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A Pennsylvania man has pleaded guilty to abducting and killing Amish teenager Linda Stoltzfoos as the teen was walking home from church last year.
Justo Smoker, 35, pleaded guilty in court Thursday to third degree murder, kidnapping, abuse of a corpse, two counts of tampering with evidence and possession of an instrument of crime in connection with the 18-year-old’s death, according to a statement from the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office.
“I know Linda was a light. Because of me, the world is dimmer,” Smoker told the teen’s family in court, according to WGAL. “All I can say is I’m sorry.”
Smoker was sentenced to 35 and a half years to 71 years behind bars as part of a plea agreement he made with prosecutors.
“From the outset of this case, we sought to secure justice for Linda, her family and the community,” District Attorney Heather Adams said in the statement. “By bringing Linda home and securing the conviction and effective life-sentence imposed today, there is no question that justice has been served.”
Stoltzfoos’ parents were not in the courtroom for the sentence because of the highly emotional nature of the case, but family spokesperson Samuel Blank read a letter from her parents describing Stoltzfoos as a caring teen with a big heart, according to local station WPMT.
Blank said her death left “broken dreams” and sent fear through the Amish community.
“It really felt like our community was violated,” he said.
Stoltzfoos disappeared on Father’s Day June 21, 2020 as she was walking home from a church service near the Bird-in-Hand community.
First Assistant Todd Brown said in court that Smoker later told investigators that he “approached Linda from behind and choked her with his arm under her neck and then with shoelaces until she was no longer breathing,” according to prosecutors.
He also stabbed her in the neck to make sure she was dead.
Local law enforcement agencies and the FBI quickly joined forces to search for the missing teen who had seeming vanished without a trace. Investigators got the break they needed in the case after surveillance footage was discovered that showed a man—later identified as Smoker—kidnapping the teen as she walked along the road, prosecutors said.
The footage was used to establish Smoker as a suspect in the slaying and he was arrested, however, investigators were still unable to find the teen’s body.
In April, prosecutors agreed to a plea deal with Smoker that would allow him to plead guilty to third-degree murder and other related charges—offering him a lesser sentence—if he agreed to lead authorities to the body.
“Bringing Linda home was a critical component of our mission to secure justice for Linda, her family and the Amish community as a whole,” Adams said of the decision. “Allowing Linda’s family the opportunity for a proper burial provided some measure of closure and granted Linda the dignity and respect she so richly deserved.”
Smoker revealed that after he had killed the teenager, he initially buried her near 3104 Harvest Drive, where several items of her clothing were later discovered, but he ultimately moved the body to a second location.
With Smoker’s help, authorities discovered the teen’s body wrapped in a tarp and buried in shallow grave behind his former workplace in Gap.
An autopsy would determine she died of asphyxia as the result of strangulation, prosecutors said. Officials said the stab wound had also played a role in her death.
Judge David Ashworth described the “senseless killing” as “contrary to all we hold dear in a civilized society” and urged the state parole board not to believe that Smoker could be rehabilitated.
“Justo Smoker should never be given the chance again to inflict pain and carnage to the community,” he said, according to WGAL.
Smoker had been out of prison on parole for 16 months before the teen’s slaying. He will be required to serve a sentence determined by the State Parole Board—which could be as long as 17 and a half years—behind bars for violating his parole before his sentence for the murder begins. Prosecutors said it’s possible that Smoker will serve a total of 88 and a half years behind bars.
Smoker became visibly emotional at times during the hearing and apologized to Stolzfoos’ family for taking her life.
“I was raised better than this. I know better than this,” he said. “I was loved better than this. I’m sorry.”
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