A Sturgis teen admitted Thursday that he fatally shot a Wyoming teen who he referred to as his girlfriend.
“We got into an argument and then I shot her,” 17-year-old Michael Campbell said during his change-of-plea hearing at the Meade County Court in Sturgis. “I shot her in the head," he said flatly.
“No,” Campbell said when Judge Kevin Krull asked if he had any justification for killing Shayna Ritthaler, a 16-year-old from Upton, Wyoming.
Campbell pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter for killing Ritthaler some time between Oct. 4 and 7, 2019. He originally pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity to alternate counts of first- and second-degree murder.
The maximum punishment for minors charged with murder and manslaughter as adults is a “term of years," according to South Dakota law. That means Krull could sentence Campbell to any number of years as long as he has the chance of parole. The South Dakota Supreme Court has upheld a 261-year sentence with the chance of parole for a minor.
But the prosecution and defense team have agreed to ask Krull to sentence Campbell to 55 years in prison. Krull said he plans to follow their recommendation and if he were to change his mind, Campbell could withdraw his guilty plea.
A 55-year sentence means Campbell could seek parole after 27.5 years, when he is 44.5-years-old.
Campbell and Ritthaler had been chatting online for a while but had met in person for the first time when he killed her, Michele Bordewyk, Meade County state’s attorney, told the Journal.
Ritthaler went missing Oct. 3, 2019, after being seen getting into a Jeep-like vehicle at a coffee shop in Moorcroft, Wyoming. She was found Oct. 7 in the basement of the home Campbell shared with his mother in the Blucksberg Mountain Estates subdivision east of Sturgis.
Campbell and Ritthaler’s family members both attended the hearing. Ritthaler’s family said they weren’t yet ready to speak about their loved one and her death, while Campbell’s family left before the Journal was able to make contact with them.
Krull carefully went through each element of the plea deal to make sure Campbell understood the consequences and what rights he was giving up.
Campbell said he understood he was giving up his right to argue that he was mentally incompetent at the time of the shooting and that his case should be transferred to juvenile court where he could have only been imprisoned until the age of 21. Campbell also said he understood he was giving up his right to argue that Krull should suppress statements he made to law enforcement on Oct. 6 and 7 and block all evidence from a search of his phone and home. Finally, he agreed to a special part of the plea deal that says he is giving up his right to appeal his case.
Krull told Campbell that he can’t have any contact with the Ritthaler family for the rest of his life and that he owed them $8,339 in restitution.
Bordewyk told the Journal that Ritthaler’s family approved of the plea deal. She said there's always a risk of going to trial and that the plea deal acknowledges Campbell’s age. Defense lawyer Steven Titus also mentioned the risk of going to trial and said it was unlikely that Krull would have agreed to transfer Campbell to juvenile court.
During the hearing, Krull asked Campbell if he knew who “S.R.” was and Campbell said yes that Ritthaler was his girlfriend.
Bordewyk told the Journal that they had been communicating for a while after meeting on Badoo, an online chat and dating website. And she said they eventually made a plan to meet in person and for Ritthaler to run away and live with Campbell.
Campbell was the one who picked up Ritthaler from the coffee shop in Moorcroft on Oct. 3, Bordewyk said. He drove his mother’s vehicle.
Bordewyk said it’s unclear how an argument between the pair escalated to Campbell deciding to shoot Ritthaler. She said Campbell used a handgun that belonged to his mother, who was not home at the time.
Titus said the shooting was not pre-planned and that alcohol and drugs were involved. Krull mentioned that Campbell has PTSD but Titus said he would wait until sentencing to discuss how that impacts his client.
Campbell, who is detained on a $1 million bond at the juvenile jail in Rapid City, is expected to be sentenced during a two-hour hearing at 9 a.m. on July 10.
Titus said he’s not sure if Campbell or his family members will speak but said he expects to make a “compelling” case as to why the plea deal and 55-year sentence is fair. Bordewyk said she expects three of Ritthaler’s family members to make victim impact statements.
— Contact Arielle Zionts at email@example.com.