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John D. Celestine Jr., left, pleaded guilty Friday, Oct. 12, 2018, in the slaying of 12-year-old Talaija Dorsey, right. He was expected to head to trial Monday. Dorsey disappeared July 1, 2014, and was killed the same day. Her badly decomposed body was found in a cane field days later by St. James Parish Sheriff Willy Martin Jr.

CONVENT — John D. Celestine Jr. was sentenced to life in prison Friday for the 2014 slaying of his fiancee's 12-year-old daughter after admitting he killed the girl.

Slated for a jury trial that was to have started on Monday, Celestine, 47, entered a last-minute plea to a second-degree murder charge in the killing of Talaija Dorsey.

Her disappearance the morning of July 1, 2014, sparked a community-wide search for her with hopes she might still be alive.

But as time passed, fears that she had been killed arose and suspicion focused on Celestine, who lived with Talaija, her siblings and her mother in the rural St. James community on the west bank of the parish. Celestine had claimed his innocence up until this week. 

Celestine was initially arrested on obstruction and false communications counts days after Talaija's disappearance. After Talaija's badly decomposed body was found in a cane field and an autopsy was conducted, he was indicted in her slaying. 

During the sentencing Friday, Talaija's family members, some of whom wore buttons with her picture on it, gave victim impact statements lamenting the loss of a young girl whose bright smile and thoughtful spirit enlivened their lives.

They also aired their feelings of betrayal that Celestine, who lived among them, had killed Talaija, though they also promised that they had forgiven him as their Christian faith commanded.

Gregory Ford, 64, Talaija's neighbor, spoke of how she brought joy to their small neighborhood off River Road and their church community nearby.

Leona Harris, 70, Talaija's aunt from New Orleans, described the difficulty her family has had waiting years for the court process to end.

"It just been so hard how everything has been," Harris said.

Talaija's mother, Emma Smith, reminded Celestine of all the things she would never see her daughter do, from getting ready for high school dances to the hug with which she used greet her with after work.

"Why? Why my baby," a tearful Smith asked, before leaving the stand. 

During the formal plea, Celestine answered 23rd Judicial District Judge Alvin Turner Jr.'s questions matter of factly as Turner read the factual basis for his plea. It said that Celestine had a specific intent to kill or cause great bodily harm to Dorsey on July 1, 2014.

"Do you agree with those facts," Turner asked Celestine.

"Yes," Celestine responded.

In the years leading up to the trial and over this summer, prosecutors and defense attorneys had battled over whether to exclude from trial Celestine's statements to authorities, including some he gave during an extended interrogation after invoking his constitutional right to an attorney. 

Last month, Turner found, however, that the statements were admissible because investigators were still operating under the theory then that Talaija might still be alive and that Celestine could aid in her discovery.

The days and weeks leading up the trial Monday, both sides were suggesting no plea was in the offing. But Assistant District Attorney Robin O'Bannon said defense attorneys notified her on Thursday that Celestine planned to plead guilty in Dorsey's murder.

He had faced a first-degree murder charge but prosecutors filed an amended indictment Tuesday charging him with second-degree murder and first-degree rape.

At the time of the discovery of Dorsey's body and the autopsy, investigators were unable to say whether she had been the victim of a sexual crime. 

In newly disclosed information, O'Bannon said investigators had uncovered DNA and other evidence suggesting that Celestine had raped Dorsey and that would have been presented at trial. Under the plea, however, all other charges but the second-degree murder count were dropped.

Sheriff Willy Martin Jr., who found Dorsey's body in a cane field days after she disappeared, said his office and prosecutors were confident and ready for trial but welcomed an end to the long-running case.

"Talaija never had her day in court until today," he said.   

Susan Jones, Celestine's defense attorney, has a policy of not commenting to the media. 

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.