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A 14-year-old teenager will be tried as an adult in connection with the brutal killing of his classmate in Florida, where officials say the girl was stabbed 114 times and left in the woods.
The juvenile suspect, who has been publicly identified by police, now faces a potential life sentence if convicted on a first-degree murder charge.
Tristyn Bailey, 13, was found dead in a wooded area near a retention pond next to her subdivision on May 9 in St. Johns, a suburb of Jacksonville, Fla., authorities say. The girl was a cheerleader in the seventh grade at Patriot Oaks Academy, and had been reported missing by her parents earlier in the day.
“This is not an accident,” St. Johns County Sheriff Robert Hardwick said after the discovery. He cited the medical examiner’s conclusion that she had died from “sharp force trauma by stabbing,” and described it as a “cold, calculated … murder case.”
Authorities said the girl had been stabbed 114 times. Nearly half of those injuries appeared to be defensive wounds to her arms, hands and head, they said.
“To say that it was horrific could arguably be made as an understatement,” said 7th Judicial Circuit State Attorney R.J. Larizza. “Bottom line, premeditation can be inferred certainly from just the sheer number of stab wounds that Tristyn Bailey had to suffer.”
He added that the defensive wounds indicate that the suspect intended to kill the target. “Every time that arm went back and every time that arm went down, that was premeditation,” Larizza said at a news conference on Thursday.
Authorities quickly identified a Grade 8 student from Bailey’s school as their prime suspect after she went missing, based on surveillance footage and interrogations.
Video from a community centre showed Bailey walking with the suspect shortly after 1 a.m., according to the arrest report. Another video from a nearby home showed them walking together at 1:45 a.m. The suspect was seen walking alone on the same camera at 3:27 a.m.
Her family reported her missing that morning and a neighbour found her dead that evening. The suspect was arrested the following day on a second-degree murder charge.
Police say they spoke to the suspect about the videos and found blood on the clothes in his room.
“The defendant’s story changed several times but (he) ultimately made several admissions,” the police report said.
A dive team also found the suspected murder weapon — a knife — in the pond near the victim’s body. They found the broken tip of the blade in the victim’s scalp.
The suspect provoked fierce anger from the community before he was charged, when he posted a selfie from the back of a police car. The image showed the suspect flashing a peace sign. “Hey guys, has inybody (sic) seen Tristyn lately?” the caption read.
The suspect had also told friends that he “intended to kill someone,” though he did not say who, according to the prosecutor.
A grand jury on Thursday upgraded the charge to first-degree murder amid sweeping calls from the public to do so.
“It brings me no pleasure to be charging a 14-year-old as an adult with first-degree murder,” Larizza said. “But I can tell you also the executive team and I reviewed all the facts, all the circumstances, the applicable law and it was not a difficult decision to make, that he should be charged as an adult.
“It’s a sad decision and a sad state of affairs.”
Hundreds gathered to mourn Bailey at a service in Jacksonville last week. Thousands more watched the tribute online, local station News4Jax reports, amid several other vigils and tributes to the slain girl.
“Tristyn was one of the most confident, well-rounded, beautiful, smart and kind-hearted humans I know,” her sister, Brittney Bailey Russell, said at the memorial. “My family and I together have vowed to never let Tristyn’s name be lost, especially to her little niece who was robbed of having enough time with her aunt.”
Bailey’s cheer team shared an emotional video tribute to her at the ceremony, and an aircraft flew over the gathering with a banner reading “Tristyn Bailey Strong.”
— With files from The Associated Press