NEW YORK (AP) - Looking dazed and speaking barely above a whisper, a Brooklyn hardware store clerk pleaded guilty Thursday to charges he abducted and dismembered an 8-year-old boy who lost his way home.
The guilty plea to second-degree murder and kidnapping guarantees Levi Aron a sentence of 40 years to life in a case that traumatized the victim's tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community.
Aron, 36, had previously pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and, if convicted, would have faced life without parole. But the family of Leiby Kletzky urged prosecutors to strike a deal to avoid the painful spectacle of a trial.
"There is no way one can comprehend or understand the pain of losing a child," the boy's father, Nachman Kletzky wrote in a statement distributed to the press. But he added the plea gave the family "some partial closure on one aspect of this nightmare."
Legal closure came Thursday afternoon after an expressionless Aron was led into the courtroom wearing an orange jail jump suit, handcuffs and a yarmulke.
Judge Neil Firetog began by telling him that after seeing psychological reports, he was convinced claiming mental illness was "not a viable defense."
The judge then had Aron answer a series of often leading questions about his conduct. His one-word responses were delivered in a low, flat monotone after long pauses and prodding by his lawyers.
Aron expressed no remorse and only hinted at motive: At one point he told the judge he felt "panic" when he found out there was a frantic search on for the boy, who was still alive in his apartment.
The judge asked him what he decided to do, and he responded simply, "Smother." He also answered yes when asked if he had bound and drugged Leiby.
Afterward, defense attorney Jennifer McCann insisted that her client, though under medication, knew what he was doing.
"He came here to accept responsibility for his actions," McCann said. "He understands the charges."
The plea deal means Aron could technically qualify for a parole, but only if he survives in prison into his mid-70s.
"No one should ever forget what happened to Leiby Kletzky but we can all take solace that Levi Aron will never, ever be able to hurt anyone again," District Attorney Charles Hynes said in a statement.
One of the city's most gruesome crimes in recent memory began with a chance encounter last summer on the streets of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park, home to one of the world's largest Hasidic communities outside Israel.
The victim got lost on his walk home from a religious day camp and asked Aron, whom he met on the street, for help, prosecutors said. It was the first time the little boy was allowed to walk alone, and he was supposed to travel about seven blocks to meet his mother but missed a turn.
According to court papers, the defendant himself provided authorities a disturbing narrative of what happened next.
During an interrogation after his arrest and in a written confession, Aron recounted how the boy first asked for a ride to a book store. But "on the way, he changed his mind and wasn't sure he wanted to go."
The defendant described deciding to take the boy to a wedding upstate. He said when they returned, they watched television before the boy fell asleep. Leiby remained there watching TV the next day while Aron went to work at the hardware store.
By that time, Borough Park was buzzing over the disappearance. The boy's picture was plastered on light posts around the area.
"When I saw the fliers, I was panicky and afraid," police said Aron wrote. Once home, he added: "I went for a towel to smother him. He fought back a little until he eventually stopped breathing."
Detectives' notes also outlined statements by Aron about how he carved up the body with knives and disposed of body parts, including the severed feet found wrapped in plastic in his freezer. A cutting board and three bloody carving knives were found in the refrigerator.
The rest of the boy's body was discovered in bags inside a red suitcase in a trash bin. His legs had been cut from his torso.
Aron claimed that after the killing he was hearing voices telling him "to take his own life for what he did," according to court papers.
As the interrogation wore on, detectives said Aron made clear he was aware of his own notoriety.
"I'm famous," he said.