In a surprise turn of events Tuesday, Terrence Allen Cram pleaded guilty to murder in the 2011 death of his landlord, Tena McNeely.
The change of plea came only five days after Cram's recorded statement to Kentucky State Police was played Thursday during a suppression hearing in Shelbyville. Judge Charles Hickman had not yet ruled on a defense motion to suppress that statement at trial so a jury would not hear it. The trial was scheduled to begin May 12 in Lawrenceburg; Cram's plea means there will be no trial.
McNeely, 49, was found dead in her home in rural Anderson County. An autopsy by the state medical examiner determined that she died of brain injury from blunt impact.
Commonwealth's Attorney Laura Witt Donnell said there was no plea offer, and that Cram, 50, entered an open plea without a recommended sentence. Judge Hickman will decide on and pronounce a sentence on June 4 in Anderson Circuit Court. Murder is punishable by 20 years to life in prison.
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Donnell said she received word late Monday that Cram would change his plea. She would not speculate on why Cram decided to do so.
"I think the important thing is that he pled guilty and the commonwealth maintains that he is guilty of the charges brought against him," Donnell said.
McNeely's relatives were "pleased to hear" Cram admit the crime, Donnell said.
"I think that was very important for them. We are very pleased on behalf of the commonwealth that he has admitted to the offenses," Donnell said.
Cram had lived for several years on the same property with McNeely, whom he described as having a permanent disability because of a "degenerative spine." The two had first met in July 2003, when he returned to Kentucky after his wife's death in August 2002 in Arizona. Cram was looking for a place to stay, and McNeely "was looking for a handyman," Cram wrote in a written statement.
In the recorded statement and in the written statement entered into the court record, Cram said he hit McNeely in the head with a sledgehammer because she pleaded for him to do so after she twice fell down her basement stairs. Cram claimed that McNeely feared that she would be confined to a wheelchair.
In the recorded statement, Cram said he discarded the sledgehammer on his drive to Florida. From there he drove to Arizona, where he was arrested about six months after McNeely's death.
Donnell said the commonwealth and McNeely's family didn't believe that McNeely wanted someone to bludgeon her to death.
In addition to murder, Cram pleaded guilty to charges of tampering with evidence and fraudulent use of a credit card.
McNeely was the daughter of Kentucky State Trooper James McNeely, who died in the line of duty during a flood rescue in the early 1970s.