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Rector pleads guilty to killing 8-year-old girl

December 20, 2018

KINGMAN — In a stunning turn of events, a Bullhead City man pleaded guilty Tuesday to killing an 8-year-old girl four years ago.

Justin James Rector pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. His remaining charges in two cases were dismissed including kidnapping, child abuse and abandonment of a dead body in one case and three counts of aggravated assault in another case.

Rector, 30, pleaded guilty to the Sept. 2, 2014, murder of 8-year-old Isabella “Bella” Grogan-Cannella. Under the plea agreement, he will be sentenced to life in prison without parole for at least 35 years.

Before his plea agreement, Rector again asked to represent himself in his cases. Rector’s attorney, Julia Cassels, also asked the judge to withdraw from the case, saying their relationship had degraded to the point the case could not move forward.

Chief Legal Defender Ron Gilleo had been assigned temporarily as advisory counsel to meet with Rector and explain the plea agreement and the prison ranges if he had gone to trial and was convicted.

Gilleo also said criminal trials are much more complex than what is shown on television shows and there are a lot more cons than pros.

Deputy Mohave County Attorney Greg McPhillips said the victim’s family was not happy with the plea agreement because the child abuse charge was dismissed.

In explaining the facts of the case, McPhillips said Grogan-Cannella and her 10-year-old sister were left in Rector’s care on the night of Sept. 2, 2014. When her sister came back from the bathroom, she found Bella had gone missing and alerted family.

Rector strangled Grogan-Cannella with a soft ligature, possibly a shirt. Then, using a hand shovel, he buried her body in a shallow grave a mile to two miles from their Lakeside Drive home. Rector then discarded the shovel, McPhillips said.

Grogan-Cannella’s parents had gone shopping at a nearby department store. When the parents returned, they called police after discovering the girl was missing. Rector was arrested later that morning.

Superior Court Judge Lee Jantzen warned of the pitfalls of a defendant representing themselves, saying in nearly 30 years as a judge and as an attorney, he remembered one defendant winning his case out of several hundred trials.

Jantzen eventually allowed Rector to defend himself. The judge also allowed Cassels and her investigator to withdraw from Rector’s case. When she left, Cassels also dropped off boxes of documents to the legal defender’s office.

The judge also allowed Gilleo to act as advisory counsel until Rector’s sentencing. The judge set Rector’s sentencing for Jan. 30. He allowed enough time at the sentencing for input from the victim’s family.

Rector’s trial had been set for next April. Prosecutors originally sought the death penalty in the case but dropped the capital punishment aspect last February.

Rector was charged in a second case with assault of a detention officer July 17, 2017 in his jail cell.

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