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November 28, 2014

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Man pleads guilty in 23-year-old murder case

RENO, Nev. - A child molester accused of killing a California girl 23 years ago in Reno while on parole has pleaded guilty to the crime under an agreement with prosecutors that let's him avoid a possible death penalty.

Stephen Robert Smith, 57, appeared briefly Tuesday before Washoe District Judge Jerry Polaha and confessed to the Sept. 3, 1977 killing of 6-year-old Lisa Marie Bonham.

The Martinez, Calif., girl was with her family visiting relatives in Reno when she was abducted from Idlewild Park.

District Attorney Dick Gammick said the little girl was walking to her uncle's house nearby to get some money when Smith first approached her.

Smith kidnapped Lisa on her way back to the park to rejoin her brother. He took her to the Dog Valley area where he tied her up and sexually assaulted her.

Smith tried to smother her, but the little girl squirmed out of her bonds. Smith then "twisted her neck" until she stopped moving, Gammick said.

Lisa's clothes were found in a trash can along Interstate 80 within hours of her disappearance. Hikers found her remains two months later.

Smith was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for molesting two Sparks girls and the attempted assault of a 12-year-old Reno girl in 1969.

He was released on parole the year before Lisa Bonham's killing.

Smith most recently worked as a poker dealer at a Reno casino. He was arrested in May after forensic scientists, using advanced DNA testing techniques and automated access to convicted sex offender records, matched his DNA to semen found on Lisa clothing.

Smith said little during his court appearance. When asked by the judge to tell him about the crime, he replied, "I killed Lisa Bonham."

His lawyer, Public Defender Michael Specchio, said Smith was prepared to accept a punishment of life without parole and avoid a sentencing hearing.

But District Attorney Dick Gammick rejected the offer after conferring with the victim's family, who want the opportunity to speak in court.

Sentencing was set for Nov. 9.

Lisa's mother, Doris Bonham of Martinez, her uncle, Mack McElroy of Reno, and other family members sat quietly through the hearing, sometimes dabbing tears.

Later, Doris Bonham said the demon that's haunted her for 23 years finally has a face.

"It was my first opportunity to see Mr. Smith in person," she said of Tuesday's court appearance.

Bonham said details of the crime, though painful, were nothing she hadn't imagined already.

She said for the past 23 years, she's awakened at 2:30 every morning and wondered, "Was it quick? Did she suffer a long time?"

Bonham and McElroy said they never lost hope Lisa's killer would be caught.

"We knew sooner or later something had to break," McElroy said. "I don't think any of us ever gave up hope."

Gammick said he agreed not to seek the death penalty in return for Smith's cooperation in the investigation of other unsolved child abductions or killings in region.

"I made a deal with the devil," Gammick said. "There no doubt in my mind he's a hard-core pedophile."

Gammick said Smith denied involvement in other cases he was questioned about and authorities have no evidence to the contrary.

The district attorney added that Smith passed a polygraph test, but that doesn't clear him of involvement in other cases.

Gammick said Smith would be prosecuted if evidence develops linking him to other unsolved crimes.

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