Admitted killer Kenneth Leighty might not have been up to speaking at his sentencing Thursday in Huntingdon County Court, but he had no choice but to hear what his crime has done to the family of the young woman whose body he hid in a hole for more than 13 years.
Shelly Nagle and Richard Dumm, brother and sister of Sherry Leighty, whose body was found in Warriors Mark Township in May after prosecutors offered Leighty a deal, told Senior Judge Stewart Kurtz what their sister meant to them, what her disappearance did to them and how not knowing what had happened to her all those years affected them.
All along Kenneth Leighty knew the truth but had fed their late father, Sheldon Dumm, a lie that Sherry had run off to Maine with a boyfriend.
After the hearing, Nagle said that when she turned to face Leighty, he looked her in the eye as she told him how he might have gotten away with murder except for the fact she wouldn't stop pressing police to look further into her sister's disappearance. She told him how he had destroyed lives, including those of Sherry's three children - his own grandchildren - and that he shouldn't be able to walk free in seven to 14 years because he had 14 years of freedom while their sister lie buried in an unmarked grave on Leighty's family hunting property.
"He brutally bludgeoned Sherry to death and left her naked body to rot in a hole," Nagle said.
It was a property where over the nearly 14 years after killing their mother, Leighty would take his grandchildren, noted Dave Smith, Huntingdon County district attorney, who took office last month.
"Obviously, this has been a roller coaster ride for them," Smith said after the sentencing.
While the deal with Leighty was done by Smith's predecessor, George Zanic, now the county's judge, Smith said he supported it under the circumstances. But he also empathized with the family.
Smith noted that when Leighty, who was credited with time served since he was charged May 13 with her murder, faces a parole hearing, his office and the family will be there to make sure he serves out the full 14 years.
Leighty was too overcome with emotion to speak, so his attorney Thomas Hooper read a brief statement Leighty had prepared.
"He expressed his regret that circumstances spiraled out of control, regret for not coming forward sooner and regret for the pain he caused the Leighty family," Hooper said after the brief sentencing.
Leighty's sentence of 7 to 14 years in state prison came as surprise to no one. It was part of a plea deal laid out Dec. 19 when Leighty appeared before Kurtz to plead to third-degree murder for Sherry Leighty's death.
With the span of time between Sherry Leighty's death and the fact police still had no body when Kenneth Leighty was taken into custody on April 19 after assaulting a state trooper who wanted to detain him for further questioning in the case, prosecutors had little choice other than to offer Leighty a deal so he would show searchers where he buried her body on the 155-acre Warriors Mark area property, police and prosecutors have said.
The decision isn't one that sits well with Sherry Leighty's family, but they said they understand why it was necessary.
It's been a long journey for Sherry Leighty's family. For 13 years, Nagle fought to have the case investigated, but Altoona police didn't look too closely at the disappearance of the 23-year-old mother of three who was in the midst of a divorce from Leighty's son, Aaron.
That changed in August 2012 when Altoona police Detective Sgt. Matthew Starr was assigned the cold case. Over the next few months, Starr's investigation found holes in Leighty's claim he last saw Sherry Leighty on Oct. 1, 1999, after he dropped her off a block from a Duncansville temporary agency, and interviews with family members pointed to the Leighty's hunting property as a possible burial ground.
When the case crossed into Huntingdon County, the state police were brought in, and the case hit a turning point on April 19 at Leighty's Altoona home when he tried to barrel past police looking to take him in for further questioning.
Starr said while the sentence is lighter than anyone wanted, the deal ensured Sherry Leighty was found and an arrest was made.
Starr praised the work of Huntingdon County officials and the state police, particularly veteran investigator Cpl. Daniel Sneath, in bringing Leighty to justice, as did Smith.
"I thought the Pennsylvania State Police did a remarkable job and were very instrumental in finding Sherry," Smith said. Ultimately, it was Nagle who deserves the most credit, he said, for her tenacious and dogmatic belief that something here is not right" about Sherry Leighty's disappearance.
Still, Nagle can't help but think about how it could have been different had police investigated back in 1999, instead of taking a rumor, one that originated with Leighty, as fact. While not enough time, the family hopes it's enough that Leighty won't ever step foot outside a prison.
"Hopefully, it is a life sentence, and he doesn't know it yet," Nagle said.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.