SYCAMORE (AP) — A 36-year-old man charged in the 2010 slaying of a Northern Illinois University student whose burned body was found in a park days after she disappeared entered a plea in exchange for a 37-year prison sentence on Wednesday.
William Curl's attorney said his client took the plea deal in the slaying of 18-year-old Antinette "Toni" Keller because it gave him the best chance to someday walk out of prison. Curl must serve the entire 37-year sentence, according to the plea deal.
"If he was convicted, he was looking at 20-60 years and it could have been extended up to life," said DeKalb County Public Defender Tom McCulloch. "At least (now) he has a chance of getting out," he said. Given the nearly-three years he's already been in custody, Curl would complete his sentence when he is in his early 70s.
Keller's family members were disturbed by that possibility.
"It's just the concept that he could be released," said Mary Tarling, the victim's cousin who has served as a family spokeswoman. "When people say it's going to be 37 years until he's released, the only thing I hear is 'until he's released.'"
McCulloch said the 20-minute hearing brought a swift ending to a gruesome case that has been in and out of the news since the charred body of the 18-year-old NIU freshman was found in a park near the campus two days after she vanished. With the scheduled trial just days away, prosecutors announced Tuesday that Curl had agreed to the plea deal.
Keller's family did not attend on Wednesday because nobody told them the plea would definitely be happening, according to a family spokeswoman. Instead, McCulloch said a victim impact statement they'd prepared was read into the court record.
"When your child dies, a piece of you ceases to exist," read a portion of a statement from the girl's mother that was read by a state's attorney official.
There was no apology or any statement from Curl, McCulloch said. Even though he entered a plea in return for the 37-year sentence, Curl has never admitted to killing the teenager.
"He maintains his innocence," said McCulloch, explaining that Curl entered what is called an Alford plea, which acknowledges that prosecutors could likely prove the charge filed against him.
Curl's sister, Moira Curl, loudly voiced her displeasure during Wednesday's proceeding, urging her brother not to accept the plea deal: "Billy, don't take it. They're railroading you," she yelled before being removed from the courtroom by deputies.
Keller, an art student from Plainfield, was last seen before she headed to a park and nature preserve near the university. Burned remains were found in the park two days later, and forensic experts later confirmed the remains were human. Police found Keller's burned clothing and her cellphone near the remains, prosecutors said.
Police said Curl was a person of interest because he was known to frequent the park. They said he became a suspect after he failed to show up for further questioning and fled to Mexico in a stolen SUV. Investigators said Keller's death was a crime of opportunity and Curl did not know her.