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LOCKPORT – John R. Freeman Jr. admitted Wednesday in Niagara County Court that he killed a 5-year-old girl he was baby-sitting last year in a Niagara Falls home.

Freeman, 17, of Sixth Street, Niagara Falls, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence for killing Isabella M. Tennant, of Cheektowaga, and throwing her body into a garbage tote in Niagara Falls on Aug. 26.

Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III agreed to sentence Freeman to a maximum sentence of life in prison, with the minimum of 20 to 22 years before he is eligible for parole. The sentence will be imposed Sept. 5.

“He admitted that he initially said she wouldn’t go to sleep. Then he put her in a chokehold, eventually causing her death,” Niagara Falls Detective Lt. Michael Trane said at an afternoon news conference.

He commented, “We think it was a very strong case, (Freeman) pled to the indictment.” Trane latter added, “I think he should be granted no leniency whatsoever.”

Charges remain open against Freeman’s co-defendant, Tyler S. Best, 18, of Barnard Street, Buffalo. He was charged with a felony count of tampering with physical evidence after he told Niagara Falls police Aug. 27 that he had helped Freeman dispose of the girl’s body.

Trane said the girl’s body was found in a garbage tote in an alley between Third and Fourth streets, to which detectives were led by Best, who was called by Freeman after the girl died.

Trane said neither defendant had any criminal record before the murder.

Best’s next scheduled court appearance is July 26. His trial is scheduled for Aug. 19.

So was Freeman’s, until Wednesday morning.

In a brief court appearance for Freeman, Murphy issued a decision allowing defense attorney Robert Viola to use a mental health defense at Freeman’s trial. Prosecutors had objected to that because of Viola’s delays in giving them specifics about his claim of “extreme emotional disturbance” for Freeman.

In Murphy’s ruling, he wrote that Viola intended to use two mental health experts to testify about how Freeman’s fetal alcohol syndrome “caused him to have impaired decision-making abilities, presumably thereby rendering him unable to formulate the intent necessary for the two crimes with which he is charged.”

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a permanent brain injury caused by a mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy. According to several health-related websites, it is regarded as the leading cause of preventable birth defects in the United States.

Murphy told the attorneys to return to court 90 minutes later to discuss scheduling. That’s when the plea was entered.

Deputy District Attorney Holly E. Sloma said a gag order imposed by Murphy on all attorneys in the case remains in effect, so she was unable to discuss the case. Viola did not return calls seeking comment.

Freeman was a neighbor of the girl’s great-grandparents, Sharon and Hank Lascelle, who lived on Sixth Street. They told police they went to bed, leaving the child in the care of Freeman.

The girl’s mother, Crystal Walker, had dropped her off on her way to work at a Niagara Falls bar.

“At the time, he was considered a family friend,” Trane said. “Everyone involved in this case was just crushed by what happened.”

Walker could not be reached Wednesday, but she gave a statement to YNN News saying, “The pain of losing my daughter will never subside. She was my best friend and my everything. I still feel as though I am living someone else’s life. I am glad he finally pleaded out instead of dragging this out any longer.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com