DeRyke Pleads Guilty to Murder; Gets Natural Life in Prison

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Published on March 18 2014 6:24 pm
Last Updated on April 18 2014 5:27 pm
Written by Greg Sapp

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Justin DeRyke has pleaded guilty to a count of first degree murder in the death last fall of his niece Willow Long.  DeRyke has been sentenced to natural life in prison with no possibilty of parole.  Under the terms of the negotiated plea, DeRyke must serve 100% of his sentence.

The guilty plea and sentencing took place Tuesday afternoon in Effingham County Circuit Court.  DeRyke had been scheduled to appear in court this morning for a hearing on pre-trial motions.  The hearing was postponed to this afternoon to clear the way for other court business.

The 22-year-old DeRyke was home with Willow and her little brother the night of Saturday, September 7.  DeRyke has maintained that Willow tried to get his attention and scratched his arm, drawing blood.  He said he shouted at her and she ran out of the house with him in pursuit.  DeRyke said Willow tripped on a brush pile and a stick punctured her neck.  At the time of his arrest, he told authorities he wanted to end her suffering.  He acknowledged cutting her throat and then stabbing her four or five times.  An autopsy determined that one of the stab wounds caused her death.  DeRyke also admitted to disposing of Willow's body in a rural area south and west of Watson.

As to how the negotiated plea came about, Effingham County State's Attorney Bryan Kibler said he and Public Defender Scott Schmidt, who represented DeRyke had periodically discussed the case.  Monday night, agreement was reached on the negotiated plea and DeRyke agreed.

The sentence for first degree murder is 20 to 60 years in prison unless it is found a defendant is eligible for an extended term.  It was found that DeRyke was eligible in that he is 17 or older and his victim was under age 12.

Willow's mother and DeRyke's sister, Ciara DeRyke originally told authorities investigating Willow's disappearance that she had seen her daughter the morning of Sunday, September 8th and that Willow had left on her own.  She later admitted that she hadn't seen Willow since going out for the night on Saturday, the 7th and had no idea as to her whereabouts.  Ciara DeRyke was later arrested on a count of obstructing a peace officer and has already served a jail sentence.

Kibler said he is absolutely convinced that Justin DeRyke acted alone in Willow's murder and in the disposal of her body.  He said, "when we had to, everybody got it right" as far as the investigation and the prosecution of the case.  He noted that seven months to obtain a conviction in a capital case is unusual and to obtain the maximum sentence is even more significant.

Kibler thanked all of the law enforcement authorities who worked on the case and all of the emergency service agencies and the volunteers who worked on the search for Willow and the subsequent investigation.  He said, "we got it right on Justin, we got it right on Ciara."  In a formal statement, Kibler said, "Justin DeRyke will never again pose a threat to any child."  He said, "Our hearts were broken by the discovery of Willow Long's body, but the way that the good citizens of Effingham County reached out to one another in the search for this innocent child will never be forgotten."

As to whether he necessarily agrees with DeRyke's version of what happened, Kibler said, "it's not my theory of the case, it's to what the defendant will stipulate....we've played it through a thousand times as to what happened."  Bottom line, though, Kibler said is that DeRyke confessed to committing the crime and got the maximum sentence possible.

DeRyke's parents...Willow's grandparents...were in court for the hearing.

In imposing sentence, Judge Kimberly Koester said the only good thing DeRyke did was save the county the cost of a trial.  Kibler acknowledged that the trial cost could have been in the six figures.

DeRyke will be taken to the Illinois Department of Corrections.  It's not known where he'll serve his sentence.