UPDATED: 11/10/10 10:05 p.m.
JOLIET, Ill. (CBS/WBBM) – The man charged with killing 3-year-old Riley Fox pleaded guilty on Wednesday and was then quickly sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Convicted sex offender Scott Eby, 39, admitted to raping and drowning Riley on June 6, 2004. Eby pleaded guilty in exchange for a chance to avoid the death penalty.
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Before Eby was sentenced to life in prison, Riley’s parents, Kevin and Melissa Fox, confronted their child’s killer in the courtroom.
CBS 2’s Dana Kozlov reports that it was a gut-wrenching moment for everyone in that courtroom, especially when Kevin and Melissa Fox looked their daughter’s killer in the eyes and told him how he’d ripped their lives apart.
“Throughout these past years, you have made everyone’s worst nightmare become a reality,” Kevin Fox told Scott Eby during his victim impact statement. “I don’t understand how a human being can possibly do what you did to my little girl. She was my heart and soul. When you took her from me, you changed my whole look on what life was supposed to be.”
Melissa Fox said, “It’s now six years later and you sit here before me ready to accept your punishment. But really, how does it even compare to what you did to Riley? I only wish I could cause you the pain you put Riley through. I couldn’t even hear a little girl cry for years. It would make me think of how scared she had to have been, and if she was crying for me, how I couldn’t even be there for her. I have moments when I break down thinking of what you put her through.”
Eby, after pleading guilty to all six counts against him, told the Foxes, “If I could give my life to reverse the past and return your daughter, I would. I know for me the past 6 ½ years this has haunted me because of guilt… I’m sorry.”
Riley Fox vanished from her Wilmington, Ill., home on June 6, 2004, and her body was later found in Forked Creek four miles away.
Kevin Fox was originally arrested for the crime and spent eight months in jail until a federal appeals court tossed out the charges based on DNA evidence. That DNA evidence eventually led to Eby.
It was later revealed that key pieces of evidence were overlooked in the case, including shoes with Eby’s name that were found in Forked Creek near the girl’s body within hours.
There was also a burglary across the street from the Fox home the day Riley was reported missing. A window screen Eby admitted cutting had been entered into evidence as being torn during a storm. At that time, Eby had already been convicted of three burglaries.
The crime is not something anyone in Wilmington will soon forget.
“That’s what they called it, was a crime of opportunity,” said Wilmington resident Jackie Davidson, who bought the house that Eby allegedly broke into first the night of Riley’s murder.
“They came in the screen on the side of the house and had broken in, and taken money from the lady who had lived here,” said Jackie.
Jackie’s husband, John Davidson, says the robber “took money, and then proceeded to the next house.”
That next house is where Riley lived.
“It was my absolute worst nightmare come true, to have my baby just stolen from me and murdered in the most devastating way I could imagine,” said Melissa Fox in her impact statement. “You stole her from our home, put her in the trunk of your car, sexually assaulted her and then drowned her. She was only 3 years old, an innocent child.”
But police apparently didn’t think anything of the shoes or other evidence, and instead focused on Kevin Fox, who was arrested following a lengthy interrogation.
Authorities said at the time that Fox told investigators he decided to make his daughter’s death look like an abduction after he thought he accidentally killed her by hitting her in the head with a door.
But Fox claimed detectives coerced him into saying he had hit Riley’s head, accidentally causing her death.
“I still can’t believe that people thought I was the monster in front of me now,” said Kevin Fox to Eby in his impact statement. “You deserve everything that is handed to you. From the time you killed Riley… I changed for the worst. I built up a lot of depression, and that depression turned to hate, which affected a lot of people in my life.”
Finally, DNA testing — obtained by his own defense team — proved Kevin Fox did not sexually assault Riley. He was released on June 17, 2005, and the case went unsolved for nearly five years until Eby was charged.
Eby’s attorney, Michael Renzi, said his client wanted to say he was sorry.
“He knew that he had a right of allocution and he chose to exercise it. He was completely prepared for it,” Renzi said, adding that he believed Eby was genuinely sorry for what he did.
Kevin Fox left the courtroom before Eby’s apology, but Melissa Fox stayed and listened. After that, Eby was taken back to prison where he will serve a life sentence with no chance of parole.
“I’m just glad it’s all over with,” Kevin Fox said as he left the courtroom.
“We did get justice in this,” said Kathleen Zellner, who represents the Fox family.
“We’re just glad it’s over. He is where he belongs,” said Nicole Sietsema, Melissa Fox’s cousin.
But some people feel that Eby’s punishment does not fit the crime.
“I do firmly believe he should have deserved the death penalty,” said Jackie Davidson.
Kevin Fox said he didn’t want taxpayer money wasted on a death penalty appeal. And Melissa Fox told Eby in court that he should spend the rest of his days labeled as a child killer.
Eby says he was drunk and high on cocaine the night of the murder. He wanted to rob the Fox house, but when he saw Riley sleeping, he decided he wanted to molest her so he took her from the home.
As to Eby’s state of mind, Renzi said, “He’s in turmoil. He’s a tormented soul.”
Last month, Will County Circuit Judge Richard Schoenstedt found that Eby was fit to stand trial for the murder.
WBBM Newsradio 780’s Steve Miller, CBS 2’s Dana Kozlov and Kristyn Hartman contributed to this report.