PORT ORCHARD — Three-and-a-half years after he was arrested for the rape and murder of 6-year-old Jenise Wright, Gabriel Gaeta pleaded guilty Friday to those charges and could face 40 years to life in prison.
Gaeta was 17 at the time of his arrest and is now 21. His sentencing is scheduled for May 21. Jenise would have turned 11 this year.
Serious cases typically take longer to resolve. This case took more than three years because of the large volume of reports generated during the search for Jenise after she was reported missing, along with Gaeta’s mental health and shifting case law on juvenile justice.
Attorneys will jointly recommend the 40-year minimum sentence to Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Jennifer Forbes. Gaeta pleaded guilty to aggravated first-degree murder and first-degree rape of a child.
Plea vs. trial
Chief Deputy Prosecutor Chad Enright said the guilty plea was the right resolution, with Gaeta admitting to what was “painfully obvious.”
“The evidence in this case was incredibly strong,” Enright said. “The investigation was thorough, there was no doubt he was going to be convicted and so having him finally acknowledge that I think is important to the community and important to Jenise’s family.”
The plea deal also avoids the public spectacle of a trial, Enright said, and the further trauma that family members would suffer.
Gaeta’s lawyer, Jeniece LaCross, said Gaeta intended to plead guilty.
“My client never wanted to take this matter to trial,” she said. “He did not want to put people through that.”
Suspect was teen neighbor
Jenise, known throughout her neighborhood as a spirited and independent girl, was reported missing Aug. 3, 2014. The search for her involved a massive law enforcement response. Days later her body was found in a muddy bog near her East Bremerton neighborhood after being strangled.
Gaeta, then 17 years old and awaiting his senior year at Olympic High School, lived with his family near the Wright home in the Steele Creek Mobile Home Park. He was friends with Jenise's brother.
Claim: DNA match
During the search for Jenise, investigators took samples of DNA from neighbors and material found on Jenise’s undergarments matched with Gaeta’s, according to court documents. Kitsap County Sheriff’s detectives zeroed in on him.
During an interview, Gaeta told a detective that no one else was involved in Jenise’s disappearance and what happened to her was not right.
Juvenile charged as an adult
Though still a juvenile at the time of his arrest, Gaeta was charged as an adult because of the seriousness of the crime. At the outset, prosecutors requested an evaluation of his ability to stand trial, noting his behavior during the detective’s interview. His attorneys refused, stipulating he was competent, meaning he understood the charges against him and was able to assist his attorneys.
Fitness to stand trial
In February 2017 Gaeta stopped communicating with his attorneys and was found to be incompetent. He was forcibly medicated at Western State Hospital to return him to a mental state where he could stand trial.
His mother reported that he had shown signs of declining mental health in the period before Jenise’s death, what she described as severe depression, and she had sought help for him. Family members reported that when he became stressed he would shut down.
While in jail and juvenile detention, he went through periods of not eating, requiring two trips to the hospital. Corrections officers used a stun gun on him on an occasion when he did not obey orders: he was curled in the fetal position on the floor and took hold of an officer’s leg.
A Western State Hospital psychologist diagnosed him as having major depressive disorder.
Since Gaeta was arrested, the state Supreme Court issued four rulings related to juvenile sentencing, Enright said. The rulings have been interpreted to mean juveniles cannot be sentenced to an effective life sentence, that they must be given an opportunity at some point to apply for release.
The state cases came from a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case that prohibited mandatory life sentences for juveniles, Miller vs. Alabama. The court found such sentences amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The rulings reflect recent brain science research that found that human brains don't completely mature until a person's mid-20s. Before Gaeta's case, the court prohibited the death sentence for juveniles.
The 40-year minimum sentence for Gaeta is an attempt to find a sentence that would withstand appeals, Enright said.
"Finding a sentence that will meet the requirements of appellate courts has been like trying to hit a moving target," Enright said. "My hope is that Gaeta will receive a sentence that is final and that he won’t be allowed to repeatedly return to court seeking a lower sentence. By pleading guilty, he’ll be spending the rest of his life under the control of the Department of Corrections."