EFFINGHAM, Ill. - A southern Illinois man pleaded guilty Tuesday to first-degree murder in the 2013 stabbing death of his 7-year-old niece.
Justin DeRyke was accused of killing Willow Long in September near her home in Watson, about 100 miles northeast of St. Louis. DeRyke told investigators he killed his niece to "put her out of her misery" after he says she fell onto a brush pile and pierced her neck.
Judge Kimberly Koester accepted DeRyke's guilty plea. As part of the plea deal, other charges against DeRyke, 22, were dismissed.
"Justin DeRyke's plea of guilty to the offense of first-degree murder means that society will be protected and the murderer will spend the rest of his life behind bars," said Effingham County State's Attorney Bryan M. Kibler. "The sentence in this case is the maximum allowed by law. Justin DeRyke will never again pose a threat to any child."
The girl was reported missing by her mother, Ciara DeRyke, on the morning of Sept. 8, triggering a search by about 1,000 volunteers. Four of the volunteers taking part in the search found the child's body near the 730-resident village, where Justin DeRyke also lived.
At the time of his arrest, authorities said DeRyke drew suspicion during questioning by Illinois State Police. Prosecutors also pointed out DeRyke went to his restaurant job in Effingham instead of helping search for his niece.
Ciara DeRyke was charged with obstruction for allegedly lying to police investigating the girl's disappearance. She told them she had seen her daughter when the girl was already dead.
The Effingham woman pleaded guilty to charges in January and was sentenced to 120 days in jail. She also received 18 months of probation.