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Resolution in murder case that shocked community

January 2, 2019

BULLHEAD CITY — More than four years after a killed that shocked the community, and after nearly $1 million spent to defend him, Justin Rector pleaded guilty to killing 8-year-old Isabella Grogan-Cannella.

The stunning turn of events — Rector was granted the right to serve as his own defense in a case that once carried a possible death sentence — took place just two weeks before the end of 2018 and provided a small sense of closure for a community rocked by the unconscionable, the death of a child at the hands of a family friend.

Grogan-Cannella was found dead in September of 2014 a short distance from her home on Lakeside Drive in Bullhead City. Rector was the only suspect in the case, arrested a matter of hours after a search for the girl turned into a homicide investigation.

Prosecutors originally sought the death penalty, beginning a laborious — and expensive — legal course filled with motions, counter-motions and little advancement of a case that made national headlines. Then, in Feburary of 2018, Deputy Mohave County Attorney Greg McPhillips, citing both the cost and frustration about a case that didn’t seem to be moving anywhere, dropped capital punishment as a potential penalty. That set in motion more court-related developments that culminated with Rector, 30, requesting to represent himself in the case and abruptly entering a guilty plea.

When the death penatly was on the table, by law Rector could not plead guilty; once it was removed, that was a possibility and became a reality.

Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 30; Rector will be sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole for at least 35 years.

A conviction and a suicide

Days after being convicted of manslaughter in an alcohol-related crash that left one man dead and another severely injured, Andrew Smith-Hartfield committed suicide in the Mohave County Jail in Kingman.

Smith-Harfield was convicted Oct. 19 for his actions in the death of Troy “TJ” Ubran on Oct. 30, 2015. He was in jail awaiting sentencing when he hung himself.

His attorney, Adam Zickerman, had asked for a mental health evaluation; Smith-Hartfield previously had been declared incompentent to stand trial but was ruled competent after completing a restore to competency program in Pina County in 2017.

Smith-Harfield was driving under the influence — his blood-alcohol content was above the legal limit — when his car crashed into a vehicle at the intersection of Highway 95 and Mohave Drive. Urban died at the scene while Quinten Quitmeyer was severely injured when both were ejected from their vehicle.

Another guilty plea

One of six people arrested in connection with a January 2018 double-murder in Fort Mohave pleaded guilty with 2019 trials likely for other co-defendants.

Francisco Javier Romero Jr., 26, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and kidnapping for his role in the Jan. 10 deaths of Bullhead City residents Mona Carter, 51, and Darl Ward, 22.

Romero’s sentencing, scheduled for Jan. 31, is expected to carry a life sentence without parole for at least 25 years for the murder charge and an additional sentence of seven to 21 years for the kidnapping charge. It will be up to the judge to decide if the sentences are consecutive or concurrent.

Robin Denise Reid, Lucas Wayne Shankles, Lamya Lynn Bencheqroud and Jose Eduardo Vizcara all are charged with murder and kidnapping while Justin Todd Maxwell is charged with arson and hindering prosecution. Shankles is scheduled to go to trial in March.

According to court and law enforcement documents, Romero admitted driving Ward to Bencheqroun’s home where Carter and Ward were duct-taped and driven to the desert east of El Rodeo Road in Fort Mohave. Carter’s body was found in an SUV with a single gunshot wound to her head; Ward was found dead near the vehicle, shot three times in the torso.

Another conviction

A Bullhead City woman was sentenced to 10 years in prison for driving under the influence and killing a motorcyclist in 2017.

Just over a year after the accident that claimed the life of Darryl James Tuttle, 45, Page Nichole Carleton was sent to prison following a guilty plea a little more than a month earlier. Carleton, 24, was found with drugs, including morphine and codeine, in her system following the late-night crash on Highway 95 near Corwin Road. Carleton was arrested on suspicion of DUI following the crash but was released a few days later while authorities awaited results of blood work. Charges were refiled when those results were received with Carleton eventually pleading guilty to the manslaughter charge.

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