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Sheley pleads for life, avoids death penalty in Missouri

Judge accepts plea agreement in murders that ended Sterling man's 2008 killing spree

HILLSBORO, Mo. – Sterling spree killer Nick Sheley's tearful request to have his life spared was granted this afternoon when a Jefferson County judge accepted a plea bargain, removing the death penalty as punishment for the 2008 murders of an Arkansas couple he beat to death in Festus, Missouri.

Sheley dropped to his knees as he read a written apology to virtually everyone whose life he affected during his weeklong murder spree that took eight lives in two states. 

“I wasn’t caught by surprise I qualified for the death sentence, I expected that. But there will be no relief for me, no walk in the park to spend life in prison,” he said.

Sheley then quoted scenes from memory of the movie "The Shawshank Redemption". “I can’t change the past, I had a troubled, mixed-up mind. What I did 10 years ago, taking lives of eight people, those were cowardly acts that I sincerely regret.”

Sheley said through tears that he fully expected to take his own life despite his stern, arrogant face. “I’ve shed many tears, I’ve just done them in solitude.

"I’m a monster, indeed.”

The 38-year-old pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of criminal intent in the beating deaths of Tom and Jill Estes, both 54, who were attacked outside a Festus hotel. The couple, in town for a graduation party in St. Louis, were the last two of his eight victims.

In exchange, the prosecution dropped its push for the death penalty. Sheley will serve two life sentences without parole on the first-degree murder charges and two 75-year sentences for the criminal intent charges.

The charges will be consecutive and concurrent with the six life sentences Sheley already is serving in Illinois for murders in Sterling, Rock Falls and Galesburg.

During his statement, Sheley said he wanted to offer apologies but was stopped by lawyers who wanted to save his life.

He also said he would drop any appeals in the Illinois convictions.

About halfway through his letter, Sheley dropped to his knees to ask for forgiveness as he recited the names of his murdered victims: Russell Reed, Ronald Randall, Brock Branson, Kilynna Blake, Dayan Blake, Kenneth Ulve and Jill and Tom Estes.

He apologized to the officers, judges, lawyers, investigators, media and doctors. He named his ex-wife, Holly Gaul, and his brother, Josh, then spoke directly to Brock Branson’s father, Dallas, who found the bodies of his son, 2-year-old Dayan, his mom and Ulve in the Rock Falls apartment in which they were slaughtered.

“You stand out in my mind for discovering the brutal scene at the apartment that day,” Sheley said to Branson, who was none too impressed.

“I don’t take anything from his apology, I’m not going to forgive him," Branson said. "He killed the only son I had.”

Sheley’s statement came after prosecutor Steven Jerrell laid out the case the state had against him.

The Estes were killed June 29 in the parking lot of a Festus hotel, their bodies dumped behind a wall at a Phillips 66 gas station. Authorities were alerted when the Estes’ two dogs were seen in the hotel parking lot covered in blood.

Inside the dumpster, investigators found a shoe box and bloody clothes. The UPC code on the box led investigators to Walmart, where video footage showed Sheley buying new clothes to replace the blood-soaked ones found in the dumpster.

DNA evidence and a sandal matching one found at the murder scene were in a truck stolen by Sheley, and after he was arrested, investigators found negatives and a undeveloped disposable camera, both of which also showed him wearing the bloody clothes.

The murder weapon, a hammer or crow bar, never was found. The couple, who had been high school sweethearts, both died of blunt force trauma to the head. 

No reason was given by the prosecution for making the plea bargain, which Jefferson County Judge Gary Kramer accepted.

“It’s not what we wanted," Dallas Branson said. "We wanted the death penalty.”

Estes family spokesman Patrick Steed, their son-in-law, mirrored Branson’s words, and said they, too, were disappointed the death penalty was taken off the table.

After the hearing, Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Forrest Wegge addressed the media.

Sheley, Wegge said, “is not worthy of another look or thought. The next time he leaves prison will be in a pine box.”

He ended with “there will be no further statement.”

Questions shouted out as to why the deal with the killer was made went unanswered as he walked back into the courthouse.

Sheley killed the eight people on a drug-fueled rampage between June 23 and 30, 2008. All, including the toddler, were beaten to death.

In May 2014, Sheley was convicted in Rock Island County Court of killing the four people in Rock Falls. Branson was 29, Blake, his fiancee, was 20, and Kenneth Ulve, who happened to be visiting the couple, was 25.

In November 2012, he was convicted in Whiteside County Court of bludgeoning 93-year-old Russell Reed, his first victim, and a man who had befriended him, in rural Sterling.

In September 2011, he was convicted in Knox County Court of killing 65-year-old Ronald Randall in Galesburg, presumably for his pickup truck, which he used to escape the area.

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