Warning: The details of this story are extremely graphic and could be disturbing to some readers.
A Pennsylvania man should be put to death for killing and dismembering his girlfriend's 14-year-old daughter as part of a rape-murder fantasy he and the teen's mother shared, a prosecutor said Friday.
Jacob Sullivan, 46, pleaded guilty to all charges last month in a case that raised questions about the child welfare system's failure to protect Grace Packer, who spent years in an abusive home before she was raped, drugged, bound and gagged for a dozen hours and then, finally, strangled in the attic of a suburban Philadelphia home in 2016.
Prosecutors said Grace's adoptive mother, Sara Packer, plotted the crime with Sullivan and watched him violate and kill her daughter. Sara Packer, a former foster parent and county adoptions supervisor, has agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence and is scheduled to testify at the penalty phase of Sullivan's trial, which opened Friday outside Philadelphia.
In his opening statement, Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said he would be asking the jury to impose the death penalty for Sullivan's "awful, unspeakable, heinous crimes." Sullivan and Packer "decided together that Grace was not worth the air she breathed," Weintraub said, and "he made Grace Packer's last 24 hours of life a hell on earth."
Sullivan's lawyer, Jack Fagan, asked jurors to spare Sullivan's life, saying he should get the same sentence as Sara Packer. Fagan said Packer was controlling and manipulative, hated Grace long before she met Sullivan online in 2013, and masterminded the plot to rape and kill her.
"Sara Packer was the driving factor in the intent, the planning and the execution of what happened to her daughter," he said.
The defense plans to call Packer as a witness.
The jury that will decide his sentence must be unanimous in order to impose the death penalty; otherwise Sullivan will get life without parole. Even if he's sentenced to death, it's unclear whether the punishment would ever be carried out. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on capital punishment shortly after taking office in 2015. Pennsylvania last carried out an execution in 1999.
Packer and her husband at the time, David Packer, adopted Grace and her brother in 2007. The couple cared for dozens of foster children before David Packer was arrested in 2010 and sent to prison for sexually assaulting Grace and a 15-year-old foster daughter at their home in Allentown, about an hour north of Philadelphia.
Sara Packer lost her job as a Northampton County adoptions supervisor in 2010 and was barred from taking in any more foster children.
The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services launched an investigation after Grace Packer's murder but its findings have not been made public.
On Friday, Weintraub said Grace's short life was a series of terrible misfortunes, culminating in her agonizing death.
"What is the worst thing you can think of you can do to a child?" he asked the jury. "Because in this courtroom, we are going to check all of those boxes."
Sullivan has admitted he punched and raped Grace, bound her hands and feet with zip ties and stuffed a ball gag in her mouth. Prosecutors said Sullivan and Packer also gave her what they intended to be a lethal dose of over-the-counter medication and left her to die in a sweltering attic.
Returning the next day and finding Grace was still alive, Sullivan strangled her. The couple stored her body in cat litter for months, then hacked it up and dumped it in a remote area where hunters found it in October 2016, according to prosecutors.