VALPARAISO — Valparaiso resident Connor Kerner had it all going for him until Feb. 25, 2019, when at the age of 17, he decided to brutally murder 18-year-old Thomas Grill, of Cedar Lake and 19-year-old Molley Lanham, of St. John, a prosecutor told the court Tuesday.
Kerner, who is now 19, was found guilty of the crimes in October and was sentenced Tuesday morning to 179 years behind bars, which the judge acknowledged was a "de facto" life sentence.
Porter Superior Court Judge Roger Bradford described the shooting and beating death of Grill as "one of the worst I've ever seen" and said Lanham's execution-style shooting was "almost Mafioso."
Kerner showed no obvious reaction to the sentence, but tears filled the eyes of the victims' family members, who a short time earlier had taken the witness stand to voice their pain.
Patricia Grill, mother of Thomas Grill, looked down at Kerner and accused him of attempting to erase her son and Lanham by murdering them and burning their bodies nearly beyond recognition.
"You erased your life Connor," she said. "You did that to yourself Connor."
Stacy Spejewski, mother of Lanham, said she is still numb nearly two years after her daughter's killing.
"I don't know how to go on without her," she said. "I am now the mother of a murdered child."
Kerner declined the opportunity to comment before sentencing, but said near the end he intends to appeal.
He was found guilty on two counts of murder, two counts of murder in perpetration of a robbery, two counts of attempted robbery and one count of arson.
Kerner reportedly told an informant he shot Grill in the Hebron-area garage of grandparents after Grill tried to rob him during a drug deal.
"Grill fell to the ground and was begging for his life," according to police records. "Kerner advised that he panicked due to being out of bullets in the gun. Kerner then beat (Grill) with a pipe wrench until he died."
Kerner then showed Grill's body to Lanham, court records allege. Kerner warned Lanham not to say anything about the death, and as she turned to leave, Kerner shot her in the head, police said.
Kerner loaded the two bodies into the trunk of the teens' Honda Civic following the killings along with various containers of flammable liquids and set the vehicle on fire, police said.
Porter County Sheriff's Department Detective Darrell Hobgood told the judge Tuesday that a stabbing victim in an unrelated case, who initially said he did not know who hurt him, later admitted that Kerner stabbed him because Kerner did not have $10,000 owed to him in a drug deal.
The man said he did not identify Kerner at first because he feared for his life, Hobgood said.
Porter County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Armando Salinas likened the motive in that case to what happened in the double murder.
"Unfortunately there are no winners in a case such as this, but it does provide justice to the families for the loss of Thomas Grill and Molley Lanham," Salinas later said of the sentence. "This was an outstanding investigation by the Porter County Sheriff’s Department and a victory for the community."
Porter County Prosecutor Gary Germann said, "From a community standpoint, I hope everyone realizes how much work went into the case by so many people, particularly Armando Salinas and Chris Hammer from our office and Brian Dziedzinski and the entire Porter County Sheriff’s Department."
"Because of their hard work our entire community is much safer," he said. "In the end the sentence was totally justified by the facts and the law."
The defense did not present any witnesses during sentencing, but argued for a lighter sentence based, in large part, on Kerner's young age at the time of the killings, a finding that he is low risk to reoffend and his lack of prior criminal history.
In response to comments made during sentencing about Kerner's lack of remorse and apparent lightheartedness during trial, Indianapolis-based defense attorney James Voyles said such behavior is a way of breaking the tension of a trial.
Kerner's mother, Roxann Kerner, 47, of Chesterton, who was charged late last month with attempting to cover up her son's role in the crime, is scheduled to appear Wednesday morning before a county magistrate.
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