STURGIS, S.D. -- A South Dakota teenager admitted Thursday that he fatally shot a Wyoming girl during an argument last fall.
The 17-year-old boy pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter for killing Shayna Ritthaler, a 16-year-old from Upton, Wyoming.
“We got into an argument and then I shot her,” the defendant said during his change-of-plea hearing n Meade County Court. “I shot her in the head."
Asked by Judge Kevin Krull if he had any justification for killing Ritthaler, the teen replied, “No.” In court, the defendant referred to the victim as his girlfriend.
Both the prosecutor and the defense agreed to ask the judge to sentence the boy to 55 years in prison. Krull said he plans to follow that recommendation and that if he changes his mind, the defendant could withdraw his guilty plea.
The teen originally pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity to alternate counts of first- and second-degree murder.
Under the proposed sentence, the defendant could seek parole after 27 years, when he is 44 years old. Sentencing is set for July 10.
The two had been chatting online for a while but met in person for the first time when he killed her, Meade County State’s Attorney Michele Bordewyk told the Rapid City Journal.
Ritthaler went missing Oct. 3 after being seen getting into a Jeep-like vehicle at a coffee shop in Moorcroft, Wyoming. She was found Oct. 7 in the basement of the home the boy shared with his mother east of Sturgis, near the Wyoming border.
Family members of both the defendant and the victim attended the hearing. Ritthaler’s family said they weren’t yet ready to speak.
In court, the teen said he understood he was giving up his right to argue that he was mentally incompetent at the time of the shooting and that his case should be transferred to juvenile court, where he could have been imprisoned only until the age of 21. He also said he understood he was giving up his right that the judge should suppress statements he made to law enforcement and block all evidence from a search of his phone and home. He also agreed with a special part of the plea deal that he is giving up his right to appeal.
Krull told the defendant that he can’t have any contact with the Ritthaler family for the rest of his life and that he owed them more than $8,300 in restitution.
Bordewyk, the prosecutor, told the Journal that Ritthaler’s family approved of the plea deal. Defense lawyer Steven Titus said it was unlikely that the judge would have agreed to transfer the teen to juvenile court.
Bordewyk said the two met on an online chat and dating website and that they planned for Ritthaler to run away and live with the defendant. It was the defendant who picked up Ritthaler from the coffee shop, driving his mother's vehicle, the prosecutor said.
Bordewyk said it’s unclear how an argument between the pair escalated to the boy deciding to shoot Ritthaler. She said the teen used a handgun that belonged to his mother, who was not home at the time.
Titus, the defense attorney, said the shooting was not planned and that alcohol and drugs were involved.
The defendant is being held on a $1 million bond at juvenile jail in Rapid City.