Zell pleads to strangling pregnant girlfriend
James T. Zell, Jr., 24, pled guilty to two counts of second degree murder and one count of concealing a body before Judge Andrew N. Frye in Morgan County Circuit Court on Friday, August 17.
Zell was accused of killing Kelly Elizabeth Butler, 29, and her unborn child at his home in Tri-Lake Park in southern Morgan County on December 8, 2011 and transporting her body to a cabin in Hampshire County.
At the time, police said they were tipped off that Zell was contacting family members about Butler’s death and might be threatening to take his own life.
Lt. Tim Stapleton and Chief Deputy Wade Shambaugh of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department reported that Zell confessed to the killings while being questioned in December.
Zell then led police to the cabin where Butler’s body was discovered. An autopsy indicated Butler died of strangulation and that she was pregnant.
Waving his rights
Last Friday afternoon, Zell was brought into the courtroom shackled in chains and wearing an orange prison jump suit. He appeared calm and spoke softly when questioned by Judge Frye.
After being told by Prosecutor Debra McLaughlin and defense attorney Christopher Prezioso that Zell wished to enter into a plea agreement, the judge asked Zell a long series of questions confirming that he understood his rights and was waiving them.
Judge Frye also advised Zell that this was his second felony conviction and asked if he was aware of the three strike law that would incarcerate him for the rest of his life if he ever committed another felony.
Zell is currently serving a one-to-10 year sentence for breaking and entering and petit larceny of a neighbor’s shed in September 2011.
Zell answered each of the judge’s questions about waiving his rights with a simple, “Yes, sir.”
When Judge Frye asked Zell to describe what he had done, Zell replied, “I strangled her and loaded her into my Blazer. I killed them both. I knew she was pregnant.”
Prosecuting Attorney McLaughlin said the state’s case could show that last December 8, Zell strangled Butler and hid her body in a cabin.
The plea agreement recommends Zell serve 40 years for the second degree murder of Butler, 20 years for the second degree murder of her unborn child, and one-to-five years for concealing a body.
The three sentences would be served consecutively for a total of 61-to-65 years in prison. The sentence would begin after he has finished his present jail term for the B&E case.
McLaughlin said the maximum sentence Zell could have received without the plea agreement was 40 years for each count of second degree murder and one-to-10 years for concealing the body.
The judge is not bound by the sentencing recommendation in the plea agreement.
She asked the judge to delay the actual sentencing because one of the victim’s family members was unable to attend last week’s hearing.
A sentencing hearing was set for Monday, September 17, at 1 p.m.