File photo

Garett Kirts is shown being escorted July 10, 2019, into the Newton County Courthouse for an omnibus hearing.

KENTLAND — Garett Kirts, the main suspect in the March 2019 homicide of a West Lafayette woman, accepted a plea deal that will see him spend the next five-and-a-half decades behind bars, instead of life in prison without parole.

The plea deal was approved Sept. 4 by Newton County Superior Court Judge Daniel Molter.

The deal calls for Kirts to plead guilty to killing Nicole Bowen, 30, in exchange for the prosecution to stop pursuing a life in prison without parole sentence. Instead, prosecutors will recommend a 55-year sentence.

“It is a sad situation but I believe this is an appropriate outcome,” Newton County Prosecutor Jeff Drinski said. “I am confident that the family approves of this deal.”

When asked by Molter about his guilty plea, Kirts informed the court that he, Ashley Garth, Chris Mathis and Mickey Hittle were at Kentland Trailer Park but left to get more drugs. Kirts said that is when he was told that Bowen had snitched on him and Jason Palladino for cooking meth. He testified that he, along with Garth and Palladino, decided that Bowen had to die, so they set up a meeting with her at the trailer park.

Bowen’s body was found March 29 in a rural hunting shack northwest of Kentland.

According to Kirts, once Bowen arrived at the trailer park, Garth started a fistfight with her. Kirts then approached Bowen from behind and placed her in a chokehold until she passed out. Kirts added that he asked Garth for an extension cord and then wrapped it around Bowen’s neck, noting that Garth was the one who pulled on it until she stopped breathing.

According to court documents, the cord was wrapped so tightly around Bowen’s neck that the cord broke. He then tightly tied a scarf around Bowen’s neck, placed tape over her mouth, a plastic bag over her head, and bound her hands behind her back and feet with tape. He then wrapped her body in a grey blanket and wrapped more tape around her body and blanket.

Court documents also state Kirts and Mathis loaded Bowen’s body in the trunk of a vehicle and drove around Newton County looking for a suitable place to dump her body. They discovered an area with a shipping container (later described as a hunting shack) and a nearby excavator. Kirts told police, according to the records, that he figured Bowen’s body would be discovered because the area looked to be well-traveled.

Sentencing for Kirts has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Jan. 11, 2021, but that may not be the end of his legal troubles.

According to sources, Kirts is also being linked to the death of a White County man nearly two weeks before Bowen’s killing.

Ray Hanish, 49, of Reynolds, was originally thought to have died of natural causes. He was found deceased March 17, 2019, in his Reynolds duplex. Investigators say his body had been there for a few days before its discovery.

According to Hanish’s death certificate, released by the White County coroner, his manner of death is now listed as “homicide,” and the cause of death is listed as “asphyxia due to ligature strangulation.”

Investigators wouldn’t say what connection may exist between Hanish and Kirts.

Kirts is also facing strangulation and domestic battery charges stemming from a January 2019 incident in which he allegedly choked Garth — one of his co-defendants in the Bowen case — at Garth’s home in Delphi.

In the Bowen case, Garth has entered into a plea agreement, which is currently being taken under advisement by the court. No public ruling has yet been made on it. She is scheduled for a sentencing hearing Oct. 21.

No charges have yet been filed against Palladino, but Drinski informed the Newton County Enterprise, the HJ’s sister publication, that the investigation is ongoing.

Talitha Beckley, of Monticello, and Mathis, of Kentland, have both been charged with assisting a criminal, while Jasmine N. Parker, of Kentland, was sentenced Oct. 7, 2019, by Molter to five years in prison after she pleaded guilty to assisting a criminal.