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Teen killing suspect to be evaluated for mental competency

Posted at 12:28 PM, Aug 11, 2014
and last updated 2014-08-12 11:24:37-04

The 17-year-old suspected of killing Jenise Wright and hiding her body in the woods will be evaluated by mental health experts to determine whether he is competent to face criminal charges, a Kitsap Superior Court judge ordered Monday.

Bail for Gabriel Zebediah Gaeta, an incoming senior at Olympic High School and neighbor of 6-year-old Jenise, was set at $1 million. He will be evaluated by experts at Western State Hospital near Tacoma before an Aug. 28 hearing, county Prosecutor Russ Hauge said.

Prosecutors asked for the evaluation in light of medications Gaeta receives for depression, along with behavior observed during an interview, Hauge said.

Family members of Gaeta said he had been very upset about Jenise’s disappearance and had “barely been able to get out of bed and emotionally upset,” according to reports.

During the interview, when detectives were outside the room but watching on a closed circuit camera, a detective wrote Gaeta had been stretching, yawning and “moving about” the room. He also rolled up a Kleenex into “what appeared to be a flower.”

When asked directly about his feelings when Jenise’s body was found, Gaeta cried and become nonresponsive.

Gaeta is being held for investigation for first-degree murder and first-degree rape of a child. If determined by experts to be competent to stand trial, he will be charged as an adult, Hauge said. No charges have yet been filed.

“If a person is not competent to face charges what we do has no effect,” Hauge said.

Court documents filed Monday allege Gaeta raped, killed and then hid Jenise’s body in a muddy, woody area near Steele Creek Mobile Home Park, where they lived.

A coroner’s report found evidence of blunt force trauma and strangulation by ligature. Investigators did not say what day she died. She was reported missing Aug. 3. Her body was found Thursday.

DNA evidence led investigators to Gaeta after crime lab analysts matched material recovered from Jenise’s clothing, found near her body, and a cheek swab Gaeta gave voluntarily, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

“The estimated probability of selecting an unrelated individual at random from the U.S. population with a matching profile is 1 in 9.1 quintillion,” according to documents.

The body was found Thursday almost completely submerged in a muddy bog 3 to 4 feet deep, covered by a wooden pallet, according to documents. A specially trained FBI dog led investigators to the site. Experts concluded the body had been moved following her death. After Gaeta’s arrest, a search of his room found clothing stained with blood and mud.

During an interview Saturday, Gaeta indicated to investigators that he killed Jenise, documents said.

“I asked him again if he was the only one involved (in Jenise’s death) and Gabriel clearly nodded yes,” the detective wrote.

Gaeta agreed to talk to investigators, documents said, giving up his right to remain silent. Documents do not mention whether he had a lawyer present during questioning, which went on for “a period of hours,” Hauge said.

Gaeta could not be sentenced to death but could face a sentence of life in prison without parole, Hauge said.

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.

Hauge said he was confident in the evidence detectives found and is not concerned about the admissibility of the evidence, saying that a deputy prosecutor was present with detectives “virtually nonstop” since the investigation ramped up.

The evaluation at Western State will determine whether Gaeta has the capacity to understand the proceedings and to participate in his own defense, a requirement to face criminal charges.

The news that the suspect is a 17-year-old who lived near Jenise might be surprising to some, but Drapela said even in an unusual case like Jenise’s death, it would be more unusual if her killer were 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.”

Gaeta is being held at the Kitsap Youth Services Center. He turns 18 in December, at which time he would be held in the Kitsap County Jail.

Gaeta appeared in court in an orange jumpsuit, his legs and hands shackled but was led in and out with a black coat over his head to block photographs of his face. Gaeta’s attorney, Keith Hall of Kent, asked Superior Court Judge Kevin Hull to prevent photographs of Gaeta while in court. Hull agreed. Gaeta answered questions in a quiet voice tand never turned to face the crowd of family, media, law enforcement and county employees who had assembled for the hearing.

Gaeta wrestled and played football for Olympic High School and grew up in the area.

“He was always really calm. Everyone knew him as a guy who’d never hurt a fly,” said Cameron Cassani, who knew Gaeta when they attended Ridgetop Junior High School together. The two haven’t spoken in some time. Cassani went to the hearing Monday to learn more about the case but was not able to get inside the courtroom.

Kitsap Sun reporter Chris Henry contributed to this report.