Man charged with killing Bullhead City girl pleads guilty

Published 12-18-2018

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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 decided 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 Grogan-Cannella, and assaulting a jail officer in 2017. Those charges were dropped as part of the agreement.

Bullhead City police Chief Brian Williamson said Isabella's death deeply affected the community near the Arizona-Nevada border.

"We are glad that not only her family has some closure but our whole community as well," he said.

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 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.

The case had numerous delays over the years as Rector's attorneys changed and prosecutors abandoned a plan to seek the death penalty as the price tag to defend Rector rose to

He told police he smoked methamphetamine throughout the day in the Bullhead City home. Isabella's 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.

The case had numerous delays over the years as Rector's attorneys changed and prosecutors abandoned a plan to seek the death penalty as the price tag to defend Rector rose to nearly $1 million.

Rector's latest attorney, Julia Cassels, withdrew Tuesday morning. Rector was appointed a public defender who served only to advise him in the minutes before he acknowledged he was responsible for Isabella's death.

Cassels and the public defender, Ron Gilleo, did not return messages seeking comment.

Prosecutor Greg McPhillips did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.

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.

The case had numerous delays over the years as Rector's attorneys changed and prosecutors abandoned a plan to seek the death penalty as the price tag to defend Rector rose to nearly $1 million.

Rector's latest attorney, Julia Cassels, withdrew Tuesday morning. Rector was appointed a public defender who served only to advise him in the minutes before he acknowledged he was responsible for Isabella's death.

Cassels and the public defender, Ron Gilleo, did not return messages seeking comment.

Prosecutor Greg McPhillips did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.

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