CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. (AP) — After listening to days of damaging testimony from prosecution witnesses, a former Virginia Tech student pleaded no contest Friday to killing a 13-year-old girl he met through social media.
David Eisenhauer, 20, entered his plea to all three charges against him in the stabbing death of Nicole Lovell: first-degree murder, abduction and concealing a body.
The plea came on the fourth day of testimony at his trial. Prosecutors told jurors Eisenhauer, then 18, killed Lovell, a 7th-grader from Blacksburg, because he was afraid his relationship with the underage girl would become known.
A plea of no contest means a defendant acknowledges there's enough evidence to convict him, but doesn't admit he committed the crime. The plea has the same effect as a guilty plea. Sentencing is scheduled for May. The judge told Eisenhauer he faces up to life, plus 15 years.
Lovell's mother, Tammy Weeks, hugged prosecutor Mary Pettitt after the proceedings.
"I was blessed to be Nicole's mother, to be her friend for 13 years," Weeks later told reporters as she choked back tears. "We fought every fight together... She was a great and beautiful girl."
During opening statements, Eisenhauer's lawyer attempted to shift the blame to his alleged accomplice, Natalie Keepers, 21, who has been charged as an accessory before the fact and is scheduled to go on trial in September.
Keepers told police she and Eisenhauer talked about various ways to kill the girl and admitted she later helped dump her body in North Carolina after Eisenhauer stabbed her. She insisted that she wasn't present for the actual killing, but Eisenhauer's lawyers suggested she was there and could have been the one who killed Lovell.
Pettitt told jurors that Nicole and Eisenhauer had been communicating through social media for months and had met at least once in person before Nicole climbed out her bedroom window for a "secret date" with him just after midnight on Jan. 27, 2016.
Prosecutors said Eisenhauer's DNA was found under Lovell's fingernails and her blood was found in the trunk of his car.
Pettitt told reporters she is glad the case has been resolved, but said the justice system is "incapable of healing this loss for Nicole's family, Nicole's friends or the community."
"We all suffer with the loss of this little girl," Pettitt said. "I do hope that we have been able to do the best that the justice system can do to provide some resolution and some justice."
In a later interview, Pettitt told The Associated Press that prosecutors had planned to call a witness Friday who would have testified that she was 15 in the summer of 2015 when she met the 18-year-old Eisenhauer online and the two went on to have a relationship "of a romantic nature."
The witness, identified only by the initials "B.B.," would have testified that in December 2015, Eisenhauer told her that a girl named Nicole was contacting him and said that they had "messed around." Eisenhauer told B.B. he had met the girl at a party but later woke up on the side of the road and didn't remember what happened, Pettitt said.
Pettitt said B.B. would have testified that Eisenhauer began to talk to her about ways to "take care of his problem" and told her he had hatched a plan — with the help of a military buddy — to kill Nicole.
B.B. said that when she later asked Eisenhauer if he was involved in Nicole's death, he said she had fallen and cut her neck on a stick. The girl said Eisenhauer told her that the incident occurred "because he couldn't keep it in his pants," Pettitt said.
During Eisenhauer's trial, Weeks testified that she discovered her daughter had disappeared when she found a nightstand pushed up against her bedroom door and the window open. Prosecutors said Nicole climbed out her window to meet Eisenhauer.
Nicole's body was found three days later, just over the state line in North Carolina. A medical examiner testified that she had 14 stab wounds, including a lethal wound to her neck.
Juror Keith Johnson, 55, a maintenance engineer from Christiansburg, declined to say whether he was leaning toward voting guilty or not guilty, noting that Eisenhauer's defense lawyers "never got their turn."
"It was taxing to go through such a gruesome murder," Johnson said.
Eisenhauer, of Columbia, Maryland, and Keepers, of Laurel, Maryland, were both freshmen engineering students at Virginia Tech when Lovell was killed.