James Vanlaningham said his live-in girlfriend set herself on fire, but her decomposed body was tied to a tree when church parishioners found her remains.
On Tuesday, the 57-year-old Vanlaningham pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the Feb. 8, 2017, killing of Amanda Hicks.
Judge Dale Harkey sentenced him to life with parole.
The couple’s son, who is now in foster care, said he had forgiven his father for what happened.
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On the day of the killing, Vanlaningham said he had been drinking and arguing with Hicks over money after a trip to the Coast casinos.
He said he should have taken her to get medical treatment, but didn’t go into details.
He said he tied Hicks to a tree behind Pine Grove United Methodist Church and left her there.
More than a month would pass before church parishioners would find the 37-year-old’s decomposed remains. Her head was detached, and the medical examiner’s office had to use dental records to identify her. A cause of death could not be established.
Vanlaningham was arrested in the murder after he was picked up on a DUI charge in Brewton, Alabama. He was driving a truck that belonged to Hicks and had her cellphone and wallet on him.
Set her on fire
But Vanlaningham had bragged to friends that he had set her on fire. He told other friend he had hit her in the head and burned her.
Either way, Vanlaningham said he felt there was enough evidence to convict him in her killing if he had gone to trial.
In exchange for his plea, a second charge of first-degree arson was dismissed. Vanlaningham had set fire to the couple’s mobile home at Santa Maria RV Park Marina the same day Hicks went missing.
Neighbors had said they heard the couple fighting as well as a woman’s screams before the home went up in flames.
“Domestic violence is a crime not only against the spouse or others in a relationship, but it affects an entire community,” District Attorney Tony Lawrence said Wednesday. “I hope people will learn that the law will hold you accountable if you commit acts of domestic violence.
“In this case, Amanda Hicks lost her life due to the anger and actions of the defendant. I hope this sentence prevents others from committing acts of domestic violence.