After teenager Levi Elliot told school friends he wouldn't care if his sister died, he made sure that it happened.
When parents Peggy and James returned to their home after a quick trip out, they were faced with a bloody crime scene.
Their 12-year-old daughter, Sierra, was fighting for life from a shotgun wound to her head. They desperately tried to save her as emergency services raced to the scene. Unable to talk as she lay dying on their bed, Sierra found the strength to make a simple hand movement to confirm who had shot her. It was Levi Elliott – her 15-year-old stepbrother.
Pretty Sierra lived in a rural area of Missouri with her mum, Peggy, and step-dad James. James’s biological son, Levi, 15, also lived with them. Sierra loved playing basketball, horse-riding and being outdoors with her family. She was popular and well-liked by her school mates.
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But someone close to her wasn’t so keen – Levi. Sierra’s mum and Levi’s dad might have united, but Levi told school friends he hated his stepsister. "I wouldn’t care if she died," he said.
On March 24, 2012, Peggy and James went out, leaving Levi and Sierra alone for under an hour. Sierra was watching television in the master bedroom when Levi came in and shot his stepsister in the head. Levi then raced to his dad’s Ford pick-up truck outside and drove away, leaving fatally injured Sierra alone, and bleeding to death.
Before long, Levi stopped at a payphone where he called his biological mum, Joy Adams, and stepfather. He told them an intruder had burst into their home and shot Sierra. Despite not having a licence, Levi drove all the way to their home in Kansas City.
When Peggy and James came home they found Levi gone and Sierra dying on their bed. She couldn’t speak, but when they asked her whether it was Levi who had shot her, she raised her hand to signal yes. She was rushed to hospital, but died from her injuries the following day.
That same day, Levi handed himself into the police and stuck with his story about an intruder. Levi said he’d heard a gunshot in the bedroom and had raced in to discover a stranger with a rifle going through the drawers, and Sierra hurt on the bed.
Levi said the shooter chased him out of the house where he’d jumped into the pick-up truck. He described the jeep that Sierra’s killer had chased him in, before Levi had managed to lose him.
But things didn’t add up. How did Levi have time to put on his shoes as he fled? Why was the front door locked? The killer would hardly have done it while in pursuit. And how did he use the old pick-up truck that was usually hard to warm up and start, as a speedy getaway vehicle?
Levi’s mum insisted he was innocent. She made allegations that her son had been abused by his dad, but an investigation by child services found no evidence of that.
Levi was charged with Sierra’s murder.
"Discipline was a joke…"
At a preliminary hearing, Sierra’s mum Peggy described the moment she discovered her dying daughter, and her desperate attempts to stop the bleeding. "She was laying on my sweatshirt and I took it out from underneath her and placed it on her head," she said. She comforted her daughter as she lay dying.
It was decided that despite the fact Levi was only 15 at the time, the crime was so severe that he be tried as an adult. Also, for legal reasons, the jury wouldn’t be allowed to hear that Sierra had raised her hand to indicate that Levi had been the killer.
In October 2014, the trial began and Levi pleaded not guilty. His defence insisted there was no blood found on his clothes or on guns taken from the house. One could have been the weapon, but experts couldn’t prove it.
The prosecution said Levi was the only one with the motive and opportunity to kill his sister, and there were also inconsistences in his story.
"His story is a fabrication not supported by evidence," they said. "He could not tell his mom and stepdad the truth, which was that he shot Sierra."
The closing argument was emotive. "Sierra Elliott is dead because Levi ambushed her in her parent’s bedroom while she was watching TV, put a gun against her head and pulled the trigger," the jury heard. "He got in his dad’s truck and fled the scene, leaving her alone without medical attention for at least 40 minutes before her parents came home and found her."
In October 2012, it took the jury just three hours to find Levi guilty. Three months later, in January this year, Levi’s dad pleaded with the judge for the maximum sentence, because he feared Levi was capable of killing again.
"I try to make sense of what has happened, but no good explanations come to mind," he said, tearfully. "I saw Levi struggling many times, with poor grades and loss of interest in improving. He knew the rules, but he became defiant, and discipline to him was a joke."
Levi also read a statement. "I have had to grieve the loss of my baby sister from inside a jail cell for a crime I did not commit," he said. "I have lost my teen years and all of my friends. But I have always, and always will, maintain my innocence."
Levi, now 17, was emotionless in shackles as he was sentenced to 20 years for second degree murder, five years for armed criminal action and five years for tampering with a motor vehicle – a total of 30 years in prison.
Judge Michael Hendrickson told him he must serve 20 years before he’s eligible for parole. "Your decision to use that firearm to shoot your sister was the cause of her death," he told Levi. "Make no mistake, it was you who did so, not the gun. Had you made a better decision about how you expressed your anger or disappointment or whatever was going on between you two, Sierra would be here today."
The judge was disturbed that Levi fled without helping his sister. "We will all forever be left to wonder how long she suffered alone, and whether she might still be alive today had you taken different action."
Sierra died at the hands of a stepbrother who didn’t want a sister. His action destroyed a family life forever.