JACKSON (AP) - A frustrated judge, begrudging prosecutors and chagrined family members all conceded Thursday that offering a plea deal to a southeast Missouri man accused of killing his estranged wife, a mother of 5-year-old triplets who was missing for almost two years before her body was found last week on an island in the nearby Mississippi River, was inadequate.
But it was the best option available, they said, because 42-year-old James Clay Waller II was the only person who could lead authorities to Jacque Waller's body, while ensuring a conviction and offering grieving family and friends closure for the 39-year-old mother who disappeared in 2011.
Clay Waller was given a 20-year prison sentence Thursday after pleading guilty to second-degree murder and admitting in a barely audible voice - inside a packed Cape Girardeau County courthouse - that he'd murdered the triplet's mom. The shaken inmate struggled to admit choking his wife to death before dumping her body on an island on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River nearly two years ago.
Before being sentenced, Clay Walker also listened to his 7-year-old son publicly disown him for life, calling his father a "big, fat jerk."
"You killed our mom," the child said in a taped statement. "I thought you were a good guy. Now I know you're not ... I wish you weren't my dad."
Few left the courthouse satisfied with the outcome. Both Jacque Waller's sister and Circuit Judge Benjamin Lewis said they weren't happy with the lighter sentence, but had few options. The plea was conditional on Clay Waller II leading investigators to his wife's body and his confession in court. Her body wasn't found until May 29 in Alexander County, Ill., and Clay Waller continued to share details about the killing with investigators earlier this week.
"I did not want this deal," said Waller's sister, Cheryl Brenneke, who has custody of the triplets and plans to adopt the two girls and one boy. "My mother and father and these children deserved to bury her, though."
Lewis acknowledged that "there will be a number of people critical of this plea agreement. However none of those critics could provide the body of Jacque Waller."
"That is not what you deserve, but it will have to do," he said in handing down the 20-year sentence. Under the original charge, Waller could have faced the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
Clay Waller is serving a five-year term in federal prison for threatening Brenneke over the Internet. His sentence in the murder case will run concurrent with the federal case, officials said. Under Missouri law, he must serve at least 85 percent of his sentence - or 17 years - minus time served.
He was originally charged with first-degree murder and arrested in April 2012 even though her body had not yet been found. He had faced a September trial in Cape Girardeau County Circuit Court.
"It's bitter, because Jacque Waller was sentenced to death, and her family was sentenced to life without Jacque," said Cape Girardeau Sheriff John Jordan.
Prosecutors said they insisted on at least a 20-year sentence, though Waller's public defenders tried to negotiate a more favorable deal.
County prosecutor Chris Limbaugh said he expects Waller to serve the entire 20 years.
"It was decided that it was more important to get Jacque back," he said.