Mark Andrew Rice pleaded guilty to arson and desecrating a corpse and was sentenced Monday to six years in prison for burning the truck and the body of Natasha Carpenter. Two years of the sentence were suspended for time served.
Rice, 49, was a long-haul truck driver when he met Carpenter at a truck stop in Texas. He fell in love after several encounters along his route and bought her an engagement ring, popping the question Sept. 15, 2009. As part of their celebration in Barstow, Calif., Carpenter agreed to let him bind her arms and legs and put a gag in her mouth as he acted out a fantasy, Rice told police.
When he found her dead, Rice panicked and bought "all the meth his dealer had" and drove to Kiln, Miss., the body in the truck's cab under a tarp, he told police.
"I had been up for days. I was not thinking clearly," Rice said Monday at the plea hearing as his ex-wife covered her face with her hands and their three children leaned forward in their seats.
When he made it to Mississippi, Rice planned to say goodbye to his family and kill himself. His family took a gun away from him so he climbed into the rig and set it ablaze. Deputies eventually pulled him from the burning truck.
On Monday, Rice wore a maroon sweater, dark slacks and white sneakers, his brown hair parted to the side. He did not look like the disheveled man pulled from the burning truck.
Carpenter's family is from Amarillo, Texas, and weren't present for the hearing. Assistant District Attorney Crosby Parker said they wanted him to tell the court only that "she was loved."
Rice's lawyer, Todd Thriffiley, said Rice had never been in trouble before but was depressed about the deaths of several relatives and began using drugs. He has since cleaned up his life while he's been out on bond and has been supporting his family, Thriffiley told the judge.
There was no discussion of how Carpenter died at the hearing, but Hancock County, Miss., authorities believe he would've been charged with manslaughter or worse had she died in Mississippi.
"Obviously this was a case where the district attorney's office would like to have had jurisdiction of the underlying crime. Because we believe there are charges that we would have prosecuted, but based on jurisdictional limitations we prosecuted everything that we could," Parker said.
Hancock County sheriff's investigator Ricky Fayard, a third-generation law enforcement officer with 20 years on the force, was perplexed California authorities didn't seek a manslaughter charge.
"Did she die at his hand and as a direct result of his actions? Yes," Fayard said. He confessed, describing the events "like you and I sitting here talking."
Prosecutors in San Bernardino County, Calif., didn't respond to messages about the case. In a September 2010 letter to Mississippi authorities, they said there was "insufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
Rice's confession was corroborated by the 18-wheeler's GPS tracking system and receipts from purchases along the way. Mississippi police even found the receipt for the tarp.
Rice was ordered to pay Carpenter's family about $4,100 for the cost of her funeral.
He was handcuffed and taken away.
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