Courier file photo

Robert Eugene Pilcher, center, and his attorneys Allen Cook, right, and Kenneth Duker, left, listen during opening statements at his first trial. Pilcher is charged with the murder of 17-year-old Mary Jayne Jones in 1974.

OTTUMWA — The man police and family members say killed Mary Jayne Jones 40 years ago is going to prison.

Robert "Gene" Pilcher made a plea deal midway through his second trial. The agreement is that Pilcher will plead to murder in the second degree. In exchange, he will go to prison for 10 years.

The 10-year sentence lines up with what he would have received if convicted of second degree murder in 1974, when the case was still active.

Family members said the best person to share their feelings with the public would be Judith, Mary Jayne's younger sister. Although a 10-year sentence for Pilcher, 68, is not ideal, family members say, they consider it, after all these years, to be at least partial justice.

"We wish Iowa had the death penalty, that would have been good enough, that what he did to my sister would be done to him," said Judith Cabanillas, age 53.

That may make her sound malicious, but, she told the Courier, she was being honest about her feelings.

"The [sentence] is somewhat satisfying," she said, "but I think our entire family hopes he never comes out of that prison alive. We have always known it was him."

A police investigator whom the family felt a special bond with, the late Wayne Sheston, told them that in his heart, he was certain Robert Pilcher had raped and murdered Mary Jayne Jones.

Maybe Pilcher should have been given 38 years as a fitting sentence, she said during a telephone interview Tuesday.

"One for every year he was out walking around while my sister lay in a grave."

At the Wapello County Courthouse, Wapello County Attorney Gary Oldenburger told reporters that the prosecution had spoken with Mary Jayne's family.

"It's a good resolution — for a case that's 40 years old," he said. "The family is able to get some closure … on this brutal crime [that so impacted] their lives."

Oldenburger worked with Assistant Attorney General Denise Timmins to help bring a bit of closure to the family. Judith said she was grateful for the work of prosecutors, the judge and the jury members.

Judith says she was 14 at the time of her sister's murder.

"I think they worked with what they had," Judith said. "More than anything we want Wayne Shelton's family to know how much we appreciated his work. He was like a dog with a bone, he searched for that connection even after retirement. He was right. I wish he could have been in court, to see himself proven right."

Pilcher, whose last arrest was outside a Des Moines area homeless shelter, will not be required to pay for his attorney, a public defender appointed by the courts. He will also not be required to pay "restitution" to the family; that statute was not enacted until the 1990s.

Judith said she and the family are still absorbing news of the conviction. The switch — Pilcher had always said he hadn't been the one to sexually assault and then murder Jones — came after the prosecution brought in a witness from Colorado so he could testify, Judith said. She believes the man, a convict named John Leroy Spring, would have been able to identify who had killed her sister. She believes Pilcher knew that, too, hence the guilty plea on a lesser charge.

Defense lawyers in the case were unable to comment, said public defender Kenneth Duker, due to attorney-client privilege. If Pilcher serves his full sentence, he'd be 78 years old when it's done.

"He's a bad person. I know he's committed other crimes; I've seen his record. I don't think he stopped after he killed my sister. He just got smarter. I have no pity. I hope he never comes out of there," said Judith Cabanillas. "I was very close to Jayne. This affected my whole life, what he did to her. For 38 years he was free, doing nothing but drugs and crimes. But he's going to prison, and it's on record that he murdered my sweet, 17-year-old sister in the brutal way that he did. He's guilty."

— Ottumwa Courier reporter Mark Newman can be contacted via


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