A teen who beat an acquaintance to death with a hammer and enlisted a friend’s help to hide the body was sentenced to 26 years behind bars in a plea deal reached with Tarrant County prosecutors Wednesday morning.
Relatives of the victim, 17-year-old Nicholas Anderson, said they supported the plea agreement in the capital murder case because of concerns that state District Judge Jean Boyd might have given the teen a lighter sentence, based on her history.
They referred to a recent case in which Boyd made national news for sentencing Ethan Couch, 16, to 10 years’ probation and therapy for driving drunk and causing a crash that left four people dead.
“Based upon her history with the Couch situation, we didn’t trust that she would make the right decision as far as the amount of sentencing,” said Sonya Burns, Anderson’s aunt. “We felt we had a better opportunity had we gone with the plea and accepted the 26 years.”
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The teen, who is now 17 but is not being identified because he was a juvenile at the time of the crime, pleaded guilty to capital murder in the killing of Anderson, a former middle school classmate.
Two homeless men found Anderson’s body in some bushes May 15 at a park in the 900 block of Riverside Drive in Fort Worth.
He died from massive blunt-force trauma to the head.
“He not only stole my grandson when he took his life, he took my friend,” said Lyndia Thomas, Anderson’s grandmother. “Nicholas will never be able to do the things he’ll be able to do. Even though he’s incarcerated, at least he’s still alive. I pointed out to him that when you take a life, you can never pay that back.
“You can steal and you can rob and you can do anything else, and at least you can do restitution for those things. But when you kill a person, that’s the end. There’s nothing else you can do, and ‘I’m sorry’ just doesn’t cover it.”
Media barred from court
The plea came after Boyd barred the media from her juvenile courtroom for the second time in two weeks.
On Wednesday morning, a bailiff informed reporters from the Star-Telegram, KTVT/Channel 11 and KDFW/Channel 4 that only people directly involved in the case would be allowed at the hearing. Melody McDonald, spokeswoman for the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, was also removed.
A few minutes after reporters were kicked out, a court employee refused to let an attorney for the Star-Telegram enter the courtroom and formally protest Boyd’s actions.
Boyd did not give a reason for closing the court to the media.
Prosecutor Brock Groom said he could not discuss what reason Boyd gave during the closed hearing but confirmed that prosecutors objected to the closure, as they had during the teen’s certification hearing two weeks earlier.
“We strongly feel that it should be open. The courtrooms are public. The Texas Constitution says they’re public,” Groom said. “The Tarrant County district attorney’s office strongly feels these courtrooms belong to the public and are open for members of the public to come watch these jury trials.”
‘I don’t want you to think I’m a bad person’
Though few details about the case have been made public because of the closed hearings, an arrest warrant issued for the teen’s 17-year-old accomplice and obtained Wednesday by the Star-Telegram sheds some light on the teen’s confession.
Esmeralda Gutierrez was indicted in September on a charge of tampering with evidence, accused of helping the teen conceal Anderson’s body. She is free on $5,000 bond while awaiting trial.
According to an arrest warrant affidavit, written by homicide Detective K.C. Sullivan, Gutierrez told investigators that the teen had blood on his face and hands when he met her at a store and told her that he had killed someone.
She said she went with the teen to the park and helped him hide Anderson’s body in some woods.
“Gutierrez said that [the teen] told her that he had been in a relationship with the dead person’s girlfriend and the dead person found out,” the affidavit states.
The teen told Gutierrez that Anderson wanted to kill him — so he killed Anderson first, the affidavit states.
But the teen told a very different story to homicide investigators, according to the affidavit.
Police questioned the teen after learning that Anderson, in the days before his death, had placed several calls to a phone that had been lent to the defendant.
When interviewed, the teen told detectives that he knew Anderson and that the two had gone to middle school together. He told detectives that he and Anderson had started a sexual relationship in which Anderson would pay him.
He eventually confessed to investigators that he killed Anderson during a sexual encounter in the park, the affidavit states.
“I don’t want you to think I’m a bad person,” he told detectives, according to the affidavit.
Teen also stole items
The teen told police that on the night of the slaying, he had called and asked Anderson to pick him up. The two drove to the park for a sexual encounter, he said.
But the teen told investigators that during a sexual act, Anderson grabbed his legs and said, “Take it like a G.”
Fearing something else was about to take place, the teen told police, he grabbed a hammer from his back pocket and struck Anderson 10 to 20 times in the head, killing him.
He took Anderson’s car keys and drove to a nearby store, where he said he met Gutierrez. They returned to the park, and she helped him move the body, the affidavit states.
The teen said he took Anderson’s hat, wallet, iPhone and watch, throwing away everything but the watch.
The teen “said that he cleaned the blood off of the watch and wore it for several weeks, then sold the watch,” the affidavit states.
Thomas declined to discuss details of the case after the hearing but said it may never be known what really led to her grandson’s slaying.
“The only thing we know is one person’s side of the story,” Thomas said. “Unless Nicholas was here to give his side of the story, we will never know what actually happened.”
The teen had faced up to 40 years behind bars.
With the plea, he will first be incarcerated at a juvenile facility, with possible transfer to an adult prison before his 19th birthday.
If transferred to an adult prison, he will have to serve at least 10 years before becoming eligible for parole, according to defense attorney Tim Choy.
“Our client has taken full responsibility for what happened,” Choy said. “He is remorseful, and he’s going to spend the rest of his time that he has trying to rehabilitate himself and make himself a model citizen for when he is ultimately released from custody.”
Still upset by Boyd’s decision not to certify the teen as an adult, Anderson’s relatives said they didn’t want to risk having the judge sentence the defendant. They talked about her history, including the Couch case, in which the teen admitted to driving drunk and causing a crash that killed four people near Burleson. The Star-Telegram identified Couch because of the high-profile nature of his case.
“The ball was always in her court to make the decision what was going to happen and what was not,” Thomas said “By accepting this plea agreement, it ensured that he would get some time served.”
A child without a father
Thomas said that after the plea agreement was reached, she took the stand and delivered a victim impact statement.
She said her heart goes out to the teen’s mother.
“No matter how much you raise a child, you can only be with them for so many hours. Like I told the judge, I’m just hoping this will help him turn his life around,” Thomas said. “I’m hoping the senseless violence will stop because my grandson … lost his life on May 15 unnecessarily.”
Thomas said the family is committed to making sure that Anderson’s infant son, Zayden Anderson, grows up knowing that his father cared.
“He was only 2 months old” when Anderson was killed, Thomas said. “He will never have a father that he’ll come to know. He cannot replace that in that child’s life.”