JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Authorities investigating the October 2009 disappearance of a Missouri girl had seized muddy clothes and shovels from the home of a neighboring teenager who later confessed to killing and burying the girl, according to secretly filed court documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The previously undisclosed details of the investigation — including that the teen's boyfriend was repeatedly questioned — were released Tuesday in response to an open-records request made by the AP. Alyssa Bustamante was sentenced last week to life in prison with the possibility of parole for the slaying of 9-year-old Elizabeth Olten.
Bustamante, who was 15 at the time, admitted to strangling Elizabeth, slicing her throat and stabbing her. Bustamante described the experience as "ahmazing" and "pretty enjoyable" in a diary entry written the night of the murder.
After hundreds of volunteers searched for two days for Elizabeth, Bustamante led authorities to her body buried in a wooded area about a half-mile from Bustamante's house. The girl's cellphone was still in her pants, the documents said, but authorities had until then been using the traced cellphone signals to search for a living person, not scouring the ground for signs of a grave.
At a sentencing hearing last week, Bustamante apologized to Elizabeth's family, adding: "If could give my life to get her back, I would."
Bustamante pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder shortly before she was scheduled to go to trial in January, meaning some of the evidence and investigation details that had been kept under seal by a judge never were discussed publicly in court.
In response to the AP's request, Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce released some of those documents but redacted portions relating to a confession Bustamante gave to police two days after the murder that the judge previously had suppressed from being presented as evidence.
In addition to seizing a diary that had been hidden under a blanket in Bustamante's bedroom, the newly released documents show authorities also took muddy jeans and clothing that appeared to have blood stains on them, as well as two shovels. Details about the seizures were included in the transcript of a secret court hearing held Aug. 23 on a defense motion to suppress the evidence. The judge ultimately rejected that motion, and the blood turned out to be from Bustamante.
"No blood from Elizabeth was found on anything that was seized from that home," Bustamante's attorney, Charlie Moreland, said Tuesday.
The day after Elizabeth disappeared, Bustamante skipped school and went to the home of her 16-year-old boyfriend. Court documents show the boyfriend was interviewed eight times by the FBI and Missouri State Highway Patrol over the ensuring seven days. The boyfriend told authorities that Bustamante had mentioned that her little sister's friend was missing and that police had searched her house. The boyfriend said he also found a black knife or box-cutter in Bustamante's backpack, a weapon Cole County Prosecutor Mark Richardson said Tuesday was much smaller than the knife used in the murder.
The boyfriend denied knowing about Elizabeth's death until being informed of it by the FBI, which caused him to become ill and later vomit, Bustamante's attorneys wrote in a Jan. 9 court filing that had been kept secret. The court filing, which sought to block the boyfriend from being called to testify at the trial, said the boyfriend later failed a polygraph test. But he never was charged with a crime.
"All the evidence we had pointed to only one person (Bustamante) being involved in the murder," Richardson said Tuesday.
Moreland declined Tuesday to discuss the boyfriend's knowledge about the slaying, saying he didn't believe the judge should have publicly released the documents referring to the boyfriend. A phone number listed in court records for the boyfriend had been disconnected Tuesday.
The same defense court document that discussed the boyfriend also indicated that a former female inmate at the Morgan County jail, where Bustamante had been held, had come forward offering to testify for prosecutors about "various incriminating and foul words" spoken by Bustamante while in jail.
Prosecutors had submitted a list to 50 potential witnesses to call at trial, including the boyfriend and jailhouse informant, according to the court documents.
Among other things, the court documents show that Bustamante's defense attorneys had argued as recently as Dec. 27 that it would be unconstitutional to sentence her to life in prison without the possibility of parole, which would have been the only outcome if she had been found guilty of her original charge of first-degree murder.
Richardson said Tuesday that the constitutional arguments played little role in his decision to agree to a second-degree murder charge, which he said was instead necessitated by the suppression of Bustamante's confession to police.