KINGMAN — A Superior Court judge on Friday rejected a Bullhead City murderer’s motion to withdraw from his plea agreement for killing an 8-year-old girl, and sentenced him to life in prison.
Justin James Rector, 31, had been charged with the kidnapping and murder of Isabella Grogan-Cannella in September 2014. Prosecutors withdrew the death penalty in February 2018.
Rector’s defense attorney, Dan Kaiser of Flagstaff, argued a motion Thursday to allow Rector to withdraw from that plea agreement. Kaiser argued that no mitigation was done in the first three years even when the death penalty was a possibility, and that Rector’s previous attorneys withheld reports from him. Kaiser was assigned the case in March.
After an all-day hearing Thursday, Superior Court Judge Lee Jantzen rejected that motion and set Rector’s sentencing for Friday morning.
Kaiser objected Friday to the sentencing, asking for a continuance, arguing that he wasn’t prepared for the sentencing and that he had additional motions to file. However, Rector said he wanted to go ahead with the sentencing to provide closure for Grogan-Cannella’s family.
A county victim advocate read three letters from two of Grogan-Cannella’s sisters and her grandmother. One sister’s letter said that Sept. 2 hasn’t been a normal day each year and that she had waited five years for justice. Her other sister, who is now 15 years old, was the last person to see Grogan-Cannella alive and said she will never forgive Rector.
Deputy Mohave County Attorney Greg McPhillips said the state’s case was strong with the testimony of the then-10-year-old sister. The prosecutor said the population of Mohave County, as well as Bullhead City, found the crime inconceivable.
“It’s inconceivable that Bella’s gone,” McPhillips said. “This is not a case of residual doubt.”
However, Rector’s daughter also spoke about how the crime has negatively affected her family. Rector’s sister said that there has been retribution against the Rector name through social media. She maintained her brother’s innocence, arguing that there was no evidence in the case.
Rector’s older sister also said that there was no evidence or DNA and said there are crimes that happen in Bullhead City that go unreported. Rector’s father, James Rector, said he wanted justice for Bella, but that he still hadn’t seen any evidence that his son murdered her.
Kaiser countered McPhillips, arguing that he had doubts in the case. He said Mohave County is one of the worst places with drugs, addiction and the violence and death it brings. The attorney also said it wasn’t a good situation in the house and that there are a lot of doubts about what happened that night. Kaiser also said there were issues, including how Rector was allowed to represent himself.
Rector tearfully spoke, saying he was sorry for what happened and how he wished he could bring Bella back. He also said that Grogan-Cannella’s mother, Tania Grogan, was a good mother who never hurt her daughters. Grogan is serving a five-year prison sentence for drug charges and is expected to be released in 2020.
“Bella didn’t deserve what happened to her,” Rector said.
Jantzen sentenced Rector per the plea agreement to life in prison without parole for at least 35 years. Rector was credited with almost five years of time already served in custody.
Grogan-Cannella and her sister were left in Rector’s care on the night of Sept. 2, 2014. The sister discovered Grogan-Cannella was gone and alerted her parents, who were at a department store. When the parents returned home, they called police.
Grogan-Cannella was strangled with a soft ligature, possibly a shirt, then buried in a shallow grave near their Lakeside Drive home. Rector was arrested later that morning.
Rector also was charged in a second case with aggravated assault for allegedly assaulting a detention officer July 17, 2017 in his jail cell.
In December 2018, Rector asked to represent himself and agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder. Rector’s remaining charges in the two cases were dismissed.