PORT ORCHARD — The sentencing on June 18 of Gabriel Zebediah Gaeta, 21, to 40 years to life in prison for raping and killing 6-year-old Jenise Wright of East Bremerton, ends a sad and unsettling court case that has shaken Bremerton and South Kitsap since the youngster was first reported missing on Aug. 3, 2014.
The young girl displayed a smile and friendliness that “would brighten up anyone’s day,” her mother Denise Wright said.
Gaeta, a promising wrestler at Olympic High School, was 17 and about to enter his senior year when he was arrested as a suspect in Jenise’s death.
The young girl’s body was uncovered by searchers in a nearby mud-filled bog five days after her disappearance was reported.
The case against Gaeta worked its way to a hearing before Judge Jennifer Forbes in Kitsap County Superior Court, but not before stalling due to three years of jurisdictional issues, uncertainty about changes in juvenile case rulings and the defendant’s own shaky mental stability.
Here is a timeline covering the Gaeta case:
Aug. 3, 2014: Jenise Wright, 6, is reported missing from her home at Steele Creek Mobile Home Park in East Bremerton.
Aug. 4, 2014: Gabriel Gaeta, a 17-year-old neighbor and friend of Wright’s brother, and his family are approached by law enforcement for questioning.
Aug. 7, 2014: Wright’s body is found in a nearby muddy bog.
Aug. 8, 2014: A DNA sample from Gaeta is obtained by an FBI agent during a follow-up interview.
Aug. 10, 2014: Gaeta is arrested after detectives conclude his DNA samples matched those taken from the crime scene. A search warrant obtained at his home that day led to the discovery of bloodstained clothes, including a pair of underwear, a shirt and shorts, and a bloody towel.
Aug. 11, 2014: Gaeta makes his initial appearance in Kitsap County Superior Court and is ordered held on $1 million bond in the pending rape and murder case of Wright. County Prosecutor Russ Hauge said the death penalty is off the table due to Gaeta’s age — he’s just under 18. He pleads not guilty.
Dec. 23, 2014: On his 18th birthday, Gaeta is transferred from juvenile detention to the Kitsap County Jail.
Sept. 25, 2015: Gaeta, charged with first-degree murder and fire-degree rape of a child, is granted an omnibus hearing in Kitsap County Superior Court on Oct. 23.
March 2016: Gaeta’s trial set for March 28 is delayed until Oct. 16 to allow a legal issue involving sentencing juveniles to life in prison to resolve. The case, Miller v. Alabama, came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. The court had ruled mandatory life sentences for juveniles could not be issued.
September 2016: Despite Judge Jennifer Forbes’ reluctance to do so, Gaeta’s trial date is moved to March 6. The defense attorneys said they needed time.
February 2017: Gaeta, who had stopped communicating with his defense team, is found not competent to stand trial. Judge Forbes orders him admitted to Western State Hospital in Lakewood on May 16 for up to 90 days for “competency restoration” and further evaluation of his ability to move ahead with his trial.
May 2017: Forbes gives Gaeta’s medical staff at Western State Hospital the order to forcibly medicate the defendant. He had repeatedly ignored his doctors’ orders to take his medication and began to demonstrate violent behavior with staff members.
Aug. 2, 2017: Western State Hospital psychologists file a report indicating Gaeta is competent and able to stand trial.
Feb. 16, 2018: Gaeta pleads guilty to aggravated first-degree murder and first-degree rape of a child in Kitsap County Superior Court.
June 18, 2018: Gabriel Gaeta, almost four years after the crime was committed, is sentenced to 40 years to life in prison for raping and murdering Jenise Wright. Gaeta has yet to say why he raped and killed the 6-year-old girl.