Just days before a Dubuque man's trial for allegedly sexually assaulting and killing a woman, he agreed to plead guilty to murder.
Helmon Betwell, 22, today entered the plea to a charge of first-degree murder during a hearing in Iowa District Court for Dubuque County. As a result of the plea, a charge of first-degree sexual assault was dismissed.
Before sentencing him to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Iowa District Court Judge Monica Zrinyi Wittig asked Betwell a series of questions to ensure he understood the consequences of his guilty plea.
“I am going to sentence you to stay in prison for the rest of your life,” Zrinyi Wittig said. “You understand that?”
“Yes,” Betwell said.
“I can’t release you from the jail,” Zrinyi Wittig continued. “I can’t let you go home and see your family. You have to go immediately to the prison.”
“Yes,” Betwell again replied.
Authorities said Betwell sexually assaulted and killed Nancy A. Krapfl, 66, of Dubuque, when she took an early-morning walk Sept. 1, 2015, in the area of 17th and Heeb streets. His trial was scheduled to start Monday, Sept. 17, in Scott County, a location to which it was moved to ensure a fair jury pool.
To Krapfl's family, many of whom filled the pews in the courtroom today, the hearing brought a welcome conclusion to three years of turmoil.
"To honor the memory of Nancy, may the streets of Dubuque become safe," said Gary Krapfl, Nancy's brother, while giving a victim-impact statement. "May women be able to freely engage in their morning exercise. May families be spared these kinds of feelings and experiences. And may the door of justice finally be opened today."
But to Betwell's attorneys, including public defender Thomas Goodman, life in prison without the chance of parole might be too harsh a punishment.
"The death of Nancy Krapfl, to a degree, is on the community and on the system," Goodman said, noting Betwell's long history of "assaultive behaviors" dating back to childhood. "It could have been prevented. It could have been stopped. ... We as a society have chosen to look the other way, or we're afraid to offend somebody. And we've got to get over that."
Shortly after the attack, police turned to traffic camera footage and social media to track down her attacker. The evidence led authorities to Betwell's home in the 1700 block of White Street, and bloody clothes linked him to the scene.
Krapfl soon died from her injuries. Betwell was arrested about 15 hours after the assault occurred.
He initially pleaded not guilty to murder and sexual assault, as well as a pair of since-dropped burglary charges that stemmed from vehicle break-ins.
In the three years since, Betwell’s competency has been fiercely debated, prompting conflicting assessments from experts.
Betwell’s defense team was handed a win last week when Zrinyi Witting tossed his confession to investigators shortly after he was arrested. She determined that Betwell asked to end the interview, but officers continued questioning him.
But speaking with Zrinyi Wittig today, Betwell finally acknowledged his role in Krapfl's death.
"You did cause her severe harm, you know that?" Zrinyi Wittig asked.
"Yes," Betwell replied.
"And as a result of that harm, she did die, correct?" Zrinyi Wittig continued.
"Yes," Betwell said.
Later, Zrinyi Wittig asked, "Did you really think she was going to live after you put her through what you put her through?"
"No," Betwell replied.
Betwell offered a brief allocution, telling the court he was "very, very, very sorry" for his actions.
Goodman also spoke of Betwell's remorse.
"On behalf of Helmon, I would like to apologize for him to the Krapfl family," Goodman said. "As he has said these last three years, he's learned somewhat of the type of person Nancy was and he has taken to heart the cruel and unusual nature of the act that took her from this world."
But Betwell taking responsibility for his actions shows how much he has grown from the 19-year-old who committed the crime to the 22-year-old he is now, Goodman argued.
"Helmon of 2015 would not have done what he has just done today," Goodman said. "He was not capable of doing that."
Though Goodman acknowledged Iowa law provides no leeway for judges handing down sentences for first-degree-murder convictions, he lamented that Betwell will never have a chance at parole.
Betwell is a "continuing to evolve as a human being," Goodman argued. And Betwell has a long history of mental illness, intellectual delays and even head trauma, all of which are worth considering, Goodman said.
"He didn't cry until the age of 4," Goodman said. "He had a head injury when he was a child. He was born in the Marshall Islands where our military conducted a number of nuclear experiments years ago. What effect that had on Mr. Betwell, I have no idea. Maybe none."
Assistant Dubuque County Attorney Alisha Stach, one of the prosecutors in the case, was not swayed by Goodman's arguments.
"The court does not have any discretion to sentence the defendant to anything other than life in prison without the possibility of parole," she said.
A CHOICE MADE TWICE
Zrinyi Wittig has helmed the case from the beginning. She recalled the grief she felt as she learned the details of the incident.
"Two things struck me a lot when this case was filed," she said as she handed down the sentence. "The first thing was I felt very, very sad for the woman they did not know and could not identify at the time."
The second point reflected on Betwell's loved ones.
"I'm a mother, and I felt horrible for Mr. Betwell's family," Zrinyi Wittig said. "I couldn't imagine getting the type of phone call that either one of these families received."
She agreed with Goodman that Betwell likely would have benefited greatly from some sort of intervention, possibly through the juvenile court system.
However, even if the state allowed her some leeway to give Betwell the possibility of parole, "I probably would not even consider doing (it) differently," Zrinyi Wittig said.
She noted that Betwell had two chances to walk away from Krapfl without killing her. But he made the decision to attack her initially and then, after he had gone home to change his clothes, returned to the scene.
"He left, changed his clothing, came back and completed the task," Zrinyi Wittig said. "He had a choice, and he made it twice."