Alberto Garcia spoke clearly and calmly Wednesday as he told a judge how he had sexually assaulted and hanged 5-year-old Ja’Naya Thompson on July 16, 2014, the night she disappeared.
Some of the child’s relatives, visibly distraught, left the courtroom during the testimony in Garcia’s guilty plea to capital murder in Harrison County Circuit Court.
Judge Lisa Dodson set a sentencing hearing for 9 a.m. Monday.
“It will be a full-blown trial,” she said.
Garcia, 31, faces death or life without parole for killing the 50-pound child, a frilly girl with bright eyes and a big smile. She would have started kindergarten the next month.
Ja’Naya’s mother had reported her missing about 7:40 p.m. from just outside the sliding-glass door of their apartment at The Palms off Three Rivers Road in Gulfport. A rescue team found her dead in an abandoned trailer off nearby Whitney Drive about 8:15 a.m. the next day.
Her disappearance and the announcement of her death shocked the community. Even people who didn’t know her had helped search. And strangers attended the visitation before her funeral.
Garcia had implicated a neighbor, Julian “Casper” Gray III, as the one who had kidnapped and sexually assaulted Ja’Naya. He said Gray then had Garcia follow him to the trailer where she was being held. Gray, 33, was not indicted in the capital murder case, but has been indicted on unrelated sex-crime charges.
Garcia’s testimony Wednesday conflicted with what evidence shows, Assistant District Attorney Crosby Parker said.
What Garcia testified
Garcia said he had moved into the apartment complex on Jan. 6, 2014, six months before the killing, adding he had noticed Ja’Naya.
“I saw her outside playing with my roommate’s daughter there at the park,” he said.
Garcia claimed a neighbor had used his Xbox the weekend before the killing to search the internet for information on kidnapping and sexual assaulting young girls. He said after it was returned, he downloaded information as well.
He said Gray knocked on his door about 7:45 p.m. the day of Ja’Nay’s disapparance and requested his help with something at the trailer. They had previously discussed the abandoned trailer. Garcia said he had found it while looking for marijuana. A police investigator has testified Garcia burglarized the trailer four days before the killing.
Garcia told the judge he had wanted to smoke marijuana with a friend and “have sex with this girl.”
He testified Gray rushed ahead of him to the trailer, where he found Ja’Naya tied to a chair with her pants off. He demonstrated how her head was leaning over.
Garcia described how he’d sexually assaulted her. He said he assumed Gray had had sex with her before he arrived, and said Gray told him to clean her up.
“She had defecated,” Garcia said.
Garcia testified Gray helped him hang Ja’Naya to a bathroom window sill by using two socks tied together and around her neck.
While cleaning her up, Garcia said he heard a door slam. He said he walked around the house a couple of times and yelled, “Casper! Casper!
“He left me. This guy left me.”
Garcia said he returned to his apartment, put his clothes in the laundry, vomited and took a shower.
He said two people knocked on his door and asked him if he had seen Ja’Naya. He told them he had not.
The prosecutor’s testimony
Garcia gave Gulfport police conflicting statements, “minimizing his conduct,” but made incriminating statements about his role in the sexual assault and hanging, Parker said.
Had the case gone to trial, a DNA expert would have testified that DNA swabs from Ja’Naya matched Garcia’s DNA, he said. Also, DNA in one of the socks matched Garcia’s DNA and excluded Gray, Parker said.
Investigators had searched Garcia’s room and found an Xbox hooked up to his TV, the prosecutor said.
“A forensic examination revealed that in the days immediately leading up to Ja’Naya’s sexual assault and killing, the defendant’s Xbox was used to conduct multiple internet searches related to the abduction, binding and raping of young girls,” Parker said. “Although the state disagrees with some of the defendant’s colloquy, we do agree that the defendant has met the elements of capital murder, and we look forward to putting forth our evidence of aggravation during the sentencing proceeding.”
After the plea hearing, Police Chief Leonard Papania appeared to be on the verge of tears as he told the media that police and others who had searched overnight “wanted to bring a child home.” He also thanked the community for its support.
District Attorney Joel Smith said the family is still distraught and their turmoil is not over.
“The state is still seeking the death penalty,” he said.
Dodson has ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Garcia. A public defender has testified Garcia received psychiatric treatment as a child.
Police arrested Garcia the day after Ja’Naya’s body was found. He gave details only the killer would know, an investigator has said.
Garcia also faces a burglary charge involving the mobile home where Ja’Naya was found.
He has been held with no bond at the Harrison County jail since his arrest. He had pleaded not guilty Oct. 30, 2015.