PORT ORCHARD — Gabriel Gaeta, the man who pleaded guilty in February to the 2014 rape and murder of 6-year-old Jenise Wright, was sentenced Monday, June 18, to 40 years to life in prison, plus 123 months to be served concurrently.
The sentence is expected to close the legal proceedings on a story that made national headlines but saw a slow resolution due to a number of factors, including questions about Gaeta’s mental health and his competency to stand trial.
In handing down the punishment, Kitsap Superior Court Judge Jennifer Forbes said that she was obligated to take into account additional factors — known as the Miller factors — in juvenile criminal cases such as this: the age of the defendant at the time the crime was committed; the defendant’s life experiences; the degree of responsibility the defendant was capable of exercising; and the defendant’s chances of being rehabilitated.
But while Forbes noted Gaeta had experienced a difficult childhood, including physical abuse at the hands of a family member, she did not see a connection between his history and the crime he ultimately committed.
“[I]t’s unclear to this court how these experiences impacted Mr. Gaeta in a way that led to the crimes that he committed against Jenise,” Forbes said, “other than what is obvious — that they appear to contribute some of his mental health issues … but the conclusions that he had a chaotic childhood impacted what he did to Jenise lacks a connection for this court. I’m missing this link.”
“Without knowing the [‘why,’] it becomes difficult to link some of these issues that were identified about Mr. Gaeta to the crime itself,” Forbes added.
In the end, Forbes concurred with the sentence recommended by attorneys for both sides. Gaeta will be approximately 57 years old before he has a chance of being paroled.
Gaeta and Wright were neighbors in the Steele Creek Mobile Home Park in East Bremerton at the time of her disappearance. Wright was reported missing in August 2017 and her body was found several days later in a mud bog in nearby woods. She had been strangled.
On Aug. 7 — the same day her body was found — a search warrant was executed on Gaeta’s home. The search led to the discovery of blood-stained items, including clothes and a towel. DNA samples taken from Gaeta and the crime scene were a match.
Gaeta, now 21, was 17 at the time of his arrest. He ultimately pleaded guilty to aggravated first-degree murder and first-degree rape of a child in February.
At a competency hearing on Feb. 22, 2017, Gaeta was found not fit to stand trial. Judge Forbes ordered the defendant’s admission to Western State Hospital for a period of up to 90 days for “competence restoration.”
Gaeta began a period of “close observation” on May 16, 2017, because of “reported history of engaging in behaviors that appeared to reflect suicidal ideation,” according to an August 2017 report filed by doctors.
He initially refused to take psychiatric medication, but following a violent incident with hospital staff members — doctors reported that Gaeta was lying down and facing a wall with a pillow covering his head. He then physically assaulted staffers who attempted to turn him. Kitsap County Superior Court ordered his involuntary medication, after which he was deemed competent.
Family members speak
Gaeta did not speak at his sentencing. His attorney, Jeniece LaCross, said Gaeta was in no condition to speak, but read aloud a letter he wrote to be entered into the record.
“I took a young girl’s life away from her and from her family and friends,” Gaeta’s letter said. “I feel like that should never happen to anybody, and no one should have to experience that. I can’t put into words how bad I feel about this. I wish I could make amends for this. I don’t know why I did it.”
Gaeta’s mother, Tina Wright, advocated for her son to eventually get a second chance, pointing to his ability to be coached into being a top wrestler at Olympic High School.
“Gabe is a person who can learn, grow … and become a productive member of society,” Tina Wright said.
Orlean Almojera, Jenise’s grandfather, choked up while reading letters from family members and then one of his own in which he recounted the grief and sadness the family has gone through over the past three and a half years.
“We are all so sad, angry and heartbroken that we will never get to see our granddaughter finish elementary, high school, graduate, attend college get married and have children of her own.”
Denise Wright, Jenise’s mother, spoke at length about her daughter’s upbeat attitude, liveliness, precociousness and intelligence.
“You could tell she was going to be a special little girl,” Denise Wright said. “Her smile and friendliness would brighten up anyone’s day. She was the sunshine in our family and now it’s gone.
“I will always miss her and love her. And now she has no life to experience, and I feel that he shouldn’t have one either.”
— Mark Krulish is a reporter for Kitsap News Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.