FARMVILLE, VIRGINIA -- The suspect in the quadruple homicide that horrified this quiet college town a year ago pleaded guilty to murder charges today and was ordered to spend life in prison.
Richard Samuel Alden McCroskey III, 21, of California, pleaded guilty to two counts of capital murder and two counts of first-degree murder in Prince Edward County Circuit Court for bludgeoning the victims with a wood-splitting maul a year ago in a Longwood University professor's home in Farmville.
McCroskey, who could have faced the death penalty, was sentenced to life in prison. He opted not to address the courtroom, which was occupied by family members of all four victims, law enforcement investigators and others.
Prince Edward County Commonwealth's Attorney James Ennis said McCroskey's anger about his relationship with his girlfriend, Emma Niederbrock, 16, led to the killings. McCroskey killed Emma; her mother, Longwood University professor Debra S. Kelley; Kelley's estranged husband, Mark Niederbrock; and Emma's friend, Melanie Wells, who was visiting from West Virginia.
Ennis said members of the victims' families supported his decision to reach the plea agreement instead of going to trial and seeking the death penalty.
"What it really means is death in prison," Ennis said after the hearing. "It's a guaranteed outcome, and hopefully it will bring some measure of closure to the family."
Defense attorney Cary Bowen said his objective had been to minimize McCroskey's punishment and serve his interest as best as possible.
"He's left families without their loved ones," Bowen said. "There are four people dead here. He's not proud of that."
He said McCroskey is remorseful and has contemplated the severity of what he did.
A family spokeswoman released a statement from Kelley's parents, Thomas and Margaret Kelley, saying they are thankful that the case is over and that they may now "have some degree of closure." They also thanked police and everyone who supported them.
"We have endured a tragedy of unspeakable proportion," the statement reads. "We are relieved that justice has been done. While we will never forget our loved ones or the circumstances of their deaths, we hope to move forward and begin the healing process."
Other family members did not wish to comment, the spokeswoman said.
McCroskey, who recorded "horrorcore" rap music with lyrics that obsessed about murder and graphic violence, had been in an online relationship with Emma for about a year when he came to visit her in September of last year, Ennis said.
Kelley and Mark Niederbrock took Emma, McCroskey and Wells to a horrorcore music festival several days before McCroskey killed them. Ennis said McCroskey was angered by some text messages Emma sent while they were in Michigan.
They returned to Virginia, and McCroskey became increasingly distraught about the relationship, Ennis said. He had an expectation that he and Emma were seeing each other exclusively and was unhappy with how things were going, Ennis said.
Late in the evening of Sept. 14, 2009, or early the next morning, McCroskey drank beer, smoked marijuana and might have taken painkillers before he attacked the three female victims in the house as they were sleeping, Ennis said. He killed each within a short period of time around 3 a.m. on Sept. 15.
Ennis said that McCroskey first killed Wells, who was on a sofa in a first-floor den, then Kelley in an upstairs room, and finally Emma in her downstairs bedroom. He struck each victim multiple times with the maul.
"No one awoke," Ennis said, adding that the victims had no defensive wounds.
Mark Niederbrock arrived at the home Sept. 17 about 5 p.m., and McCroskey attacked him with the maul in a living room, Ennis said. McCroskey later moved Mark Niederbrock's and Wells' bodies into Emma's room, and he attempted to clean up the bloody den, Ennis said.
At some point, McCroskey used a digital camera to record a video of himself, Ennis said. In the video, he indicated that he knew he had to pay for what he had done and contemplated suicide, Ennis said.
The bodies were discovered in the home Sept. 18, and McCroskey was captured the next day at Richmond International Airport as he awaited a flight home to California