Judge orders life sentence for murder 'as violent as I've seen'

Hurting families still puzzled over why Wendover teen was killed

Published: Monday, April 16 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

Toni Collette Fratto, 19, reacts as she receives a life sentence in the murder of fellow West Wendover High School student Micaela Costanzo, Monday, April 16, 2012, in Elko District Court, Elko, Nev.

Ross Andreson, AP

ELKO, Nev. — Facing the family of the West Wendover High School classmate she admitted to help murdering, Toni Fratto delivered a tearful apology.

"I would like to apologize for my actions and the tragedy that has happened. I know what I did was wrong," she said Monday before she was sentenced. "I'm sorry for what I did to Micaela and for what I did not do, protect her. It does not change what happened. But I do mean I'm sorry."

Fratto avoided a possible death sentence by entering a plea deal in January, pleading guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder. She admitted that she and 19-year-old Kody Cree Patten, whom she was reportedly planning to marry, kidnapped and killed 16-year-old Micaela "Mickey" Costanzo after school, taking her to a remote area near the Utah-Nevada border, killing her and then burying her in a shallow grave.

Fratto admitted she hit Micaela in the back of the head with a shovel and sat on the teen's legs while Patten slashed her throat on March 3, 2011.

Monday, Elko District Judge Daniel Papez gave Fratto the maximum penalty the law allows, sentencing her to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Fratto also received a 20-year weapons enhancement penalty which will begin after her life sentence is over.

"This is as violent (a murder) as I've seen in 20 years on the bench," Papez said. "The attack on Micaela was brutal, it was vicious, it was violent — all shockingly so."

Referring to the medical examiner's report, Papez said the girl's death was slow and torturous.

Fratto will serve a minimum of 18 years in prison. She will be eligible for parole in 10 years. Once she is paroled on her murder conviction, she will serve a minimum of eight years on her enhancement penalty.

But while her family and attorneys say Fratto has taken responsibility for her actions, the question of why Micaela was killed still remained unanswered Monday.

"That's the biggest question in all of this. She just (said to) me a few days ago, 'Why? Why, why, why did this happen? I don't understand,'" Cassie Fratto, Toni's mother, said after the sentencing.

Patten is scheduled to go on trial July 31 on a charge of first-degree murder. Prosecutor Mark Torvinen filed notice that he intends to seek the death penalty if Patten is convicted.

Monday, Cassie Fratto said there are elements of the case that have not yet been made public. "There's things that lead up to that night that no one is aware of yet," she said.

When Patten picked up Fratto the night of Micaela's murder, he had already been driving around with Micaela in his truck for about 90 minutes. Cassie Fratto said when Patten picked up her daughter, she had no idea what was going to happen. Toni Fratto actually thought her own life was in danger, her mother said.

"She did not believe that she would ever see her family again. She knew her life was in danger," Cassie Fratto said. "She knew Kody very well. We all knew Kody very well. She knew Kody, and she knew the frame of mind he was in that night. And she knew as soon as she got in the car, she told me, 'Mom, I knew I wasn't coming home.'"

When asked to explain why his client went along with the killing and didn't try to help Micaela, defense attorney John Springgate didn't have an answer.

"We're pretty clear that adolescents do unbelievably stupid things. And her psychological profile shows that she is, while she's 19 years old now, mentally and emotionally she is much younger. And typically adolescents do not think things out," he said.

"I'm not going to try Mr. Patten's case. But according to the statements and according to everything we know, it was Mr. Patten who was getting all the materials together, it was Mr. Patten who said she had to die. So you can draw your own conclusion who was the organizer. But the girl I was representing did not seem like an organizer to me."

Even the judge seemed confused by Fratto's actions, noting that she had no prior criminal history at all, even as a juvenile, and was an active member in her LDS ward and was well-liked in school.

"That's what makes this even more puzzling, that a person like you could participate in such a terrible crime," he said. "Micaela's loss to her family, to her school, to the community of Wendover will be felt forever. I hope that someday, Ms. Fratto, that you'll be able to get your life back in order. You have to live with this forever."

