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Berdella Sentenced To Life In Prison Without Parole

August 4, 1988 GMT

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Surprising the judge and prosecutors, a man decided at the last moment to plead guilty to first-degree murder in the death of a former boarder whose decomposing head was found buried in his backyard.

After the plea Wednesday, Jackson County Circuit Judge Alvin C. Randall sentenced Robert Berdella to life in prison without probation or parole for the August 1987 murder of Larry W. Pearson, 20, of Wichita, Kan.

Berdella, 39, a Kansas City flea market merchant, has been in custody since April on sex charges after another man told police he had been held captive and tortured at Berdella’s home.

The guilty plea, which came after a late-morning recess in an arraignment hearing on the murder charge filed July 21, appeared to surprise the judge, who stared at one of Berdella’s attorneys, assistant county public defender Pat Berrigan.

Pat Hall, the assistant prosecutor assigned to the case, also wore a stunned expression. After a pause, the judge insisted that Berdella confess under oath.

″I put a plastic bag over his head and tied it with rope and allowed him to suffocate,″ Berdella said when questioned by one of his attorneys. Asked if he did it deliberately, Berdella answered, ″Yes.″

A second skull, found in Berdella’s bedroom closet, has been identified as that of Robert A. Sheldon, a 23-year-old California man. No charges have been brought in connection with Sheldon.

Analysis of Pearson’s skull showed that the fifth vertebra, from just above the base of his neck, had been cut several times by a saw. The cuts were made ″while the deceased was still alive or shortly after death,″ according to court documents.

Police seized two circular saws, a hacksaw, a miter saw, a disassembled jigsaw, 14 jigsaw blades, knives, scissors and clippers from Berdella’s house, according to search warrants.

Jackson County Prosecutor Albert Riederer said later that Berdella’s guilty plea was ″not a total surprise, in the sense that we talked about it several weeks ago.″ Riederer said the discussions were with other prosecuting attorneys, not Berdella’s attorneys.

Barbara Schenkenberg, one of Berdella’s attorneys, said Berdella had been considering the guilty plea since he was first charged.

Police went through Berdella’s house, finding more than 200 sexually explicit photographs, and dug up his back yard in an extensive search.

Hall said the guilty plea was ″in the best interest of our client, the people of the state of Missouri.″

Berdella was also charged with seven counts of forcible sodomy, one of felonious restrain and one of assault in the case of the man who accused of him of torture.