GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - On the eve of his trial, accused killer Alberto Garcia walked into a Harrison County courtroom Wednesday morning and pleaded guilty to capital murder, admitting his role in the 2014 death of five-year-old Janaya Thompson.
It was an emotionally taxing morning in court as Alberto Garcia was brought back before a judge to hand over his plea. Garcia was asked to recite his testimony of the final hours of Janaya's life.
Harrison County's district attorney says Garcia is still eligible for the death penalty, and his guilty plea will avoid a criminal trial.
After Judge Lisa Dodson ensured that Garcia was aware of what he was agreeing to, she accepted his plea. Now, according to District Attorney Joel Smith, the case will enter its sentencing phase to determine whether Garcia receives the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
"The state intends to put on all of the evidence that obtained through the investigation in order to give Judge Dodson a full picture of the evidence in this case and not just what the defendant said today," said Smith.
What the defendant said brought many people back to the scene, including the law enforcement officers who worked this horrendous crime. Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania has been involved with this heartwrenching case since the very beginning. His thoughts after this hearing; justice will be served.
"Our intent when it first started was bringing a little girl home. The next day, when we discovered her body, it turned into a quest for justice," said Papania. "It's not easy work but it's important work and we are very very close. I just appreciate our community that we live in and the people that are here and the support they've given us."
Prosecutors say they have evidence that linked Garcia to the sexual assault and strangulation of the Gulfport girl. Search teams discovered her body in an abandoned trailer on Whitney Drive a day after her disappearance and death.
Janaya's murder sparked outrage in the Orange Grove community. Leaders from around Gulfport and around the region staged events outside that trailer urging prosecutors to do whatever they could to get justice for Janaya.
The sentencing phase will begin Jan. 23. Garcia will likely face either life behind bars, or the death penalty.
During a pre-trial hearing in 2014, Gulfport Police Detective Samuel Jewell shared gruesome and disturbing details of the investigation into Janaya Thompson's murder.
"We found Janaya Thompson with her back was against the west wall," Jewell said. "She was hung with what we know now as two pairs of socks and that was attached to a metal bar in a small window attached to above the tub. She was suspended."
In a matter of hours, the detective testified they were at Garcia's apartment asking to speak with him.
"Alberto Garcia started telling detectives, 'Hey, my fingerprints might be in that trailer where the little girl was found,'" Jewell said.
Jewell testified Garcia told police he went in the trailer days before the murder and took several items. At that point during the questioning, Jewell said Garcia was read his Miranda rights and was arrested for burglary. But Jewell said Garcia continued talking to investigators.
Jewell said Garcia told investigators he was at his apartment playing video games the night Janaya was murdered and he may have blacked out. He said he smelled feces on himself and does not know what happened and went and took a shower. After Garcia told detectives that story, Detective Jewell said Garcia began asking investigators questions.
"He asked about the evidence they had and asked did it point to him being responsible for Janaya's death," Jewell said.
After asking those questions, Jewell said Garcia asked for an attorney and investigators stopped asking Garcia questions.
Five days later, Jewell said he received a handwritten note from the jail written by Garcia saying he wanted to talk. Jewell said Garcia told him he was worried about seeing his mother and about the burglary charge against him. Jewell said he read Garcia his Miranda rights again and Garcia kept talking. This time Jewell said Garcia's story changed.
He told investigators about another man who showed up at his door the night of Thompson's murder, saying he had an incident with a little girl and needed help. That man was arrested on an unrelated charge and held while the investigation continued. But the evidence never supported his involvement, and he was never charged in connection with Thompson's death.
Detective Jewell told the court Garcia's stories just didn't align with the more than 100 pieces of evidence in the case.
"We received a preliminary DNA test from the anal swab taken from Janaya Thompson's autopsy. Garcia's DNA was present," Jewell said, adding that no one else's DNA was found.
Losing a child is the kind of thing that can tear a family apart. Jarmal Thompson, Janaya's father, told WLOX News Now in 2015 he was seeing a therapist to deal with his depression. And that he still questioned why someone would sexually assault his little girl and leave her body hanging in a vacant trailer?
"I had my dark moments. Was she hungry? Why was she there? What was going on? What would make someone do something like that? It hurts me to think like that," said Thompson.
"It made me weak. It made me sick. There were days I couldn't eat. Most of the time I wouldn't talk. I box myself in. Just knowing the joy that I had in my daughter's life, she made me a proud person," he added.
Thompson said he misses Janaya's voice and her adventurous spirit.
"She'd venture off and discover new things. She likes everything new, and her creativity, her smile, and the word 'daddy'. It never plays out," said Thompson.
Thompson said the tragedy has brought his family closer together.
"It made us a lot stronger, strengthen us as a family, also as a community," said Thompson.
During that July 2015 interview, Thompson and Janaya's mom, LaTisha Boykin, revealed that they were expecting a baby girl in November.
"It's drawn us a lot of us closer, but behind closed doors, it also put me and her mom in a dark place, because all the grieving. It's hard to kind of get over. Being able to stay strong, I think we're doing pretty good," said Thompson.