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Paul Fraughton, Associated Press
Craig Roger Gregerson sits in the courtroom where he pleaded guilty on Monday.

Destiny Norton's parents held each other and sobbed as a judge meticulously questioned Craig Roger Gregerson over the details of his guilty plea.

"Do you feel you are guilty of both the crimes you have been charged with?" 3rd District Court Judge Robin Reese asked him.

"Yes, I do," Gregerson replied softly.

Gregerson, 20, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and child kidnapping in the death of Destiny Norton, a 5-year-old girl with green streaks in her blond hair and a mischievous smile full of silver-capped teeth.

Her backyard disappearance on July 16 launched a massive eight-day search, which ended when Salt Lake police discovered the little girl's body inside a plastic storage bin in Gregerson's basement — just two doors away from the Norton home.

In a guilty-plea statement read by his lawyer, Michael Peterson, Gregerson admitted to killing Destiny: "I placed my hand over her mouth, and she suffocated and died."

Gregerson admitted to luring Destiny from her back yard into his apartment. When she said she wanted to go home, Gregerson said he restrained her. After she died, police said Gregerson raped Destiny's body and then stuffed it in a plastic storage bin in his basement.

He admitted to killing her under questioning by an FBI agent and even said he had fantasized about kidnapping her in the past.

Gregerson apologizes

The plea deal spares Gregerson the death penalty. He was immediately sentenced Monday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder, and he received an additional 15 years to life in prison for kidnapping the 5-year-old girl.

The deal was made at the request of Destiny's family, who prosecutors said did not want to keep reliving the tragedy through years of court proceedings.

"He's not going to hurt anybody else. In the end, he'll get what he deserves," Destiny's mother, Rachael Norton, said outside of court. Her husband, Ricky Norton, buried his face in her shoulder while he sobbed quietly.

In a handwritten letter to Destiny's family, Gregerson offered an apology for the murder.

"You have every right to hate me, every right to want me dead and every right to never forgive me," Gregerson wrote. "I take full responsibility for your daughters (sic) death. But her death was not the worst part, what I did after she was dead was unexcusable, sick, and disgusting. I hate myself for what I did. I am in terrible pain every day because your daughter is dead by my actions. She should still be with you. All I can say is I'm sorry. The words are small but they are so sincere. Sincerely, Craig Gregerson."

Gregerson did not speak during the sentencing portion of his hearing. Instead, his defense attorneys gave his letter to the judge to be entered into the court record.

'A monster'

In her remarks to the judge, Rachael Norton remembered her daughter.

"She was a good kid with lots of dreams about life," Norton said, her voice trembling at times. "She always wanted to do the best at everything that she could. She wanted to be a vet when she got older. She told me one day that she was going to buy me a house and her dad a motorcycle."

As Norton spoke, her husband cried. Tears streamed down his face, and he shook under the weight of his sobs. Destiny's grandmother, Leslie Borchardt, placed her hand on his shoulder. Surrounding him were members of the Nortons' extended "street family."

The Nortons grew up on the streets, bringing themselves up in the world. They were living in a house near 700 South and 500 East with several other members of their street family when Destiny vanished. They put in hundreds of hours searching for the little girl.

Describing her life since her daughter's death, Rachael Norton called Gregerson a "monster," saying she hated him for what he has done to her family.

"That man took everything from us when he took her," she said. "She was what kept me and my husband going all these years."

Destiny's grandmother could not bring herself to speak at the sentencing. In a statement read to the court by a prosecutor, Borchardt lashed out at Gregerson.

"That monster not only murdered our little angel, he has also murdered a big part of who I am," she wrote.

Across the courtroom, Gregerson's estranged wife, Cadie, also cried as the Norton family spoke. When the judge handed down the sentence, she gasped — so loudly that the Nortons turned their heads to look across the aisle at her.

"You'll be incarcerated for life. You'll never be released from prison," Reese told Craig Gregerson.

As soon as the hearing ended, Cadie Gregerson bolted from the courtroom, covering her face with a coat and sobbing audibly.

'She was one of ours'

After the hearing, Salt Lake police detectives, FBI agents and prosecutors who worked on the case gathered in the rotunda of the Matheson Courthouse.

"This was an ordeal that tried us all," Salt Lake District Attorney David Yocom told reporters. "We all fell in love with Destiny as if she was one of ours."

Some people who participated in the massive eight-day search effort felt that Gregerson got off too easily.

"The world did him a favor. There's never been a better excuse for the death penalty in this state than Gregerson," said Shane Siwik, who helped organize the search.

Rachael Norton recently gave birth to the couple's third child, whom they named "Faith LeeAnn," based on a name that Destiny suggested. The sentencing came just a few days after what would have been Destiny's sixth birthday — Nov. 30. The Nortons acknowledged that the timing weighed on their minds.

"I'm just glad that it's over with, so she can rest in peace," the mother said, adding that the family also wants to move on with their lives.

"And take care of our other kids," Ricky Norton said, tugging at his wife's sleeve.

E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com