ASHEVILLE — A Leicester man accused of killing his 6-year-old daughter on the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2016 has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.
Seth Willis Pickering, 37, will spend life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to the plea agreement entered in federal court Friday morning. Pickering admitted to stabbing his daughter Lila through the heart on Sept. 9, 2016.
Only court officials and members of the media were present during the hearing, in which Pickering, clad in a baggy brown jumpsuit and chains, declined to make a statement. He showed no signs of emotion as U.S. District Judge Max. O. Cogburn Jr. recounted the facts of the case, nor did he when Cogburn announced his sentence. Pickering's defense attorneys, S. Frederick Winiker and Mary Ellen Coleman, declined to comment in the courtroom after the plea deal was accepted.
Winiker mentioned during the hearing that Pickering has been treated for mental illness in the past and is taking Sertraline, a prescription drug used to treat a host of symptoms including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
Though Pickering said in court he hadn't undergone treatment for drug use, Winiker clarified that he had been treated for alcohol abuse. Winiker said Pickering's last treatment was in August 2016, a month before he murdered his daughter.
“Our hearts go out to Lila’s family. No action by the criminal justice system can soothe the pain of their loss,” said U.S. Attorney R. Andrew Murray in announcing Friday’s guilty plea in a press release. “This is an outcome reached after consideration of all the facts and circumstances of this case. By allowing the defendant to plead guilty and serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole, we will spare the family the trauma of a lengthy trial and decades of appeals. We hope this resolution brings some comfort to the family of Lila Pickering.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Pritchard, who represented the government Friday morning, declined to comment further on the plea deal, which the defense brought to the prosecution.
Pritchard told the court that Lila's mother and Seth's ex-wife, Ashley Pickering, wanted to be present at the hearing but was unable to come because she lives in Florida. Pritchard said Ashley Pickering plans to attend her ex-husband's sentencing, for which a date hasn't been set.
Though Seth Pickering was sentenced to life in prison without parole, the court will determine whether he has to pay fines or restitution at the yet-unscheduled sentencing hearing. Pritchard said after Friday's hearing that the sentencing likely won't be for another six months, but he wasn't sure.
A lengthy custody battle between Seth and Ashley Pickering preceded the murder of their daughter. For more than a year, Ashley had been fighting for custody of Lila, she told the Citizen Times on Sept. 10, 2016, the day after her daughter was fatally stabbed.
About a month earlier, the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services took Lila from her father and placed her under the custody of caretakers who lived near Johnston Elementary, where Lila went to school, according to the federal complaint against Pickering. The complaint doesn't say why DHHS took Lila from her father, but Ashley Pickering told the Citizen Times in 2016 that it was because he had hit another woman.
On Sept. 9, Seth Pickering picked his daughter up from her caretakers' home and, against their warnings, took her camping along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Brevard Road. Lila's guardians notified the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office, which was preparing to issue an Amber Alert at the time of Lila's death.
Just before 7 p.m. two park rangers approached Pickering and his daughter, investigating what they believed to be an illegal campsite.They knew nothing about the Amber Alert, as it was never issued. Things went terribly awry after the rangers greeted Pickering and his daughter.
“Without warning, (one ranger) observed Pickering turn away from the rangers and make a lunging movement toward Lila who was standing a few feet behind him," according to the federal complaint. "(The ranger) heard an audible “thud-like” noise and a brief high-pitched wince or grunt sound coming from Lila, who then fell to the ground.”
She had been stabbed through the heart and died at the scene.
Pickering later told the rangers that he had killed his daughter so that nobody could take her from him again, according to the complaint. “Now they will never be able to take her away from me,” he said.
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