HILLSBORO, Mo. (AP) — A man who killed six people in Illinois before killing two people in Missouri wept and begged the victims' families for forgiveness Wednesday before he was sentenced to life in prison for the Missouri deaths.
Nicholas Sheley, who initially faced the death penalty, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for the 2008 deaths of Jill and Tom Estes. The Arkansas couple were killed while staying at a hotel in Festus, about 30 miles south of St. Louis, after they left a graduation party.
Investigators said Sheley happened upon the couple during a drug- and alcohol-fueled rampage that began in his Illinois hometown.
Sheley dropped to his knees during the sentencing hearing, saying he wished he could take back what he did. He also apologized to law enforcement and others touched by the crimes, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported .
"What I did about 10 years ago was wrong on every level, unjustified, completely uncalled for. Cowardly acts," Sheley said, weeping as he read for 20 minutes from a statement.
Missouri prosecutors initially said they wanted to seek the death penalty, after former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn formally abolished the punishment in his state in 2011. But prosecutors later changed their strategy in Missouri — without explanation — in a decision that infuriated victims' relatives, many of whom were in the courtroom Wednesday.
"We are all angry and disappointed. This it totally unjust. That was not a victory," said Cari Randall, whose father was killed in Galesburg, Illinois, one of three Illinois towns where Sheley's victims were found dead.
Dallas Branson, whose only son was also among Sheley's victims, said he didn't believe Sheley's apology.
"He is a manipulator and it's pure evil when you kill eight people," said Branson, who lives in Sterling, Illinois, Sheley's hometown. "A bad guy can make an apology but there is no apology for killing eight people."
Prosecutors have said Sheley started his rampage because he believed one of the Illinois victims, 29-year-old Brock Branson, was having an affair with his wife. One witness told police Sheley and Branson had argued about drugs.
Following Wednesday's sentencing, Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Forrest Wegge didn't address why prosecutors didn't pursue the death penalty in Missouri. Under the Missouri plea deal, Sheley also was sentenced to 75 years in prison for two counts of armed criminal action.
Sheley is already serving life sentences for the Illinois killings.
Investigators said the killings began on June 26, 2008, in Sterling, Illinois, where the body of 93-year-old farmer Russell Reed was found in the trunk of his car. The bodies of Jill and Tom Estes were found four days later, the same day investigators found the body of Ronald Randall at a grocery store in Galesburg, Illinois.
Authorities also found the bludgeoned bodies of four other people that day: Kenneth Ulve, 25; Branson; Branson's fiancée, Kilynna Blake, 20; and her 2-year-old son, Dayan Blake. Their bodies were found inside a Rock Falls apartment in northwestern Illinois.
Sheley was arrested on July 1, 2008, outside a bar in Granite City, Illinois, after patrons recognized him from media coverage of the killings.