Investigators believe Gabriel Zebediah Gaeta raped and murdered 6-year-old Jenise Wright, of East Bremerton, last weekend.
According to documents filed in Kitsap County Superior Court, DNA evidence from blood and semen linked Gaeta to Jenise's remains, which were found nearly buried in a muddy bog last week.
Gaeta, a 17-year-old neighbor of the Wright family in the Steele Creek Mobile Home Park, was arrested Saturday afternoon. He is being held on $1 million bail.
The Kitsap County Prosecutor's Office expects to charge Gaeta as an adult in Jenise's rape and murder.
If convicted, Gaeta could not be sentenced to death but could face a sentence of life in prison without parole, Kitsap Prosecuting Attorney Russ Hauge said.
Gaeta is scheduled to make a preliminary appearance in Kitsap County Superior Court at 3 p.m. today. Hauge said he would be processed through the courts as an adult, but would not be immediately charged. The state has 72 hours starting Monday morning to bring charges, and Hauge said the case file is large and prosecutors are being careful.
The documents filed Monday indicate that the Kitsap County Coroner's Office found evidence of strangulation, blunt force trauma, multiple skull fractures, and sexual assault on Jenise's body.
According to the documents:
• Searchers found a young girl's underwear and shorts, which appeared to be bloody, Aug. 4 at the trailer park. By Wednesday, the Washington State Patrol crime lab had extracted DNA evidence from those garments.
• Jenise's body was found Thursday, nearly concealed in three to four feet of mud and covered by an old pallet. Her body was only about 15-20 feet away from where the bloody garments had been found.
• Gaeta provided a voluntary DNA sample Friday, on the second request from investigators. When they first requested the sample, Gaeta's family told them he was too distraught to cooperate.
• The state crime lab matched Gaeta's DNA to the evidence from the underwear on Saturday. Investigators who interviewed him at the Bremerton Police Department said that Gaeta eventually nodded when asked if he killed Jenise.
• Later Saturday, shorts, underwear, a shirt and a towel stained with blood and mud were found in Gaeta's room at the family residence.
The body was moved between 30 minutes and three hours after Jenise's death, according to the documents.
Hauge said there is probable cause for first-degree murder and first-degree child rape.
“Those are the charges right now, but there is more information coming forward all the time,” he said. “The issue we are facing is that there is an awful lot of information to get through. We want to get it right. We don’t want to charge something we later find we can’t prove. That’s why we are starting off relatively conservative here.”
The hearing today will allow a Superior Court judge to review the probable cause, make sure the teen understands his rights and review conditions of release, if any.
If convicted, a judge could consider aggravating factors in the case and hand down a sentence of life without parole.
“Certainly there are aggravating factors in this case,” Hauge said.
Gaeta lives in Steele Creek Mobile Home Park, where 6-year-old Jenise was reported missing Aug. 3.
Investigators arrested him Saturday.
The Sheriff’s Office is continuing to investigate, but investigators do not believe there are other suspects.
“Things don’t stop just because we have made an arrest,” spokesman Deputy Scott Wilson said. Detectives are interviewing people who know the suspect, including friends and people from school. “They are painting a portrait of this whole case.”
On Saturday, FBI agents served warrants on Gaeta’s residence, and seized more than one car to scour for evidence, Wilson said.
Investigators said forensic evident led detectives to the 17-year-old. Wilson said the suspect volunteered a DNA sample. Wilson said he was interviewed by detectives, but did not know if he invoked his right to remain silent or requested a lawyer.
Due to rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court over the past decade, if convicted, the suspect will not face the death penalty, because the alleged crime took place before he turned 18.
However, if convicted of first-degree rape of a child, the suspect’s sentence could fall under the authority of the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, said Laurie Drapela, associate professor of criminal justice at Washington State University at Vancouver. That would create a minimum sentence, and the board would decide when he would be released after that. It functions similar to a parole board.
The news that the suspect is a 17-year-old who lived near Jenise may be surprising to some, but Drapela said even in an unusual case like Jenise’s death, it would be more unusual if her killer was a stranger.
“It will be hard, maybe, challenging for the public to process this,” she said. “Especially because it is a sex crime involving a very young child.”