PORT ORCHARD — Gabriel Zebediah Gaeta is the teenager who investigators believe raped and murdered 6-year-old Jenise Wright last weekend.
According to documents filed in Kitsap County Superior Court, DNA evidence from blood and semen linked Gaeta to Wright's remains, which were found nearly buried in a muddy bog last week.
Gaeta, a 17-year-old neighbor of the Wright family in the Steele Creek Mobile Home Park, was arrested Saturday afternoon. He is making his first court appearance this afternoon. Prosecutors are requesting bail be set at $1 million.
The Kitsap County Prosecutor's Office expects to charge Gaeta as an adult in Jenise's rape and murder.
If convicted, Gaeta could not be sentenced to death, but could face a sentence of life in prison without parole, Kitsap Prosecuting Attorney Russ Hauge said.
Gaeta is scheduled to make a preliminary appearance in Kitsap County Superior Court at 3 p.m. today. Hauge said he would be processed through the courts as an adult, but would not be immediately charged. The state has 72 hours starting Monday morning to bring charges, and Hauge said the case file is large and prosecutors are being careful.
The documents filed Monday indicate that Jenise died of strangulation. The coroner also found evidence of blunt force trauma and multiple skull fractures, as well as sexual assault.
The body was moved between 30 minutes and three hours after Jenise's death, according to documents.
Hauge said there is probable cause for first-degree murder and first-degree child rape.
“Those are the charges right now, but there is more information coming forward all the time,” he said. “The issue we are facing is that there is an awful lot of information to get through. We want to get it right. We don’t want to charge something we later find we can’t prove. That’s why we are starting off relatively conservative here.”
The hearing today will allow a Superior Court judge to review the probable cause, make sure the teen understands his rights and review conditions of release, if any.
If convicted, a judge could consider aggravating factors in the case and hand down a sentence of life without parole.
“Certainly there are aggravating factors in this case,” Hauge said.
Gaeta lives in Steele Creek Mobile Home Park, where 6-year-old Jenise was reported missing on Aug. 3.
Investigators arrested him Saturday.
The Sheriff’s Office is continuing to investigate, but investigators do not believe there are other suspects.
“Things don’t stop just because we have made an arrest,” spokesman Deputy Scott Wilson said. Detectives are interviewing people who know the suspect, including friends and people from school. “They are painting a portrait of this whole case.”
On Saturday, FBI agents served warrants on Gaeta’s residence, and seized more than one car to scour for evidence, Wilson said.
Investigators said forensic evident led detectives to the 17-year-old. Wilson said the suspect volunteered a DNA sample. Wilson said he was interviewed by detectives, but did not know if he invoked his right to remain silent or requested a lawyer.
Due to rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court over the past decade, if convicted, the suspect will not face the death penalty, because the alleged crime took place before he turned 18.
However, 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.
The news that the suspect is a 17-year-old who lived near Jenise may be surprising to some, but Drapela said even in an unusual case like Jenise’s death, it would be more unusual if her killer was 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.”