Justo Smoker pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, kidnapping and related charges in the death of Linda Stoltzfoos, the 18-year-old Amish woman abducted less than a half-mile from her family's home as she was walking back from church in Upper Leacock Township last June.
The plea agreement, which was signed in April when he told investigators where he had buried her body, included a sentence of 35-1/2 years to 71 years in prison -- the maximum possible -- giving the 35-year-old only the most unlikely chance of ever seeing freedom again. The sentence will technically begin after a parole violation hearing in which he faces about 17-1/2 years stemming from prior armed robbery convictions.
All told, Smoker faces the likelihood of 88 years beyond bars, effectively a life sentence, according to the prosecution and judge.
In accepting the plea, Lancaster County President Judge David Ashworth made it clear he understood it was the best possible outcome, in particular for the Stoltzfoos family, who were not in court though they supported the agreement.
"Absent the plea agreement, in all likelihood Linda Stoltzfoos' body would never have been recovered and the outcome of a trial of the defendant would have been uncertain," he said. "With the plea agreement, a conviction is certain, the community is protected and perhaps most importantly the family of Linda Stoltzfoos is afforded some measure of closure."
It also allowed the family to give their daughter a proper burial.
Ashworth, who addressed the courtroom in which a half-dozen Amish people, members of Smoker's family and more than a half-dozen law enforcement members as well as media, were seated, said: "The cowardly, despicable actions of the defendant clearly demonstrate that he is a predator of the worst kind and an extreme danger to the community."
In laying out the prosecution's rationale for the agreement, First Assistant District Attorney Todd Brown told Ashworth that it achieved three objectives law enforcement had since it became clear Stoltzfoos had fallen prey to a criminal and not simply left her community of her own choosing. Those objectives were to bring her body home to her family, to obtain a murder conviction and to protect society.
Smoker, who wore a white dress shirt with no tie and had his hands shackled at the waist of his grey pants, stood and faced members of the Amish community and addressed them as they sat in the jury box of the small, but packed courtroom.
He paused several seconds, as he seemingly searched for words.
"I thought I would know what to say, but what words can I say other than I am sorry: to Linda's family, the community, and my supporters," he said.
He said he has thought about Stoltzfoos and the life he cut short.
"I robbed the family of time and memories," he said, adding that he would think of that each time he shares a memory or laugh with his family. "All I can say is, I am sorry."
He then turned to his father and biological brother and other family members, who were seated in the back row of the courtroom, and apologized to them.
"I was raised better than this. I am better than this ... I was loved better than this. I am sorry," he said.
His apologies followed comments on behalf of Stoltzfoos' family and the Amish community by Samuel Blank.
The crime violated the community, creating fear, suspicion and anxiety, Blank said, adding it will never be the same. Smoker faced Blank directly as he spoke.
"I believe we were all Stoltzfooses that day," Blank said.
Linda was the family's first-born child, Blank said, then talked of what now can never happen: No courting, no marriage, no children of Linda's own, no grandchildren for her parents.
Blank then spoke of forgiveness, a hallmark of how the Amish live out their Christian faith.
The family, he said, was not missing from court because they could not forgive, but rather, "They are not here because it is too hard for them. The family and the community can and will forgive you, Justo."
For some, forgiveness will come easy, Blank said, for others it will take time and work.
Defense attorney Christopher Tallarico said that to this day, "I still have a hard time coming to grips that the person I've come to know is the person charged with these heinous crimes."
He attributed Smoker's behavior to "a lot of darkness, a lot of alcohol and a lot of abuse."
Smoker had lived in an orphanage in Costa Rica for seven years where he was physically and sexually abused, Tallarico said. His mother died while he was in the orphanage. Later, his sister died shortly before his release from prison in February 2019 in his underlying robbery case.
Though Smoker had never had an official diagnosis, Tallarico said Smoker was clearly depressed and had turned to alcohol. Sometimes, he said, Smoker would find himself at home after drinking and no recollection of how he got there. The weekend Stoltzfoos had been abducted, Smoker had been drinking heavily, Tallarico said. He'd been to a liquor store on June 20 and had bought beer at a convenience store on June 21, shortly before the abduction.
"There is no logical explanation for what he did next. To this day, he wishes he could take it all back," Tallarico said.
Tallarico said he had been busy preparing to defend the charges as best as possible, knowing that prosecutors could seek the death penalty. Then, in April, Smoker told Tallarico he wanted to stop with trial preparation and accept responsibility. He stressed that Smoker had not been biding his time by holding out information on the body's location in exchange for a plea deal.
Tallarico told Ashworth that Smoker knows he did wrong and "wants to help other angry young men in prison."
Brown shed more details than had previously been disclosed.
Most significant was that the autopsy revealed Stoltzfoos had been sexually assaulted, though Smoker denied that in his confession, Brown said.
In his confession, Smoker admitted abducting Stoltzfoos last June 21 and driving her to an area in Ronks where he choked her by placing his arm under her neck until she stopped moving, then strangled her with shoelaces around her neck until she stopped breathing. He then stabbed her once in the neck to make sure she was dead.
Smoker buried her body in some woods near a Harvest Drive business. Two days later, upon realizing that the area was close to where Stoltzfoos lived, he dug her body up and reburied it on Amtrak property behind Dutchland Inc., on Rte. 41 south of Gap. Smoker worked at Dutchland at the time.
District Attorney Heather Adams, speaking at a news conference afterward, acknowledged that the case may not have been solved had East Lampeter police investigators missed finding surveillance camera footage that showed the abduction. The camera was more than 330 yards from the abduction, however, and the imagery had to be enhanced to bring Smoker's car into focus.
Armed with that evidence, police arrested Smoker last July 10 at Dutchland and charged him with kidnapping and false imprisonment. Prosecutors added the homicide charge on Dec. 21 -- exactly six months after Stoltzfoos went missing -- after revealing that DNA samples collected by swabbing Smoker's cheeks matched DNA samples found on Stoltzfoos' undergarments that he had unknowingly left where he had first buried her on Harvest Drive.
Stoltzfoos was given a proper burial on April 26 at the Myers Cemetery on East Eby Road, just a couple miles far from the Stoltzfoos family home.
Smoker had been released from state prison in February 2019 after serving the minimum of a 12-1/2- to 30-year sentence for a series of armed robberies he committed in 2006 with his brother. It is not clear how soon a parole violation hearing could occur, though it must happen within 120 days, Brown said.