HUNTINGDON - Sherry Jean Leighty's family was front-row for Kenneth Leighty's guilty plea in Huntingdon County court, a deal they said they understand but don't like.
"It's a lighter sentence than I wanted, obviously," said Sherry Leighty's sister, Shelly Nagle, after Huntingdon County Judge Stewart Kurtz accepted the plea deal where Kenneth Leighty plead guilty to third-degree murder and will receive between seven and 14 years in state prison.
"I understand why they did it - to find her - but I'm definitely not satisfied with what he's getting," said Nagle, 41, of Altoona.
Nagle said she does feel better now that the family is able to put their sister to rest, "to finally have her home."
Nagle, her brother, Richard Dumm, and Sherry's Leighty's son, Travis Leighty, traveled to Huntingdon County for the proceeding and watched as Kenneth Leighty entered his plea.
It was the Dumm family who pushed Altoona police to dig into Sherry Leighty's 1999 disappearance, efforts that ultimately paid off with the assignment of Altoona police Detective Cpl. Matthew Starr in late August 2012.
Dumm said it was Nagle's detective work that revealed the rumor that Sherry Leighty had moved to Maine with a boyfriend was baseless after she contacted the man. He told Nagle that Sherry Leighty
hadn't moved to Maine with him and had never planned to make such a move. Dumm said had police simply looked into the rumor at the beginning, other holes in the story - such as Kenneth Leighty's false claim he went to work Oct. 1 after dropping Sherry Leighty off at her Duncansville workplace - would have come to light, as well.
Had police investigated at the time of the disappearance, Dumm said Kenneth Leighty would have faced life in prison. Instead, he spent 14 years as a free man while Sherry Leighty's family wondered and worried.
"He's been out free for 14 years. He should have got 14 years at the least," Dumm, 35, said.
Kenneth Leighty claimed it was an accident, but Dumm said even that story doesn't add up, given forensic evidence showed she was killed by a blow to the head. Dumm said Kenneth Leighty originally claimed she was killed when he pushed her, and she struck her head.
"He still says it's an accident," Nagle said. "I think, even if he told the truth, I wouldn't believe him. So it doesn't matter."
Despite the disappointments in the case, Dumm said he understood the time lapse made prosecuting Kenneth Leighty nearly impossible, and he was thankful he pleaded to third-degree murder and not manslaughter, as originally negotiated.
"Manslaughter has an accidental ring to it," Dumm said.
Nagle and Dumm said they both plan on speaking at Kenneth Leighty's sentencing Feb. 27, but even with their sister's killer convicted and behind bars for what could very well be the rest of the 66-year-old's life, it's not over.
"[There will] never be closure," Nagle said.
Huntingdon County District Attorney George Zanic acknowledged the disappointment everyone felt about the plea deal.
Zanic said even without the deal, and even if police had found the remains on their own, the evidence at best would have likely led to the same outcome, a third-degree murder conviction.
"With what we had, we had very little to go on once we did find the remains," Zanic explained, noting Kenneth Leighty refused to talk and claimed the killing was an accident.
Following the press conference, Sgt. Harold Rinker, Huntingdon state police commander, removed his hat and spoke to the family, apologizing for their loss.
"I can assure you, just as I'm standing here, everything that could have been done was done," Rinker said.