Fratto was sentenced before a full courtroom with members of both families as well as Patten's father, who sat in the back.

Springgate noted to the judge before sentencing that Fratto scored below average in her pre-sentence psychological evaluation. He also noted that she was mentally and physically abused by Patten. Springgate talked about an incident in January 2011, prior to Micaela's murder, in which a security camera at West Wendover High School recorded Patten slamming Fratto against a locker and strangling her.

Cassie Fratto said since her daughter has been incarcerated for the past year and away from Patten, she has returned to being the person she used to be.

"The hope that I have for Toni is for her to be able to," she told the judge, pausing, "to move on with her life, her dream, and to be able to fulfill those dreams in a way she has recently talked to me about. ... This incident has made her stronger in her belief in helping others."

Springgate argued that Fratto would never have been arrested if she had not come forward and confessed because she felt guilty. There was no forensic evidence linking Fratto to the crime.

But as Springgate tried to convince Papez that his client was a person who could be rehabilitated and was not a monster, Micaela's mother and members of her family in the audience shook their heads in disagreement.

Micaela's mother, father and one of her sisters each asked the judge to deliver the maximum penalty. Cecilia Costanzo was in tears, and at times shaking, as she recounted how her life has been turned upside down.

"It's basically destroyed me," Costanzo told the judge.

She said she can't even cook, go to the grocery store or even read books with her grandchildren because those are events that remind her of what she used to do with her daughter.

"There's not a day, a moment, a second that I don't think about her and what we would be doing. I can't even go out and have a lunch because that was kind of our thing on Mondays and Tuesdays," she said while wiping away tears. "With Micaela being gone, there's a part of me that has just been ripped away."

Micaela would have graduated from high school in a few weeks. Not only was she a star athlete on the track team, she was also editor of the school newspaper and had aspirations of becoming a writer.

"I don't have that chance to see Micaela grow to see her become the author, the mom. ... I can't make this right for Micaela, only the court can," she said.

Costanzo said Micaela's death also deeply affects her sisters.

"My daughter is not the same girl at all. She can't live in Wendover. She quit college. She's struggling just trying to go on day by day. She's pulled herself away from everyone because she and Mickey were so close, she just can't be ...," an emotional Costanzo said. "She has a hard time being around anything that reminds her of Micaela and what they always did together."

Christina Lininger, another older sister of Micaela, echoed those feelings, saying she no longer feels safe in her own community.

"Now I'm just scared all the time," she said. "I beg you to give her the same thing she gave my sister. She didn't give her a chance, she could have helped her."

Lininger wiped back tears as she mentioned how Fratto can call her parents while in jail, but she can never again call Micaela to tell her she loves her.

Micaela's father, Theodore Anthony Costanzo Jr., told the judge he thinks of his daughter every morning.

"I wouldn't know where to start, because I still think I'm dreaming. I think this can't be happening here," he said, when asked how his daughter's death has impacted him.

He too asked Papez to deliver the maximum sentence.

"I don't want nothing good for her, ever. That's what I say, that's what I want," he said.

Torvinen reminded the judge that despite the mitigating evidence presented, "The central reality of this murder is that the defendant before you acknowledged voluntarily participating in it. It's as horrific a murder as I suspect you will ever see as a judge."

The prosecutor also called Micaela "as innocent a victim as anyone might envision."

As Papez recounted how brutal Micaela's killing was, her family sitting in the audience broke down in tears again. He then delivered the maximum sentence, prompting an audible cheer of "yes!" from at least one member of the audience.

After the judge and members of Micaela's family left the courtroom, Fratto bowed her head down to the table in front of her, buried her face in her hands and cried. She was then allowed a tearful brief conversation with her father before being led away with her hands handcuffed and feet shackled.

As part of the plea agreement, Fratto may be called to testify during Patten's trial.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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