NEW BRITAIN - After 14 years of uncertainty, the families of the victims of admitted serial killer William Devin Howell said justice was finally served after he pleaded guilty Friday to six counts of murder in exchange for a 360-year prison sentence.
The 47-year-old Howell has been held on $10 million bond since his arrest in September 2015 on charges that he killed Diane Cusack, Mary Jane Menard, Joyvaline Martinez, Ruth Camilini, Danny Lee Whistnant and Marilyn Gonzalez during a 10-month span in 2003.
“We have justice,” said Menard’s sister Anna Santiago as she left New Britain Superior Court following Howell’s admission of guilt. “I’m so happy, we finally got justice for all the victims. They can rest in peace.”
Since June more family members of his victims have been attending his court dates in a show of support for their loved ones and for what New Britain Superior Court Judge Joan Alexander hinted could be a resolution of the case without a trial.
But until Howell’s attorneys William Paetzold and Jeffrey Kestenband announced in court Friday that he wanted to plead guilty to six counts of murder, most weren’t holding out hope that he would actually take responsibility for the killings.
“I feel relieved, I feel shocked, I wasn’t expecting what happened,” said Sandra Martinez, whose sister Joyvaline went missing in October 2003. “I was expecting that he would make us go through hell.”
Wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackled at the waist, Howell stood quietly next to his attorneys as family members sobbed while New Britain State’s Attorney Brian Preleski told the court about the six victims who disappeared and the “confidential witness,” a sentenced prisoner, who supplied information on how many people Howell had killed and where he left their bodies.
Howell told the judge he didn’t “substantially agree” with Preleski’s version of the murders, but said, “I am guilty of the crimes.”
His attorneys said in a prepared statement that their client pleaded guilty to spare the families “further emotional pain” by putting them through a lengthy trial. They also pointed out that Howell’s decision would save taxpayers nearly $1 million.
Police recovered the remains of several of the victims and those of Nilsa Arizmendi in April 2015 after an extensive search in a wooded lot behind a Hartford Road plaza.
The remains of Cusack, Menard and Martinez were found in 2007 in the same area the same week Howell was sentenced to a 15-year prison sentence in Arizmendi’s death and disappearance. It took seven years to identify the three women.
Police Chief James Wardwell was a lieutenant with the Criminal Investigation Division when the remains were discovered in 2007. His steadfast determination and compassion led his team of detectives to continue to return to the Hartford Road site every year to search for more evidence. Although Cusack, Menard and Martinez were initially called “Jane Does,” Wardwell referred to the women as mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts who were loved and missed.
“This investigation has always been about the victims and today justice was served for them,” Wardwell said. “On behalf of the New Britain Police Department, our thoughts and prayers remain with the victims and their families.”
Capt. Thomas Steck took over the investigation in 2012 when he was appointed the head of CID. Steck led his detectives along with a Serial Murder Task Force formed in 2014 to find the four remaining victims in 2015. “Our team did their job,” Steck said Friday. “For the victims and their families, I wish we hadn’t had to.”
Preleski was the prosecutor who sent Howell to prison in 2007. He remained on the case for 12 years, collecting reams of evidence that he preserved over the years. “We express our sincere thanks to all who have worked so long and so hard on this difficult investigation, and we again express our deepest sympathy and condolences to the families of these innocent victims,” he said in a statement released Friday.
Sandra Martinez hugged and thanked Wardwell and Steck as they prepared to leave the courtroom after the proceedings. She had attended every one of Howell’s court dates and she said she will be on hand with a victim statement when he is sentenced to 360 years in prison on Nov. 17.
“I’m ready to let him know how he hurt our family,” she said. “I don’t care what you are into in life, no one deserved the death she got, or any of them. He needs to suffer for the rest of his life.”
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@centralctcommunications.com.