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Justin James Rector: Bullhead City man pleads guilty in murder of Isabella Grogan-Cannella

Posted at 11:04 AM, Dec 18, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-18 21:25:15-05

BULLHEAD CITY, AZ — A man charged in the 2014 murder of a young Bullhead City girl pleaded guilty Tuesday to first-degree murder, days after he made a surprising decision to represent himself in the case.

Justin James Rector was charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, child abuse and abandonment of a body in the September 2014 death of 8-year-old Isabella Grogan-Cannella. She was strangled, and her partially clothed body was found in a shallow grave near her home.

The plea, entered in Mohave County Superior Court, comes with a sentence of life in prison with a possibility of parole after 35 years.

In February, a Mohave County Superior Court judge accepted a decision by Arizona state prosecutors to no longer seek the death penalty they had earlier sought in the case.

The plea came as a relief to Isabella's maternal grandmother, Toni Page, who once had custody of the girl and who said she was frustrated at times waiting for justice.

"Thank goodness it's over now," she told The Associated Press. "Nobody deserves to have their children or grandchildren lost at such a young age."

Bullhead City police Chief Brian Williamson said Isabella's death deeply affected the community on the Arizona-Nevada border.

"We are glad that not only her family has some closure but our whole community as well," Williamson said.

Rector, 30, was a guest in the home of Isabella's mother and stepfather on Sept. 2, 2014 when she was reporting missing.

He told police he smoked methamphetamine throughout the day in the Bullhead City home. Isabella's other grandmother was babysitting while the girl's mother was at the store, authorities have said.

Her disappearance turned more tragic when her partially clothed body was found in a shallow grave the next day. A police detective testified in a 2016 court hearing that authorities had evidence she was sexually assaulted.

A medical examiner said the girl known at school as friendly, loving, obedient, beautiful and inquisitive had been strangled.

Rector's plea means he will avoid a trial that had been scheduled to begin in April.

Cassels and prosecutor Greg McPhillips did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.

Page said she often visits a rock garden that honors Isabella at a local park, and cleans the area where the girl's body was found, maintaining a cross and leaving items such as candy at Halloween and a stocking at Christmas.

"She was full of life and she was just beginning to start her life when this happened," Page said.