BEDFORD - With prospective jurors waiting downstairs and his trial set to begin, John Gerholt ended nearly four years of defiance Tuesday by pleading no-contest to his estranged wife's 2008 murder.
The 11th-hour plea deal spared Gerholt's life.
The Mount Union man now faces a life sentence without parole for shooting 24-year-old Karen Gerholt in the parking lot outside an Everett fast food restaurant.
"I must be held accountable for my crimes," he said in court Tuesday.
Senior Judge Daniel Howsare issued the sentence within minutes of Gerholt's plea: Gerholt will die in a state prison with no chance of parole.
Prosecutors had initially sought the death penalty, dismissing defense attorneys' claims that Gerholt, 52, was mildly mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for execution.
Gerholt, flanked by attorneys, choked back tears and paused repeatedly to compose himself as he read his final statement before sentencing.
"I am truly sorry for taking your daughter from you. I wish there was some way I could bring her back," he said as Karen Gerholt's father and stepmother watched intently. "I truly did love her with all my heart and soul, and always will love her, no matter what."
Gerholt nodded quietly when asked if he understood the sentence.
Gerholt, who had two children with his estranged wife, waited with a freshly sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun outside the McDonald's where she worked on the afternoon of Nov. 9, 2008, Bedford County District Attorney Bill Higgins said in court Tuesday.
As she stood by her car, John Gerholt approached her and fired two rounds, one of which struck Karen Gerholt in the back, the DA said.
Police reported that the shot was fired from less than 3 feet away. Twenty-nine shotgun pellets were later found in her body, Higgins said.
Repeatedly calling the events "that horrifying day," Gerholt sobbed Tuesday as he thanked Karen Gerholt's relatives for taking care of their children.
"I just hope one day that my family can forgive me. If they don't, I will understand," he said.
Witnesses the day of the murder said John Gerholt removed his shirt and placed it over his wife's wound while apologizing to her. He maintained after his arrest that the gun had gone off accidentally.
Searching John Gerholt's truck, state police found a letter and a greeting card addressed to Karen Gerholt alongside a hacksaw and sandpaper used to shorten the shotgun's barrel.
"If he couldn't have her, nobody could," Higgins said Tuesday outside of court. Karen Gerholt had a protection-from-abuse order against her husband, which became one of the aggravating factors used to justify a death-penalty case.
Higgins said he was surprised by Gerholt's display of "genuine remorse," which he claimed hadn't been as visible in the years leading up to the trial.
"I expected that eventually he'd see reality," Higgins said.
In exchange for Gerholt's no-contest plea to murder, prosecutors canceled other charges including assault, terroristic threats and possession of a modified shotgun.
Offered a chance to speak before the court adjourned, Bess Lemin, Karen Gerholt's stepmother, tearfully noted that her grandchildren have gone nearly four years without their mother.
"Yeah, I know the Bible says to forgive. But you can't forget," Lemin said.
"It's going to be hard to forgive."