JEFFERSON CITY — A Missouri teenager who told authorities she wanted to know what it felt like to kill pleaded guilty Tuesday to murder, telling a judge that she strangled a 9-year-old neighbor with her hands, stabbed her in the chest and cut her throat with a knife.
Alyssa Bustamante pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and armed criminal action in the Oct. 21, 2009, killing of Elizabeth Olten in St. Martins, a rural town just west of Jefferson City. The plea avoids a trial that had been scheduled to start later this month.
At Tuesday's hearing, Bustamante looked down, her long brown hair covering her eyes, as the judge read out the amended charges and asked her if she understood she was giving up her right to a trial. She replied, "yes."
Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce then asked Bustamante to describe what she did.
"I strangled her and stabbed her in the chest," Bustamante said in a clear voice, looking straight at the judge.
"Did you cut her throat, too?" the judge asked.
"Yes," Bustamante responded.
Bustamante, who is to turn age 18 on Jan. 28, was 15 at the time of the slaying and lived just a few homes down the road from Elizabeth. She told the judge Tuesday that she knew what she was doing when she strangled Elizabeth with her hands and used a knife to attack her. Upon hearing that confession, Elizabeth's mother Patty Preiss — who was sitting in the courtroom just a few feet away — took a deep breath and dabbed her eyes with a tissue.
Preiss wore a purple shirt with her daughter's picture and the words "Justice for Elizabeth." She left the courthouse without talking to the media.
An attorney representing Preiss said the family would "continue to seek justice for Elizabeth."
"They're disappointed that parole is now a possibility," attorney Matt Diehr told The Associated Press. "It's kind of devastating to relive the event and hear some of what was said in the courtroom today."
Prosecutor Mark Richardson declined to comment after Tuesday's hearing, noting the case is ongoing.
The judge set a Feb. 6 sentencing hearing. Bustamante would have faced life in prison without parole if convicted of first-degree murder. But by pleading guilty to a reduced murder charge, Bustamante could eventually be released. The punishment for second-degree murder ranges from 10 to 30 years in prison or life with the possibility of parole. The judge said the armed criminal action charge is punishable by three years or up to life in prison.
Bustamante's attorney, Charlie Moreland, said in an interview that Bustamante decided to plead guilty because "she wanted to take responsibility for it."
"This is the result we would have asked the jury to agree to," Moreland said. But her punishment will now be decided by a judge instead of jurors. "It's a very difficult decision for whoever has to make the decision. What is the appropriate punishment for a 15-year-old girl with her history and her background and the situation as it was?"
Bustamante's grandmother, who had been her legal guardian, left the courthouse without commenting to reporters.
Juvenile justice officials testified at a November 2009 hearing that Bustamante had attempted to commit suicide at age 13 after receiving mental health treatment for depression and cutting herself. Witnesses at Bustamante's adult certification hearing described her as a bright girl who ranked roughly in the top third of her class at Jefferson City High School. She had not been in trouble at school or with the law before her arrest in Elizabeth's killing.
At that 2009 hearing, prosecutors said Bustamante had plotted Elizabeth's death, even digging two holes to be used as graves, then attending school for about a week while waiting for the right time to kill.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. David Rice testified that the teenager confessed to the slaying and led authorities to Elizabeth's body. Rice said Bustamante told him "she wanted to know what it felt like" to kill someone.
Hundreds of volunteers searched for two days for Elizabeth before her well-concealed body was found in the woods near her home.