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Homicide

From left are Christopher G. Traicoff and April Bernal-Salazar.

CROWN POINT — A man pleaded guilty Tuesday to a reduced charge alleging he killed a Wheatfield woman in March 2018 in a Hobart hotel.

Christopher Traicoff, 41, of Calumet Township, faces up to 20 years in prison and life on parole in the strangling death of April Salazar-Bernal, 38, a mother of four.

Salazar-Bernal's mother, Gloria Bernal; friend Heidi Rowen; and family member Jose Figueroa listened as Lake Criminal Court Judge Diane Boswell reviewed a plea agreement with Traicoff. Rowen wiped tears from her eyes.

"She was my forever friend," Rowen said after the hearing. "She left a lot of broken hearts."

Traicoff had been facing two counts of murder and one count each of robbery, forgery, fraud and failure to report a dead body in connection with the case.

Lake County prosecutors agreed to dismiss the charges in exchange for Traicoff’s plea to one count of level 2 felony voluntary manslaughter.

The voluntary manslaughter charge alleges Traicoff intentionally killed Salazar-Bernal “in a sudden heat,” Deputy Prosecutor Kathleen Kurowski said.

Traicoff was released from prison the first week of March 2018 and was on parole for felony burglary and escape convictions before connecting with Salazar-Bernal about a week later, according to court records.

The two were seen at a Hammond bar before Salazar-Bernal's disappearance, records state.

They rented a room together starting March 12, 2018, at the Key West Inn, 1855 S. Mississippi St., according to the plea agreement. They were the only two people who entered the room, and Traicoff exited the room alone.

Traicoff was seen driving Salazar-Bernal's car in Hobart and Gary between March 13 and 15, 2018.

A relative found Salazar-Bernal's body in the hotel room March 15, a day after reporting her missing in Jasper County. The cause of death was asphyxiation secondary to manual strangulation, according to the Lake County coroner's office.

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A Lake County SWAT team arrested Traicoff on March 15, 2018, after he barricaded himself inside a home in the 4300 block of McKinley Street in Calumet Township.

After entering his plea Tuesday, Traicoff sat at a table with defense attorney Kevin Milner and looked down.

A level 2 felony charge carries a sentence of 10 to 30 years in prison, with an advisory sentence of 17 ½ years. Prosecutors agreed to a cap of 20 years, with life on parole.

Boswell will determine Traicoff's sentence after hearing arguments from attorneys, if she accepts his plea agreement. A sentencing hearing was set for Aug. 15.

After the hearing, Gloria Bernal said she wanted to see Traicoff get prison time and be placed on parole for life.

“Did I have a choice, to be honest?” she said, when asked if she was satisfied with the agreement. “I will take what I can get.”

Some of the witnesses were not reliable, in part because they were part of the drug scene in Calumet Township, she said.

Salazar-Bernal’s four boys now range in age from 13 to 19. They are doing OK, said Bernal, who is raising them.

Bernal said her daughter and Rowen had been friends since kindergarten.

"She was full of life. She was the life of the party," Rowen said. "She was everybody's friend. She's the one that kept everyone together."

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Lake County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.