Updated at 1:56 p.m. and 4:22 p.m.
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – James M. Reeder was given 37 and a half years to life in prison this morning for the rape and death of his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter last year at her Centralia home.
The 26-year-old Centralia resident made no statements to the judge before the sentence was handed down.
Lewis County Superior Court Judge James Lawler gave Reeder the maximum allowed, given the the charges Reeder was convicted of pursuant to a plea agreement. While Reeder had pleaded guilty, he did so without admitting any wrongdoing.
The judge said he would have given more time if he could.
“I didn’t hear, but I can imagine, her screams and her cries as she was tortured by you,” Lawler said. “I wish I wasn’t limited by the statute, I wish I wasn’t limited by these charges.”
Reeder kept his head turned downward and his slightly hunched back to the benches filled with family members, police detectives and others.
Koralynn Fister died last May in Centralia. Reeder claimed he stepped away to get a towel while giving her a bath and returned to find her face down in the tub.
The little girl died from drowning and four severe blows to her head, prosecutors said today. Authorities arrested Reeder that night after evidence of sexual assault was discovered.
Defense attorney David Arcuri noted that advocacy was of very little value at this stage, but asked for “tempered justice” and a sentence with a minimum of 28 years.
He noted the plea deal included trade offs, with a benefit to the state in that it avoided a protracted trial and the secondary impacts upon responders who dealt with the little girl.
Koralynn’s mother Becky Heupel sat next to her daughter’s father in the front row behind prosecutors.
In a statement read to the court for her, Heupel spoke of how she felt betrayed by her then live-in boyfriend pretending to help her with her child.
“You made me doubt my own sanity by your evil act,” Heupel wrote. “I pray that God gives you whatever he feels you deserve.”
Another victim’s advocate read a statement from Koralynn’s father, David Fister.
Fister said nothing short of life in prison would suffice, calling Reeder a coward who preyed upon the weak.
“Koralynn meant everything to me and my family,” the advocate read.
The case began on the afternoon of May 24 when Reeder carried the naked and unbreathing child to neighbors across the street from her house off of West Oakview Avenue asking them to call 911 while he attempted CPR.
The mother and her 4-year-old daughter had left the home about three hours earlier.
Lewis County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Will Halstead told the court today the toddler’s body temperature was roughly 85 degrees, that she was dead. Information from the investigation would lead a reasonable person to believe an extended period of time had passed, Halstead said.
Evidence indicated she was penetrated by some object both in front and behind that day and another time previously, according to Halstead.
Her rectum was ruptured and her body had injuries such as bruises including on her hands, missing toenails and her bottom was basically raw down to the muscle, consistent with rubbing over time, he said.
Reeder had explanations such as the dog jumping on her toes, the child running around barefoot and also said that she would slide down the gate to her bedroom, Halstead said.
The defendant had moved into the household about 10 weeks earlier and soon began isolating the toddler; suggesting he would take care of the 2-year-old and the mother could take care of her older daughter, Halstead told the judge.
“He’d change her diapers and give her baths, so nobody else really knew what was happening to Koralynn during this time frame,” he said.
Reeder pleaded guilty in January, after a deal was struck, to homicide by abuse, second-degree assault, two counts of first-degree rape of a child and possession of methamphetamine. He made a so-called Alford plea in which he acknowledged a jury hearing the evidence would likely convict him, but admitted no guilt.
The unemployed former floor installer subsequently attempted to withdraw his plea, but the judge denied his request.
Prosecutors today recommended the high end of the standard sentencing range for each of the offenses, to run concurrently.
Halstead asked for, and the judge agreed to, 450 months which is 37 and a half years, for the homicide by abuse.
The sentence for the rape conviction is for an indeterminate length of time with a maximum of life. A board, like the former parole board, will be responsible for deciding when and if he gets released after he’s served the minimum number of years.
Homicide by abuse is described by prosecutors as repeated assaults or torture that ends in the death of a child. It has the same maximum penalty, life in prison, and the same standard sentencing range as first-degree murder, according to Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer.
Halstead noted Reeder didn’t cooperate with the pre-sentencing review conducted by the state Department of Corrections.
Reeder has no felony criminal history.
Judge Lawler noted, but didn’t read aloud, letters from Reeder’s sister, mother and grandmother, saying he accepts the person sitting before him is not the person they know.
Lawler told Reeder, after reciting graphic excerpts from charging documents, he should be thankful for the deal his attorney managed to get him, with the dismissal of so-called aggravators such as the victim being especially vulnerable.
Lawler said he agreed a jury would have likely found him guilty.
“Had those aggravating factors been found, I would have imposed a sentence that would have been probably 100 years,” he said.
For background, see selected previous news stories:
• “Update: Centralia police investigating death of toddler, arrest one” from Thursday May 24, 2012, here
• “Centralia toddler death: Sibling taken into protective custody” from Friday May 25, 2012, here
• “Breaking news: Mother’s boyfriend held for investigation of rape, murder of Centralia child” from Friday May 25, 2012, here
• “Mother’s boyfriend now faces drug, rape and homicide charges in death of toddler” from Tuesday May 29, 2012, here
• “Father of Centralia toddler who died speaks out” from Saturday June 2, 2012, here
• “Mental evaluation: Suspect in death, rape of Centralia toddler found competent for trial” from Tuesday July 10, 2012, here
• “Koralynn Fister: Attorneys to argue over evidence prior to homicide by abuse trial” from Thursday December 13, 2012, here
• “Defendant in Koralynn Fister death pleads guilty” from Wednesday January 9, 2013, here