Colin Abbott pleads in slaying of his father, stepmother from Butler County
A former Butler County man goes before a judge on Wednesday morning for sentencing on his surprise no-contest plea for the slayings of his wealthy father and stepmother.
Colin Abbott, 42, avoided a possible death sentence with his plea to two counts of third-degree murder, and prosecutors will seek a sentence of 35 to 80 years. Authorities said he killed Kenneth and Celeste Abbott for their money in 2011, and scattered their dismembered and burned remains on their sprawling Brady estate.
The sudden end to the case stunned family members and left legal scholars scratching their heads.
“Do I really have a choice?” said Tayler Elich, 22, of Batavia, N.Y., one of Celeste Abbott's four children. “I just feel like we're all heartbroken here. There's nothing that can make any of this better. It doesn't matter what happens. I'd rather have Mom back.”
Relatives of Kenneth Abbott declined comment or could not be reached.
His mother, Deborah Buchanan, wept as her son entered his plea. She declined comment after the brief court hearing.
Prosecutors planned to seek the death penalty against Abbott of Randolph, N.J., at a trial next week.
District Attorney Richard Goldinger and defense attorney Wendy Williams declined to comment, citing a gag order Butler County Judge William Shaffer imposed.
Attorneys conferred on the case hours before the plea.
A no-contest plea means a defendant does not admit guilt but accepts the information prosecutors filed against him.
“The (no-contest) plea is interesting,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at St. Vincent College and a former federal prosecutor. “It doesn't have any impact on sentence, but it's unusual to let a guy essentially plead without a formal admission of guilt. There must have been something that happened, a problem with their evidence or some new information that came to their attention that indicated that this was a better course of action instead of trying a case and not being able to secure a verdict.”
University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff agreed a that no contest plea in a first-degree murder case is highly unusual.
“It must mean there's something going on in this case that I just don't know about. Usually with a (no-contest) plea, a person is fearing some subsequent civil action.” Prosecutors, on the other hand, “get their conviction. You always take a risk when you go after a person. They could be acquitted. You get the surety of a conviction and you don't spend any money (on trial).”
Third-degree murder, according to court records, means that Colin Abbott killed Kenneth Abbott, 65, and Celeste Abbott, 55, “with malice.” First-degree murder indicates premeditation.
“The penalty for third-degree, although potentially just as severe, would allow for some hope of parole down the line. A first- or second-degree murder conviction would not,” Antkowiak said. “Clearly, it is quite a jump from seeking the death penalty to a (no-contest) plea for third-degree.”
Melissa Elich, 24, of Albion, N.Y., another of Celeste Abbott's children, said she received a call informing her of the plea agreement. She said she was not aware of a prior discussion between prosecutors and family members about a plea.
“There are no words,” said Tayler Elich. “I think he just doesn't want to get the death penalty.”
Prosecutors said Colin Abbott killed the couple to cover thefts of huge sums of money and to make himself the primary heir of the estate.
He told his family that his father and stepmother died in a fiery traffic crash in New Jersey, according to court documents, but police had no record of it.
On July 13, 2011, Pennsylvania state police found the remains. Within days, paperwork would emerge from Kenneth Abbott's safety deposit box with changes to his 2010 will that made Colin Abbott the sole beneficiary.
Because of the slayings, the Abbotts' estates have not been settled.
Staff writer Michael Hasch contributed. Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or firstname.lastname@example.org.