CROWN POINT | "I'm essentially the last judge you'll ever see."
And with those words, Lake Criminal Court Judge Clarence Murray accepted David Maust's plea of guilty Monday to murdering Hammond teens Michael Dennis, 13, James Raganyi, 16, and Nicholas James, 19.
The boys had been listed as missing by friends and family members until authorities found all three buried in the basement of Maust's rented Ash Avenue home in early December 2003.
In a plea agreement, Maust, 51, who gave his address as the Lake County Jail -- the place he's lived since his arrest Dec. 10, 2003 -- accepted three consecutive sentences of life without parole in exchange for the state's withdrawing all death penalty requests.
He will be sentenced Dec. 16.
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter and lead defense counsel Thomas Vanes have been negotiating the plea since January. Their main interest, as well as Maust's, they said, was to ensure he is never out of prison again.
The victims' families supported the plea agreement, Carter said.
The details of a statement Maust gave Saturday are part of the investigation process, Carter said, and are available to victims' families but not the public.
"Basically, he drugged them with alcohol, and the date-rape drug, then strangled them," Carter said.
"The first one, Nicholas James, he hit in the head with a baseball bat, then strangled him. He said the first one was too bloody, so he strangled the others.
"I don't think he seeks them out -- goes out picking up strangers. He has a friendship with them -- lifting weights, he bought a bike for one of them and rode around on a bike himself. He acts like a 12-year-old kid.
"He was afraid they'd abandon him and he didn't want them to, so he killed them.
"From the beginning, the families wanted closure and a life's resolution," Carter said.
"Quite frankly, we weren't always in agreement," he said. "We felt the death penalty was what he deserved and we thought it should go to trial."
As prosecutors looked at the case, he said it became clear that a plea was in everyone's best interest because of mitigating factors, the cost of a trial and appeals, and question about if the court would ever put Maust to death.
Carter said prosecutors, Maust and his defense attorneys spent nearly six hours together Saturday talking about the crimes and the agreement he already signed.
"Both of us requested Saturday's meeting. It gave us a window into him," Carter said, referring to the meeting as an unusual opportunity. "He wanted to get it off his chest, and we wanted to make sure there aren't any other young boys buried out there."
Since Maust's arrest, rumors abounded about the possibility he murdered others whose bodies had not been found.
The rumors were fueled because Maust's arrest in December 2003 wasn't his first.
He served a four-year sentence in Leavenworth for killing James McClister while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army.
Texas authorities arrested Maust in 1981 for aggravated assault against a 14-year-old boy.
He pleaded guilty in 1994 to killing Donald Jones, 15, of Chicago, in July 1981.
Maust also told lawyers he was the sole individual responsible for the deaths of Dennis, Raganyi and James. In one of Maust's initial statements to Hammond police, he tried to implicate his landlord, an Illinois cell mate and another youth from Indiana, Carter said.
"He admitted he lied. Of course, we knew it all along," Carter said.
Carter, who along with Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Barbara McConnell and Deputy Prosecutor Peter Villareal represented the state's case against Maust, said if Illinois had kept Maust behind bars as Maust requested in 1999, he wouldn't have killed Dennis, James and Raganyi.
"I'm upset with the state of Illinois Department of Corrections," Carter said.
"Clearly they had a law allowing them to keep him in jail and they didn't -- they ignored that. Our three young victims would be alive today if they had kept him. In the plea agreement, we wanted to make sure we didn't do what Illinois did. There will be no appellate ruling. He'll never get a chance to get out."
Maust requested that he spend the rest of his life in isolation from the rest of the prison population, Vanes said, because he thinks he doesn't deserve to associate with others after what he's done.
That will be left up to prison officials, who could ignore it as the Illinois Department of Corrections did with an earlier request.
Maust begged Illinois officials to keep him from killing again, but his plea, in a five-page letter on the eve of his parole release in 1999, fell on deaf ears.
"When I came to prison ... I would sit up at night thinking about how I would feel about the possibility of staying in prison for the rest of my life and I came to the conclusion it's the right thing for my life and being in prison is where I belong, because I gave up the right to be free when I committed the crimes that brought me here in the first place."
Maust was eligible to be kept behind bars indefinitely under Illinois's Sexual Violent Persons law because his 1981 murder of Jones was sexually motivated.
Tom Green, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Human Services, which interviewed Maust for a possible Sexual Violent Persons referral, said Monday that he doesn't know why a judge never ordered Maust held.
Vanes, Maust's current lawyer, said the defense team never found out either.
"It's just my suspicion the letter went unread, unnoticed and filed away," he said. "If you work in the system you get flooded with jail mail. At a certain point, people tend to become immune to it. In the first paragraph of his letter, he essentially says you don't have to do anything for me. That may be all any good bureaucrat needs to read."
Times reporter Bill Dolan contributed to this story.