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Man pleads guilty to 1st degree murder of his niece after telling improbable story

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EFFINGHAM, Ill. — Justin Deryke, 22, pleaded guilty Tuesday to the first-degree murder of his niece, Willow Long, who was killed in September in Illinois. He will spend the rest of his life in prison as part of a plea agreement.

Willow was only seven-years old when she was reported missing from her home in Watson, Ill., about 100 miles east of St. Louis.

Her mother told authorities that Willow wandered away from her house while she was asleep on the Sunday morning in September. Deputies initially said Willow was watching a Disney movie with her three-year-old brother Sunday morning when her mother, who wasn’t feeling well, decided to go back to bed. When she woke up and asked where Willow was, the little boy pointed to the door.

Police initially said they did not suspect foul play, but instead believed Willow may have gone out for an ‘adventure.’

Four volunteer searchers discovered Willow’s body the next Monday evening, wrapped in plastic and duct tape.

Justin DeRyke, Willow LongDeRyke confessed to killing his niece, but at first claimed she fell in a pile of brush and was impaled in the neck by a stick.

He said he then killed her to, “put her out of her misery.” Autopsy results later showed she suffered stab wounds.

Willow lived with DeRyke, her mother, 26, and her grandparents.

Judge Kimberly Koester sentenced DeRyke to life in prison without the possibility of parole. It’s the maximum sentence allowed in Illinois.

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