Applause as man gets maximum prison term in toddler’s death

Justin Keel

Half of a Mesa County courtroom erupted in applause this afternoon when District Judge Valerie Robison imposed the maximum term for a man convicted in the 2012 beating death of a toddler boy: 36 years in prison.

Justin Keel, 26, faced a sentence of anywhere between 24 and 36 years under an agreement in which Keel pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death in connection with the slaying of 19-month-old Owen Reak. The deal allows Keel to avoid a life sentence without the possibility of parole, with the dismissal of a first-degree murder charge.

Robison was urged by Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Hand to send a message about child abuse to Mesa County in deciding her sentence.

“The loss and abuse of children is something that should not ever be tolerated,” the judge later said.

Amber Reak, Owen’s mother, told investigators she was showering the morning of April 10, 2012, when she heard a pair of “booms,” emerged from the shower and saw Keel holding her son, an arrest affidavit said. Keel explained Owen was fussy after falling off the bed. Keel denied hurting the boy and eventually said his dog, a boxer named “Rusty,” may have hurt him.

Owen died at Montrose Memorial Hospital on the morning of April 11 after his grandparents, Eric and Beth Feeley, found the boy unresponsive in his crib.

An autopsy showed Owen slowly bled to death internally over 18 hours after suffering blows — either a “kick or punch” prosecutors argued today — to the stomach.

Owen was fatally injured just weeks after social workers opened another case involving the boy. The Mesa County Department of Human Services opened an investigation March 22, 2012, after Owen suffered a leg fracture while in the care of Keel, as Amber Reak was working.

Keel today told the judge he’s “repented for a lot of things about this case,” but never specified those items. He thanked family, friends and others “involved in the case” but otherwise addressed nothing to the surviving family of Owen Reak.

“It was a big disappointment to see during the last two hearings (Keel) laughing and joking with his lawyers at a time I certainly couldn’t see any humor in the process,” Eric Feeley, Owen Reak’s grandfather, told the judge.

“That speaks to his character,” he said. “He’s a killer.”

Read the full story in Saturday’s Daily Sentinel.





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