SALT LAKE CITY — A West Valley man pleaded guilty Monday to raping and killing his young neighbor when he was 15 years old.
Jayden Matthew Sterzer, who turned 18 last month, lured 12-year-old Kailey Vijil from her home one night in the summer of 2015 under the guise of looking for a lost cat. Instead, he took her to a nearby pasture where he raped and strangled her.
Sterzer pleaded guilty as an adult to murder, a first-degree felony, and sexual abuse of a child, a second-degree felony.
The two convictions come with prison time — at least 15 years and up to life for the murder charge and at least one and up to 15 years for the sexual abuse. But Sterzer likely won't be sentenced until his 21st birthday.
Sterzer was originally charged in juvenile court with first-degree felony counts of aggravated murder and rape of a child. In exchange for his pleas, the murder charge was reduced while the rape allegation remained in the juvenile system. An additional charge of sexual assault of a child, a second-degree felony, was also filed in 3rd District Court.
In a deal with prosecutors, Sterzer also admitted in juvenile court Monday to raping the 12-year-old. He is expected to be ordered to serve time in secure care for the offense at a Jan. 19 hearing in juvenile court.
While he has traditionally been brought into his hearings in shackles, Sterzer was allowed to sit without restraints in the juvenile court hearing Monday. The cuffs were back on, however, when he made his first appearance in adult court.
In both hearings, Sterzer sat quietly as his attorneys read the details of the allegations against him.
After the statement was read, 3rd District Juvenile Judge James Michie asked Sterzer, "Is that true?"
Sterzer replied with a quiet, "Yes."
In 3rd District Judge Paul Parker's court, Sterzer gave two soft answers of "guilty" when asked for his pleas to the charges. He gave no additional statements in court Monday.
Police say the boy went to Kailey's door late at night on July 17, 2015, and asked her to help him look for a lost pregnant cat. Her body was discovered by searchers about three hours later in a horse pasture near her home.
The young girl was found naked, her Batman pajamas strewn on the ground near her body, and a shirt wrapped around her neck. Evidence on her body, including blood and fresh scratches, signaled a possible sexual assault, police said.
A medical examiner determined that Kailey died of strangulation. DNA evidence on Kailey's body matched Sterzer, according to charging documents.
The gruesome case has dragged through the juvenile court system for 2 ½ years.
Michie ruled last December that the teen was incapable of understanding the allegations against him — assertions his attorneys had made since his initial court appearance. After nearly a year of work, the boy was found competent to proceed in November.
Sterzer's attorney, Michael Sikora, said the boy's mental capacity is diminished by partial fetal alcohol disorder, a number of cognitive impairments and a low IQ, leaving him at about a third-grade level cognitively.
While those impairments will always impact Sterzer, Sikora said the 18-year-old had been well-prepared in order to understand what was happening as he entered his pleas Monday.
"We were scrupulous and careful and thorough in explaining to him exactly what he would be pleading guilty to in juvenile court and adult court," Sikora told Michie. "He seemed to grasp what we were trying to do. We had that discussion with him more than once."
After years of waiting for Sterzer to be found competent to face the charges, Spencer Banks, an attorney for Kailey's family, said there was added urgency to resolve the case following Michie's decision in October.
"That's a huge relief to them," Banks said of the family after Sterzer's hearing in adult court. "Otherwise, that was definitely a concern they had in the back of their minds, of whether he was going to revert back to being incompetent or not."
As the juvenile hearing ended, Michie emphasized that the next time Sterzer appears in his court for disposition, the juvenile equivalent of a sentencing hearing, his focus will be different.6 comments on this story
"Now the tide has turned, finally, and our focus is not going to be just on you anymore. Our focus is also going to be on Kailey and her family and what you took from them. Because there's no judge on the planet that can stop what you started that night, and it will be my focus when I see you next time," Michie said.
Since Kailey's death, her family has been pained to see the long stretch of hearings focused entirely on Sterzer, with little or no mention of the little girl, Banks said.
"To hear Judge Michie recognize Kailey's family, that now it's time to turn to Kailey and recognize her as the victim, what she went through and what her family has gone through, that was just great to hear," he said.