Teen killer, 50 years

By pleading guilty, the 17-year-old avoids a life sentence for his role in the murder of Jerry Heimann.

By Scott North

Herald Writer

The hearing took only minutes, but when it was over Monday a Snohomish County teen was facing a half-century in prison.

Jeff Grote, 17, lowered his head as he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the April 13 death of Jerry Dean Heimann, 64, of Everett who was ambushed in his home by a group of young people armed with baseball bats.

Grote, who is being treated as an adult in court because of the seriousness of the case, had been facing the more serious charge of aggravated first-degree murder. If convicted, he would have faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of release because he is too young for the death penalty.

But under a plea agreement reached with prosecutors, Grote pleaded guilty to the lesser form of murder and agreed to an exceptional sentence of 50 years in prison, roughly double the standard punishment.

Hearings set for others in Heimann killing

Jeff Grote on Monday became the first person convicted of the April killing of Jerry Heimann of Everett. But key hearings are scheduled to begin Sept. 26 for four other young people allegedly involved.

The teens, two girls and two boys ages 13 and 14, are all charged in juvenile court with first-degree murder.

Snohomish County prosecutors have asked a judge to decide whether any of those defendants should, like Grote, be treated as adults. Under Monday’s plea agreement, Grote will testify against the others.

The difference is stark between adult and juvenile punishments for murder.

If found guilty in juvenile court, the maximum punishment facing the teens is detention in a juvenile prison until they reach 21.

If convicted in adult court, the teens face a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years behind bars.

Prosecutors also could upgrade the charges in adult court to aggravated first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory punishment for teens of life in prison without possibility of release, deputy prosecutor Chris Dickinson said.

"I’m not saying that’s what we’ll do, but it is an option," he said.

Prosecutors are still mulling whether to seek the death penalty against Barbara Opel, 37, the Everett woman who allegedly recruited Grote and the other teens to commit murder. Her trial is scheduled for May 2002.

He also agreed to testify against co-defendants in the case, including four other teens and Barbara Marie Opel, 38. She allegedly promised to pay the young people up to $300 each if they would ambush Heimann so she could steal roughly $40,000.

Opel had been hired as the live-in caregiver for Heimann’s 89-year-old mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and is unable to speak. After the killing, the elderly woman was abandoned in the home, where she was discovered days later, suffering from dehydration and neglect.

Prosecutors are still considering whether to seek the death penalty for Opel, whose trial is now scheduled for May 2002. Grote’s testimony should be helpful in making a case against her, deputy prosecutor Chris Dickinson said.

"She’s a target-rich environment, that’s for sure, and he’s a big weapon to use against her," he said.

Opel allegedly began planning Heimann’s killing about a month before the murder and had tried to enlist the aid of other young people and adults, according to court papers. Some of those approached took money, but none followed through.

The plan came together when Opel’s then-13-year-old daughter began dating Grote, according to prosecutors. He recruited two other teens, ages 13 and 15, to assist, along with Opel’s 13-year-old daughter. Another girl, 14, also was enlisted to help, and was promised money to pay for roller skating, prosecutors allege.

Heimann, a well-liked retired aerospace worker who at one time had also run a tavern, was beaten to the floor as he walked into his home and then stabbed with knives. Grote allegedly struck first, using an aluminum baseball bat. The other assailants used smaller, wooden souvenir Mariner baseball bats.

At Monday’s hearing, the violence of Heimann’s death was reduced to spare legal language dealing with little besides the date of the act and the young killer’s intent.

"Did you do these things?" Superior Court Judge Larry McKeeman asked.

"Yes," Grote said, his voice hushed.

The teen’s defense attorneys, public defenders Damian Klauss and Rick Leo, said that Grote is a respectful and well-behaved client, who has continued his high school education while in jail.

After his arrest, Grote almost immediately admitted his involvement in the murder, something that virtually guaranteed his conviction in the case. The plea agreement raises the prospect that Grote may again see freedom in his early 60s, something that wasn’t an option under the original charge.

Grote’s attorneys said he is genuinely sorry for Heimann’s death. Prior to his arrest for the murder he had no criminal history, and his hobby was speed skating, Klauss said.

"Skating in circles as fast as you can, what can be more innocuous than that?" the attorney asked.

You can call Herald Writer Scott North at 425-339-3431 or send e-mail to north@heraldnet.com.

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