A 33-year-old woman accepted eight years in prison Thursday instead of risking life behind bars for her role in a fatal 2011 robbery.
Jessica Sterchi said she was guilty of facilitation of second-degree murder and facilitation of especially aggravated robbery in the October 2011 shooting of Zachary Higdon. She accepted the state's offer a month away from her Feb. 7 trial, in which jurors would have to decide whether Sterchi was guilty of first-degree murder, a class A felony that carries a 51-year sentence before consideration for parole.
"Are you ready to go forward with your plea?" Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman asked her.
Sterchi nodded, choking back tears.
"What is your plea to count one?" he asked.
"Guilty," she said.
"What is your plea to count two?" he asked.
Prosecutors said Zachary Higdon's mother found his body with a pillow over his face and sprayed with bleach at his home in the Whispering Pines mobile park at 900 Airport Road on Oct. 4, 2011. He'd been shot twice.
"It went unsolved for some time," said assistant district attorney Cameron Williams.
Then, in March 2014, investigator Lucas Fuller, of the Chattanooga Police Department, spoke with a witness who had information on the murder. That pointed him to Sterchi, who opened up during a four-hour interview.
Sterchi told her on-and-off boyfriend, Travis Caslin, and his brother, Charles Caslin, then 39 and 43, respectively, about Higdon's small-time drug dealing business, a court affidavit shows. The three went to Higdon's trailer, where Sterchi went inside to buy some cocaine.
Then, both Caslin brothers broke through the door in masks, demanding drugs. When Higdon began to fight with one of them, "one of the Caslins shot and killed him," Williams said.
After the killing, Sterchi returned to the scene and took a computer that she later pawned, Williams said. She also said the murder weapon had been thrown into the Tennessee River.
Neither Caslin brother has been charged in the case, records show.
Steelman suppressed about two-thirds of her 2014 statement after defense attorneys Rip Biggs and Brian Pearce argued that Sterchi invoked her right to remain silent by repeating to an investigator four times, "I don't want to do this anymore."
Although Williams appealed the ruling to a higher court, the Court of Appeals upheld Steelman's decision, saying the suppression order did not "eliminate any reasonable probability of a successful prosecution."
"Much of the basis of the plea in this case is a result of the suppression of the statement," Williams said Thursday. "I've explained that to [Higdon's] family since the offer was made back in September 2016."
Sterchi was originally charged with first-degree murder, especially aggravated robbery, and tampering with evidence. The state dismissed that last charge as part of Thursday's plea, Williams told Steelman.
"Very well," the judge said. "The court does find a factual basis for the plea."
Both of the facilitation charges — second-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery — are class B felonies that carry eight years. They will run concurrently.