HILLSBORO — A man who killed six people in Illinois nine years ago pleaded guilty Wednesday to murdering a couple at a hotel in Festus — and then dropped to his knees to apologize for what he did.
Judge Gary Kramer sentenced Nicholas Sheley to life without the possibility of parole for the murder of Tom and Jill Estes. He also sentenced Sheley to 75 years for two counts of armed criminal action.
But the sentence wasn't enough for some of the couple's survivors, who say Missouri prosecutors dashed their hope for a chance at the death penalty. About 40 people filled the courtroom for the hourlong hearing, most of them relatives and friends of his eight victims.
When Sheley was asked if he had something to say, he spoke publicly for the first time in his court proceedings.
He read a 20-minute statement that said he wished he could go back in time and talk to the "disgruntled young man" that he was and take back what he had done. He begged the families for forgiveness and dropped to his knees to apologize for the murders.
Sheley also apologized to police, crime scene technicians, reporters and others touched by his crimes. He said he was shocked that Missouri prosecutors took the death penalty off the table, and that he hoped that "God would use him" to help other prisoners.
He even quoted from "The Shawshank Redemption," referring to prisoners' repeated appearances before parole boards pledging that they had changed. He mentioned Morgan Freeman's character, Red, and how he said "not a day goes by" that he didn't regret what he had done.
"What I did about 10 years ago was wrong on every level, unjustified, completely uncalled for, cowardly acts," Sheley said, weeping as he read.
His words did not sway the victims' relatives.
"You know what it's like to be in the presence of pure evil. You can feel it as soon as he walks in the room," said Patrick Steed, who was the Esteses' son-in-law.
Cari Randall, whose father was one of Sheley's murder victims in Galesburg, Ill., said, "We are all angry and disappointed. This it totally unjust. That was not a victory."
As for Sheley's apology, Randall was unimpressed.
"I believe they do offer acting classes in prison," she said. She traveled from central Illinois for the hearing, and said she had to attend because the Estes family had gone to his trials in Illinois.
Dallas Branson, whose only son, Brock, 25, was among Sheley's victims, said he didn't believe anything Sheley said.
"He is a manipulator and it's pure evil when you kill eight people," said Branson, who traveled from Sterling, Ill., for the sentencing. "A bad guy can make an apology but there is no apology for killing eight people."
Sheley is serving life sentences for the six slayings in Illinois. Illinois prosecutors dropped their pursuit of the death penalty for Sheley there after former Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in 2011.
"I believe God is intervening and wants to use me as an ambassador to help the lost find their way," Sheley said after thanking Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Forrest Wegge for sparing his life.
Prosecutors in Jefferson County filed notice on June 8, 2015, of their intent to press for Sheley’s execution if he was convicted of murdering the Esteses. But they changed that strategy with no explanation. And after Wednesday's sentencing, Wegge read from a statement but did not address why prosecutors decided against pursuing the death penalty.
In a jailhouse interview after the sentencing hearing, Sheley said he doesn’t know why prosecutors spared his life, and had been preparing to face the death penalty.
“I didn’t see it coming,” he said.
Sheley said the murders of Esteses and all of the others were “split second decisions.”
“These things weren’t planned out,” he said.
Of the Esteses, Sheley said simply, “We crossed paths.”
The Esteses had lived in Arkansas. The Jennings High School sweethearts were the last of Nicholas Sheley’s victims — eight in all, police said.
Sheley had already killed a 93-year-old man in his hometown of Sterling, Ill.; four people including a 2-year-old in Rock Falls, Ill.; and a 65-year-old man in Galesburg, Ill.
Police believed he came to Jefferson County because he was looking for a woman who once wrote to Sheley from a home in Festus when he happened upon the couple at the hotel.
After a nationwide manhunt, Sheley was arrested July 1, 2008, outside Bindy’s bar in Granite City. Patrons recognized him from media coverage.
Prosecutors in Illinois alleged in 2013 that Sheley’s rampage was prompted by his belief that one of his victims, Brock Branson, was having an affair with his wife. Another witness told police Sheley and Branson had argued about drugs. Police believe the Esteses were random victims.
In the interview Wednesday, confirmed that he had suspected his wife was having an affair with Branson. He said he believed his wife met Branson when she came to visit him in an Illinois prison and Branson was there to visit a different inmate.
“I saw him peek his head around the corner for just a second,” he said, imitating a quick motion. “And that was it.”
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Steve Jerrell read a victim impact statement from Jill Estes' sister, Sandra Behlmann, that talked about Estes' teaching career working with special needs children.
"She devoted her life to make the world a better place," Behlmann said.
Sheley has been awaiting trial at the Jefferson County Jail in Hillsboro since February 2015.
He said he has been educating himself while behind bars and reading mostly the Bible – especially what it says about forgiveness.
“I’m not blind to the pain people feel because of the things I have done, and I don’t like that they have to live their life without their loved ones, but also, the way they feel toward me, I know that’s a burden that they carry," he said. "I don’t want them to forget, but I do want their forgiveness. That’s why I got down on my knees. To humble myself.”