ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Brandon Michael Phelps will spend a maximum of 20 years in jail for his role in the murder of Lydia Ashworth after pleading guilty to lesser charges Thursday.
Phelps, 21, of 1281 Birch St., Bellaire, pleaded guilty to an amended charge of complicity to involuntary manslaughter and aggravated burglary, both felonies of the first degree.
Sentencing is set for 8 a.m. today in Belmont County Common Pleas Court. Phelps faces 10 years on each charge. The state will ask for the maximum sentence of 20 years.
Photo by Robert A. DeFrank
Brandon Michael Phelps, center, appears Thursday with Public Defender Frank Pierce, left, and attorney Jake Blakely in Belmont County Common Pleas Court.
Phelps was charged with four counts of aggravated murder committed in the course of rape, aggravated burglary, burglary and trespassing. Each count of murder carried a death penalty specification.
All other charges were dropped with the amended manslaughter plea. The plea of aggravated burglary pertained to a separate case in June 2012.
Phelps' co-defendant, Devin Wayne Fuller, 21, of 3567 Franklin St., Bellaire, was sentenced to life without parole after being convicted last month by a jury of aggravated murder committed in the course of aggravated burglary, aggravated burglary and burglary. The jury could not decide whether Fuller should face the death penalty, eliminating that option as a sentence.
The charges stemmed from a June 2012 incident in which Ashworth, 92, was murdered in her West Bellaire home.
Phelps entered the plea Thursday before Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato. Prosecutor Dan Fry said there was no DNA evidence in this case, and overall evidence against Phelps was not as strong as the evidence that convicted Fuller. However, he speculated Phelps' decision to plead guilty could have come about after a motion hearing, during which it was ruled the jury would be allowed to see a prior burglary charge involving Fuller and Phelps that included harm done to the victim.
"The evidence of this case was entirely different that what we had with Fuller," Fry said, adding there may have been more than two people involved in the incident, but the evidence was inconclusive.
Referring to information provided by the attorneys, Fregiato said there is no evidence Phelps caused the injuries that led to Ashworth's death, or that he was involved in any way in a rape. Fregiato said it is Phelps' assertion that Fuller was the primary perpetrator and that Phelps claimed to have fled the scene during the crimes.
"It is my understanding that Phelps was not the individual who caused the injuries that resulted in death," Fregiato said.
Fry said both the Ashworth family and the Bellaire Police Department approve of the plea. He said Phelps will have the opportunity to participate in a debriefing now that the case is settled so the family might know the full story of that night.
"Whatever happened that night, June 29 and 30 2012, only Fuller and Phelps and whoever else may have been there knows," Fry said. "Two people know what happened that night, and until we get the truth from one of them, that's where we stand."
Bellaire Police Chief Michael Kovalyk said he hoped the victim's family may be able to move on with the knowledge that the individuals responsible will receive their just punishment.
"It's been a long 22 months. It seems like a longer time for the Ashworth family," he said, adding the West Bellaire community should know everything that could have been done was done in solving the case and bringing the perpetrators to justice.