SALT LAKE CITY — Jayden Sterzer was just 15 years old when he asked 12-year-old Kailey Vijil to help him find his lost cat, luring her away to rape and murder her.
"I didn't know evil could come so young," Orlando Vijil said of the boy who killed his daughter. "But evil came knocking on my door that night."
Yet Kailey, who loved animals and offered food to the homeless, was beautiful, generous and "truthful in all things," the father said.
As Sterzer was sentenced to a secure youth facility Friday, Vijil made an impassioned courtroom statement about the painful loss of his daughter, the 2 ½ years that have passed as the case dragged through court, and his anger at the boy who killed her.
"I don't think this pain will ever go away, I miss her so much," Vijil said. "There are a lot of days that I can't function or get through the day."
Sterzer, now 18, did not address the judge during the hearing, but sat quietly as his attorney read a statement on his behalf apologizing to Kailey's family.
"I'm sorry for what happened, I wish I could go back in time and make it so it never happened," the statement read. "Every day I think about all the pain I have caused your family. I hope some day you can find it in your hearts to forgive me, but I understand if you can't."
Sterzer's statement went on to say that Kailey "was a smart, talented girl," and he wants to "dedicate my life for her by doing good and respecting people." The statement then pointed to a Bible verse, Proverbs 3:15-17, that reminds Sterzer of Kailey.
"This scripture reminds me of how valuable her life was, and she could have had a better life if I had never done anything," Sterzer's statement said.
However, as the sentencing began, a representative from the court's probation staff noted that Sterzer has shown a "lack of remorse" for the crime and has not been amenable to services during his lengthy and violent juvenile court history.
Police say Sterzer went to Kailey's door late at night on July 17, 2015, and asked her to help him look for a lost pregnant cat, a ploy he had allegedly attempted to use with several other girls in the neighborhood. Kailey's 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. DNA on Kailey's body matched Sterzer, according to charging documents.
A medical examiner determined that Kailey died of strangulation.
In a deal with prosecutors, Sterzer admitted in juvenile court last month that he raped the girl. He then pleaded guilty as an adult to a first-degree felony charge of murder, reduced from a count of aggravated murder, and to an additional charge of sexual abuse of a child, a second-degree felony.
While the adult convictions carry 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 — Sterzer could potentially remain in secure care for the juvenile court charge until his 21st birthday.
At that point, he is expected to be sentenced to prison in adult court.
Kailey's older sister, Taylor Vijil, wept as she described the plans her sister had to travel to Japan, attend college and study science. Now, she said, those dreams will never happen "because someone had to take her life away, even though she was nice."
"My sister was really brave and she was really smart," Taylor wept. "She would get awards at every end of the school year."
Kailey's mother, De Shaun Undergust, said that more than two years later, she still aches daily over the loss of her daughter. She asked that Sterzer never be released into the community again.
"I hope he never gets out to do this to another family, to destroy another family," she said.
Like Kailey's father, her grandmother, Irene Thompson, lamented that Sterzer had been in trouble with the law for years before he killed Kailey. According to court records, Sterzer had been released after 44 days in an "observation and assessment facility" about a week before the girl's death.
"Justice needs to be served for Kailey," Thompson insisted. "Don't let children like this go who are capable of hurting another family."
In his statements, Vijil also turned his statements toward the juvenile court judge, James Michie, for the kind way he treated Sterzer during hearings that focused entirely on the teen rather than on Kailey.
"I thought you were going to go take him out to McDonald's and get him a kids meal, the way you were talking to him," Vijil told the judge. "You weren't talking to a kid, you were talking to a monster."
But as he ordered Sterzer confined to secure care, Michie explained that while he never knew Kailey, he had learned all he could about her.
"She was on the honor roll. She cried in movies if something bad happened to an animal. She cared about people in need. She loved purple. She loved standing in the rain," Michie said. "At no time, did I ever forget about your daughter. No one has, and no one ever will."12 comments on this story
Michie told Sterzer that he understood he had been born into a life with many challenges, including those imposed on him by adults in his life. His attorneys have said that 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.
However, Michie emphasized, that Sterzer brought the consequences he will now face on himself.
"You had the capacity to choose. Kailey didn't, because you took that from her. Jayden, what you did to Kailey shocks the conscience, and it shocks it to the core," the judge said.