Jimmy Lee, 47, on Thursday pleaded guilty to first-degree felony murder in district court for killing 74-year-old Thelma Kline on May 3, 1989.
"I went to the place to steal," Lee told District Judge Thomas Hynes. "I grabbed her, I put her down on the carpet and tied her up and I gagged her."
Medical officials determined Kline's death to be caused by suffocation, but the manner in which she was bound and gagged along with her age, contributed to her death, Farmington Police Sgt. Robert Perez previously said.
Lee, who was charged Nov. 2, 2009, with first-degree felony murder and first-degree kidnapping after DNA from trace evidence linked him to the homicide, faces mandatory life in prison for the murder.
Although the crime also qualifies for the death penalty, the District Attorney's Office won't pursue it per the condition of the plea agreement. The kidnapping charge also was dropped under the agreement.
"At the time I didn't know who was there, but I broke in to go steal," Lee said in court Thursday.
Kline, at the time of her death, lived alone in her mobile home located on the 700 block of West Broadway, police said.
Police had multiple suspects at the time the murder was committed, but there was nothing authorities could act on, Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said.
After 18 months of investigation, the case went cold.
A review of cold case homicides in 2007 prompted Farmington detectives to re-examine evidence from Kline's murder.
The evidence was found to be in excellent condition, Perez said.
Modern DNA technology allowed for new samples to be created and tested and on June 21, 2009, a match was found.
The DNA matched a sample submitted by Lee, who was nearing the end of a another sentence at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants.
Detectives interviewed Lee for approximately four hours and he admitted to being the only individual involved in the murder.
Lee told detectives he was going to steal items from inside the residence. Kline confronted Lee and he quickly overpowered her, using items from inside the residence to tie her hands.
"The fact (the detectives) went (to the prison) and talked to him and were able to get him to speak was probably a primary factor in why we were able to proceed in this case," O'Brien said.
Detectives believed Lee was genuinely remorseful during his confession.
Lee, who is three years sober, told detectives the choices he made 20 years ago wouldn't be the same choices he would make as a sober man.
"He talked abut being an alcoholic and drug addict and all those things he was into back then," Perez said.
Following his November arrest, Lee filed a motion to dismiss the charges, arguing they passed the 15-year statute of limitations, according to court records.
Based on past cases that addressed similar legal concerns, the District Attorney's Office was mandated to dismiss the case.
Charges were refiled, however, after the state Supreme Court ruled in a similar case that the statute of limitations no longer applied because in July 1, 1997, the legislature abolished it for first-degree felonies, O'Brien said.
Solely because the
law changed before the
15-year limit ended in
Lee's case, charges could be refiled, he said.
"He will spend the rest of his life in prison," O'Brien said.
Lee, who has served time in prison off and on since 1986, requested he serve the sentence in the Grants facility, where he already is incarcerated.
"By all accounts he is a model prisoner," Chief Public Defender Christian Hatfield said.
Lee attends classes at the facility and the building is filled with murals he has painted, Hatfield said.
Kline's family was not in court Thursday and Hynes withheld officially sentencing Lee until they have an opportunity to speak. Regardless, Lee will serve 30 years in prison before he is eligible for parole.
"We just don't see too many like it," O'Brien said of the cold case now solved. "It's one of the ones you read about happening elsewhere."