Child killer gets 36 years, the maximum
Boy was so brutally beaten, he died of internal injuries
Half of a Mesa County courtroom erupted in applause Friday when District Judge Valerie Robison imposed the maximum sentence for a man convicted in the 2012 beating death of a toddler boy: 36 years in prison.
Justin Keel, 26, faced a term of anywhere from 24 and 36 years under an agreement in which Keel pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in the death of 19-month-old Owen Reak. The deal allows Keel to avoid a life sentence without the possibility of parole because of 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.
This, as Hand—at times fighting back tears in his argument—described in brutal detail the last “agonizing” roughly 18 hours of Owen’s life: The toddler’s intestines were ruptured with enough force to shove them behind his tiny spinal column.
One medical examiner said the injuries were “more commonly seen in high-speed auto accidents,” Hand said.
“I did not want to show this court the (autopsy) photos that I will have to think about for the rest of my life,” the prosecutor said.
Owen died at Montrose Memorial Hospital on the morning of April 11, 2012, after his grandparents, Eric and Beth Feeley, found the boy unresponsive in his crib.
Amber Reak, Owen’s mother and Keel’s ex-girlfriend, told investigators she was showering at the couple’s Grand Junction home on the morning of April 10 when she heard “booms,” emerged from the shower and saw Keel holding her son. Keel explained Owen was fussy after falling off the bed. Keel denied hurting the boy and eventually claimed his dog, a boxer named Rusty, may have hurt him.
When Owen started throwing up on the morning of April 10, Amber Reak and Keel took the boy to Community Hospital where his abdomen was X-rayed. Doctors thought Owen might have a case of stomach flu, but everything seemed fine, an arrest affidavit said.
An autopsy showed the boy was instead slowly bleeding internally.
“He (Keel) let Amber go to the hospital under false pretenses that maybe he had the flu,” Hand told the judge.
When Keel and Amber Reak took the boy, after the hospital visit, to stay with his grandparents in Montrose, Keel “kept it up.”
“He chose not to say anything to anyone in hopes that nothing would happen,” Hand said.
Might Owen’s life have been saved if Keel came forward earlier?
“I don’t know,” the prosecutor told the judge, adding a medical examiner in the case concluded the trauma was so severe, he wasn’t sure either.
Owen was fatally injured just weeks after social workers opened another case. 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 the boy’s mother was working.
A case manager was told by Keel that Owen’s leg got stuck in his high chair.
“Case manager stated doctors stated the injury could have been caused in such a fashion and Ms. Reak agreed to no longer have Justin provide daycare for Owen,” the affidavit said.
There were other red flags.
Amber Reak told investigators that around March 6, she came home and found Keel was “shaking” after Keel had been left alone with Owen. Keel said he spanked Owen while she was gone.
“Ms. Reak described later seeing bruises on Owen’s buttocks,” the affidavit said.
When the boy turned up fatally injured April 11 at Montrose Memorial Hospital, doctors found missing patches of hair and bruising on the top of his head, buttocks, face and chin while he was still recovering from the fractured leg.
Keel on Friday told the judge he’s “repented for a lot of things about this case,” but he never specified those items. He thanked family, friends and others “involved in the case” but otherwise said nothing to the surviving family of Owen Reak.
Keel, through his attorney, made one request on Friday: He asked the judge to order that his personalized Bible be allowed to come with him to state prison.
Robison said she didn’t have authority to intervene on transportation issues with the Colorado Department of Corrections.
“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’s grandfather, told the judge during the hearing. “That speaks to his character. He’s a killer.”