George and Evelyn Jeoney were in Schenectady County Court on Wednesday, ready to testify against the man accused of killing their daughter Mary.
They were set to tell of the realization that she was gone and the “five weeks of hell” that followed, not knowing her fate.
Then the man who strangled her and hid her body in his father’s basement, then later led police to her remains, abruptly changed his plea.
Richard Heinze Jr., 35, pleaded guilty Wednesday afternoon to one count of second-degree murder. He is to receive 20 years to life in state prison at his April sentencing.
The Jeoneys were relieved.
“We want him to serve that time to protect other women,” Evelyn Jeoney said Wednesday evening, crediting police and prosecutors. “Mary was unfortunately the last one in a long string of women. We’re really grateful he is off the streets.”
Heinze changed his plea as jury selection concluded Wednesday. Attorneys spent more than two days picking 12 jurors and alternates. The trial was expected to last at least three weeks.
Prosecutors had sought a first-degree murder conviction, one that would have sent Heinze to prison for life without parole.
Heinze, however, decided to take a long-standing plea offer and avert a full trial. Prosecutor Philip Mueller had been preparing for opening statements when he was notified of the intended plea change.
“We thought the case came together very well; the proof was very strong,” Mueller said. “As often is the case, the defendant needs to begin to see some of that.”
Heinze was represented by attorney Mark Gaylord, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.
The defense, however, suffered a series of setbacks in recent weeks, rulings that allowed prosecutors to use allegations of past conduct by Heinze in their case.
Mueller also noted that during jury selection, there were negative reactions from prospective jurors to the barest outlines of the case.
Mueller was prepared to put a series of women on the stand to demonstrate that Heinze had choked girlfriends in the past and stole money from them.
Heinze learned from past incidents how to choke someone so that they only passed out, Mueller was to argue. Heinze couldn’t say that Jeoney’s death was an accident, Mueller argued — her neck was broken.
The mother of a young son, Jeoney was missing for more than a month before her remains were finally found in Heinze’s father’s garbage-strewn basement. She had met Heinze only months earlier on the telephone chat line Quest.
Her remains were found only after Heinze led police to them, first attempting to pin the crime on his own father and then admitting that he himself did it but attempting to portray Jeoney as a drug user, prosecutors said. Authorities said there is no evidence that Jeoney ever used drugs.
Heinze Jr. killed her for her debit card, prosecutors alleged. The card had been recently credited with $2,000 in tax refund money that Heinze would later use to purchase crack cocaine.
George and Evelyn Jeoney, of Albany, attended many pretrial hearings in the case. However, they had said little publicly until Wednesday.
They thanked the police detectives who worked the case and the prosecutors who helped get the guilty plea.
They singled out Albany Police detectives Robert Tierney and John Coleman, who took the initial missing persons report, zeroed in on Heinze and got him to say what happened to Mary.
They intend to speak at Heinze’s April 21 sentencing.
It was at one pretrial hearing, with Jeoney’s parents in attendance, that Tierney testified that after a series of deceptions over the span of a month, a weeping Heinze finally told investigators where Mary Jeoney’s body was and that he was the one who killed her.
Mueller also praised the detectives.
“They did some superb work,” the prosecutor said. “I can’t say enough about the work they did.”
The detectives, along with Schenectady Police Detective Thomas Adach, got Heinze to tell the final version of his story, detailing the murder, Mueller said.
Mary Jeoney was a fun-loving 30-year-old woman who loved Japanese anime and dance music, her father said.
The focus of her life was her young son. On her MySpace page, she described him as the best thing to come into her life.
She went missing in late January 2008. Her son’s sixth birthday came and went as she remained missing, weeks George Jeoney called “hell.”
The boy turned 7 this past week. The Jeoneys have been trying to keep him busy and give him as normal a life as they can. He’s enrolled in tae kwon do, which he enjoys. He also goes to counseling.
“He misses her; we all do,” Evelyn Jeoney said, adding later: “Nights are the hardest for him. He misses his mom tucking him in.”
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