WILLIAMSPORT – A guilty plea turned a possible death sentence into life in prison Tuesday, when Kenneth Smith admitted to his role in a murder for hire in the brutal killing of Sonja Heck, of Newberry, and her two dogs.
Smith’s plea also included graphic details of the murder and plans for future mass killings, all instigated, he claimed, by Sonja Heck’s husband, Edward Heck.
While it was an open plea with “no strings attached,” First Assistant District Attorney Martin Wade said Smith’s testimony was so detailed that he could be called for further testimony against Edward Heck, who also is charged with murder and could face the death penalty.
“We’re still going full-speed against (Heck),” Wade said.
District Attorney Ryan Gardner said he is not opposed to the death penalty, but those cases often are very costly for the county, ranging from $1 million to $1.5 million per case.
While this plea was set in motion by former Interim District Attorney Kenneth Osokow, Gardner and Wade agree that Smith’s testimony could bolster the prosecution’s chances of winning a conviction against Heck.
Sonja Heck’s family fought back tears during the hearing, eventually breaking down into sobs as Smith detailed their loved one’s final moments.
In stark contrast, Smith was emotionless as he described walking into Sonja Heck’s bedroom as she slept and hitting her twice in the head with a hammer.
“She was a very strong-willed woman,” he said, adding that she continued to scream and fight back until “in a panic, I took a knife I had in my belt and slit her throat.”
Smith said she called out for her husband multiple times to come and help her. According to Smith, Edward Heck was waiting in his separate bedroom with the door closed. Before he killed her, Smith said he told Sonja Heck that her husband was the one who hired him.
‘Stuff of nightmares’
“I would have prefered the death penalty,” said Portia Fryer, Sonja Heck’s mother. “But we have to settle for what we got.”
Fryer said the family is waiting for the day they will be able to put the nightmare behind them.
Smith pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, aggravated assault and two counts of aggravated cruelty to animals for also killing Sonja Heck’s two dogs with the hammer.
“This is the stuff of nightmares,” said county Judge Marc Lovecchio before accepting Smith’s plea and sentencing him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
$10,000 plus a car
The entire plot was Edward Heck’s idea, according to Smith, saying he was offered $10,000, plus a car, to carry out the murder.
“He had the one thing I needed — money,” Smith said.
Smith claimed he never intended to kill Sonja Heck, but instead wanted to steal the money from Edward Heck and leave.
According to Smith, about a year prior to the murder, he and Edward Heck met on a social media site and began talking over their mutual interests. Eventually they started emailing, and Heck sent Smith an email asking if he had “ever wanted to kill anyone.”
“I’ve entertained the notion,” was Smith’s reply.
After continuing to talk over the next year, eventually Heck told Smith he wanted him to kill his wife.
‘A mass killing spree‘
More details of Heck’s plans after the murder came to light during Tuesday’s hearing.
“He wanted to go on a mass killing spree across the country,” Smith said, adding that the spree would involve forcing 100 children and young people from ages 8 to 23 to fight each other to the death and then the two of them would kill the survivor.
The spree of carnage would then end with Heck hanging himself from the Golden Gate Bridge, at which point Smith would be able to have his car.
Throughout his testimony, Smith was adamant that he never intended to kill Sonja Heck.
When Heck didn’t have the money with him before the murder, Smith said his plan was to pretend to kill Sonja Heck. He said he only planned to try to choke her until she was unconscious; however, during his testimony, he said the first thing he did was hit her in the head with a hammer.
Smith also said he never planned to be involved with a killing spree after the murder, but instead would get the money and then leave. However, again during testimony, Smith said after Edward Heck eventually gave him the $10,000, the two remained together, planning to go to a nudist colony for a weekend of fun.