LEWISTOWN - The day before a jury trial was set to start for a man charged with voluntary manslaughter, the defendant opted to plead guilty to a lesser charge.
The jury trial was scheduled to start Thursday morning for Michael Bickel, 28, however late Wednesday afternoon he entered into a plea agreement worked out by his attorney, Michael Gingrich, and Mifflin County District Attorney Dave Molek.
Bickel pleaded guilty to a felony count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and will serve an agreed upon sentence of 7 1/2 to 15 years in a state correctional facility.
Bickel had been charged with attempted third degree murder, a charge that was withdrawn in June. The remainder of his charges, including voluntary manslaughter and simple assault were withdrawn under the plea agreement on Wednesday.
Molek said he had a strong case against Bickel with 12 witness statements and a handful of surgeons ready to testify about the trauma Andrea Norris sustained at the hands of the defendant. Bickel attacked Norris with a hammer in the early morning hours of July 8, 2012.
"He struck her multiple times in the face," Molek said.
According to court documents, Norris sustained more than 20 comminuted fractures, meaning fractures involving crushed or splintered bones.
Norris passed away in April from unrelated medical problems. Molek said the plea agreement had been on the table for quite sometime and he had an opportunity to discuss the agreement with Norris several months ago.
"These two had been significant to each other," he said.
Molek said Bickel's motivations remain unclear, but "all evidence points to bath salts" as a mitigating factor.
"Sometimes people don't remember what they did," Molek said, referring to those who commit crimes under the influence of the synthetic drug.
Molek said the defendant's mother, Christeena Kearns, really stepped up when she reported to police what her son told her he had done to Norris.
During a July 2012 hearing for the case, Kearns testified that her son called her for a ride after 2 a.m. on the night of the assault, and she picked him up near the Buchanan Elementary School.
"I believe the first thing he said to me was 'I think I just killed (her),'" Kearns said.
Kearns said her son then stated, "You need to be quiet. I need to call 911."
"He said to me, 'I lost it, I hit her with a hammer,'" she continued.
Kearns said she encouraged her son to turn himself in to police, but he wanted to "run and hide."
Kearns testified her son told her to drop him off near the woods on U.S 522 above Lewistown.
"He said to me, 'You didn't see me,'" Kearns said.
Also during that same hearing, Lewistown Police Officer David Vallimont testified he responded to the West Fourth Street address along with another officer and found a woman lying in bed with "massive facial trauma."
Vallimont said the left side of her head and face were severely injured from the assault.
"I said, 'Can you speak? Who did this to you?'" Vallimont said, but only got grunts and grumbles as a reply.
"The entire time I was there her mouth was full of blood and she couldn't respond," he added.
Vallimont testified there was blood on the sheets, mattress, wall and drapes in the bedroom.
Vallimont said paramedics arrived on the scene within minutes of calling them and one of the paramedics noticed a hammer in between the bed and the wall.
Vallimont said after the alleged victim was transported to a hospital, he secured a search warrant for the house, and the hammer, which appeared to have blood on it, was taken as evidence, along with photographs taken at the scene.
Vallimont said he later learned the alleged victim was able to speak briefly when a paramedic asked her, "'Who did this to you?'" and she replied, "'My ex.'"
Vallimont said two juveniles who live next door gave a description of the man they claim left the alleged victim's house after the assault.
Bickel was taken into custody around 7 a.m. that day and placed in the Mifflin County Correctional Facility, where he has remained since.