for trial. He was convicted in September 1992 based on DNA and circumstantial evidence. The trial, with detailed and graphic displays on how the child was killed, devastated the community, but the ordeal wasn’t over: The verdict was overturned by the South Dakota Supreme Court because of the mention of past crimes during testimony.
With a new trial ordered in 1996, the horror of the gruesome killing was relived, and lingered for years longer.
Residents around Sioux Falls _ and also in Yankton and Rapid City, where the two trials were held because of pretrial publicity _ worried in new ways about the safety of their cities.
“We very seldom left our kids at a baby sitter,” recalled Marcel Kathol, a father of four and a juror at Moeller’s first trial. “A lot of us, we held onto our kids a little tighter and made sure where they were at.”
Masten said that even though prosecutors won a second guilty verdict, the case stayed with him over the years through the periodic reports about Moeller’s appeals.
The stress of his work led him to shift into private practice and eventually to a career change to nuclear medicine.
“Whether you’re prosecuting or defending, the emotional investment that you’ve got in that is tremendous,” he said. “You just sleep eat and drink that case for months, if not years. You have to be able to walk away from it, but it’s really tough to develop that skill.”
Moeller fought his conviction and sentence until July, when he said he was ready to accept death as punishment for his actions. He removed the final obstacle by persuading a federal judge to dismiss his long-standing challenge of South Dakota’s lethal injection procedure.
“The law has spoken,” he said. “I killed. I deserve to be killed.”
Just hours after Becky’s private memorial service in Sioux Falls, Curl and her husband had packed up their belongings and moved to Lake Luzerne, N.Y. She said she soon lost control of her life.
“Right after Beck was murdered, I started drinking every day,” she said. “I drank from the time I woke up to the time I passed out at night.” She has dealt with a series of health problems, suffering a heart attack and quadruple bypass in 2003.
She said she hopes her trip back to Sioux Falls to watch Moeller’s execution will help still the memories of her daughter’s haunting crime scene photos.
“I picture them every day in my head,” she said.
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