LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — A 52-year-old man who prosecutors say was paid in silver bars by a plastic surgeon to kill a love rival in Texas pleaded guilty Thursday to capital murder.
David Neal Shepard entered the plea in the killing of Dr. Joseph Sonnier III, 57, whose body was found, stabbed and shot, at his Lubbock home July 11, 2012.
Judge James B. Darnell pronounced Shepard guilty and said the state is recommending a sentence of life in prison without parole. Shepard could have faced the death penalty. Darnell said sentencing would take place in about two weeks.
Lubbock County District Attorney Matt Powell declined to comment Thursday.
Authorities say Thomas Michael Dixon, 49, hired Shepard to kill Sonnier III because Sonnier, the chief pathologist for Covenant Health System in Lubbock, was dating Dixon's ex-girlfriend. The woman's name isn't included in court documents.
Shepard pleaded guilty to killing Sonnier at Dixon's behest — one of two capital murder counts on which he was indicted. In exchange for his guilty plea Powell's office dropped a second count that alleged Shepard killed Sonnier III during the commission of a second felony, burglary of a habitation.
Shepard answered Darnell's questions about the plea deal in brief responses.
Shepard's public defender, Dennis Reeves, said Thursday that the plea deal is "a fair resolution" to the case.
"Mr. Shepard hopes that in some way this helps the victim's family," he said.
Joseph Sonnier IV did not immediately respond to an email asking for comment on Shepard's plea.
Sonnier's family members have said he had told them that his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend had been causing problems.
The woman told a police detective that Dixon, of Amarillo, "insisted on seeing her, even though she was dating Dr. Sonnier," according to the affidavit. Also, a co-worker of Sonnier told the detective that Sonnier had said his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend "would not leave her alone," the affidavit says.
Court records describe Shepard as Dixon's business associate but don't provide details about how the men knew each other.
An arrest warrant affidavit alleges that Dixon offered to pay Shepard three bars of silver valued at $3,000 each to kill Sonnier. Shepard's roommate told police that Shepard confessed to the crime after he tried to commit suicide, saying he broke into Sonnier's home through a window and shot him several times with a gun Dixon had given him, the affidavit says.
Dixon and Shepard were each indicted on two counts of capital murder about a month after the slaying.
They've been jailed on $10 million bail since their arrests.
Sonnier III's mother and two sons have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Shepard and Dixon.
Lubbock is about 120 miles south of Amarillo.