A Soldotna man who murdered a young woman and stuffed her body into a cardboard television box was sentenced to nine years in prison Thursday at the Kenai Courthouse.
Frank Bessette Jr., 54, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and tampering with evidence. He was originally charged with the murder and sexual assault of 20-year-old Michele Pecora after a party in 2008.
On May 20, 2009, investigating Alaska State Troopers informed Pecora’s mother the remains found three days earlier were those of her youngest daughter. It would have been Pecora’s 21st birthday.
The state argued its case against Bessette, attempting to add three aggravators to lengthen the defendant’s sentence. The court decided against two of the aggravators, because many of the details about the murder remain unclear — the involved parties have argued for four years about when, where and how Pecora was murdered. Bessette’s attorney Steven Wells said the state used a creative argument, as his client’s admission of guilt pointed to his action rather than his mindset.
Bessette allegedly killed Pecora then stuffed her body in a cardboard box. He drove around for four or five days with the box before dumping it in an abandoned vehicle in Kenai. Police discovered the body seven months later.
During the sentencing, Bessette’s graying hair was pulled back into a ponytail, an overgrown mustache extended beyond his upper lip. His eyes remained downward throughout the trial.
Neither the state nor defense presented witnesses at the sentencing, as the case never reached a jury trial.
Kenai District Attorney Scot Leaders said Bessette’s conduct during his offense exemplified deliberate cruelty toward human life. The argument applied to both charges.
Bessette refused to consider Pecora a victim, Leaders alleged, because of her alleged and willing involvement in the situation, referring to the partying. He bound her feet and hands at some point — the state failed to convince the court the binding occurred before Pecora died.
Regardless, the binding shows Bessette’s demeaning attitude and deliberate cruelty, Leaders said.
As Leaders began arguing another aggravator — the victim’s inability to resist harm due to alcohol and drug consumption — Superior Court Judge Anna Moran stopped the district attorney and asked how he knew Pecora was unable to protect herself. Moran ruled against the aggravator, due to the uncertainty.
The initial medical examiner’s report said Pecora died from an accidental drug overdose. Her body was then released to her family, who cremated her remains. Months later, the state hired a new medical examiner, Dr. Katherine Raven, to give a second opinion. Raven concluded that the manner of death was homicidal violence.
Acting out of fear, Bessette chose to hide the body. Inflicting anguish on Pecora’s family was not his intention, Wells argued.
Moran agreed the tampering with physical evidence charge constituted a most serious offense. Boxing and hiding the body increased the family’s distress, as well as the break down of evidence.
Kim Kline, Pecora’s mother, did not attend the sentencing. It was emotionally too difficult, Leaders told the court.
Instead, Leaders read Kline’s letter to the court.
Leaders said Kline wrote that the family received a lot of misleading information, people lied and covered up what really happened.
Kline also wrote that Michele was not a drug addict. She suffered from depression and did not leave the house for four months until the night of her disappearance, the letter says.
“She could never swallow medicine, even if they were for her benefit,” Leaders read from the letter. “She did not die of a drug overdose. There is one person responsible for her death, and he’s in this room.”
“They will always remember her short and precious life, full of beautiful memories,” Leaders read at another point.
During closing arguments, Wells said he agreed with the state that the case was tragic, but added another adjective: bizarre.
Rehabilitation for Bessette is unneeded, Wells said, as the manslaughter charge was not violent.
“It wasn’t a stabbing or a shooting,” he said.
Bessette originally told Alaska State Troopers he killed Pecora by accidentally breaking her neck during a physical altercation with two other men. He changed his story, stating he woke up and found Pecora dead. The case was “a perfect storm,” Wells said.
He recommended a lower sentence for the manslaughter charge. He asked, however, for a longer sentence on the tampering with evidence charge, agreeing with the prosecution’s aggravator.
He also questioned his client’s mental health and told the court to impose an assessment as part of his sentencing.
“Mr. Bessette has made statements all over the place,” Wells said. “I had issues with his statements.”
Bessette refused appointment of a public defender during his arraignment due to his supposed personal wealth. He told an officer during an interview he is a martial arts expert.
He told Wells he had “coffee with Jesus for breakfast,” Wells said.
Bessette spoke briefly in court.
“I’m really sorry for everything that’s happened here,” he said. “If I had a chance to do it over again, I’d call the police when I found her body.”
Moran said imposing a sentence for Bessette was difficult; the circumstances surrounding the death remain a mystery.
“We know (Pecora) was with Frank Bessette the night she disappeared, she ingested some drugs, they had a sexual encounter. He told authorities various stories about the encounter,” she said. “We know he admitted to killing her by breaking her neck, but there is no evidence to support that claim.
“The court has great sympathy for the family. However, I cannot enhance the sentence just because someone died.”
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.