Utah teen accused of raping, killing 12-year-old neighbor girl resolves case with ‘blended’ plea

(Scott G Winterton | Pool photo) Jayden Sterzer is led into court for his hearing before 3rd District Juvenile Court Judge James Michie on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017 in Salt Lake City. Sterzer pleaded guilty to sexual abusing and murdering Kailey Vijil in 2015.

A teen from West Valley City admitted Monday to raping and killing his 12-year-old neighbor in 2015.

(Scott G Winterton | Pool Photo) Third District Judge Paul Parker speaks during a hearing for Jayden Sterzer, who pleaded guilty to sexual abuse and murder of Kailey Vijil in 2015, at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017.

Jayden Sterzer — who was 15 years old at the time of Kailey Vijil’s death — resolved his case Monday with pleas in juvenile and adult courts.

He admitted to a count of rape of a child, a first-degree felony, in juvenile court early Monday afternoon before entering a guilty plea to murder, a first-degree felony, and sexual abuse of a child, a second-degree felony, in adult court.

This “blended” plea will allow Sterzer, who turned 18 last month, to remain in a juvenile detention center before going to adult prison.

For Vijil’s family, the man’s admissions brought relief.

“It’s been an unbearable 2½ years that they’ve had to go through,” said Spencer Banks, attorney for the victim’s family. “… [The plea deal] assures he will be in custody for an extremely long time, and that’s where they take the most comfort.”

Sterzer is expected to spend the next three years in a juvenile detention center until he turns 21 years old. At that time, he will be sentenced in adult court to a mandatory prison term of at least 15 years — and possibly up to life — behind bars.

Third District Juvenile Court Judge James Michie told Sterzer on Monday that during a Jan. 19 hearing, he will hear from attorneys, the teen and Vijil’s family before officially imposing any commitment to a juvenile facility.

Michie told Sterzer that while many of the hearings have focused on him, he will highlight the victim at the next hearing.

“Now the tide has turned, finally,” the judge said, “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.”

A review hearing has been set for December 2018 in adult court.

The pleas come weeks after Michie had ruled that Sterzer was competent to stand trial. The judge had previously ruled in December 2016 that the teen was not competent, but that it was possible he could be restored. Sterzer spent the past year receiving education and services from the state’s Department of Human Services.

Sterzer’s attorney, Michael Sikora, said after the hearings that his client suffers from significant cognitive issues based on fetal alcohol exposure. Once the judge ruled that he was competent for the case to move forward, the defense team worked to get a plea deal that would allow him to receive further services in the juvenile system before going to adult prison.

“Because of these impairments,” Sikora said, “because he operates at such a young age — intellectually he operates about at the level of a third-grader — it was very important to do what we could to keep him in the juvenile system for the next three years.”

Vijil was found dead about 1:30 a.m. on July 17, 2015, in an overgrown pasture near 3600 South and 5200 West, about a half-mile from her family’s home.

Sterzer admitted in court Monday that he lured Vijil from her home just before midnight July 16, claiming he needed help looking for a lost cat. His attorneys told the judge that Sterzer sexually assaulted the girl, then strangled her with his tank top.

The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify juvenile defendants unless they are certified to stand trial in adult court, as Sterzer now has been.