Jenise Wright murder suspect caught police’s eyes days before arrest
A 17-year-old neighbor on Monday was ordered held on $1 million bail in the slaying and rape of 6-year-old Jenise Wright of Bremerton.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The 17-year-old neighbor of Jenise Wright wasn’t arrested until Aug. 9, but he had caught the attention of investigators several days before, according to court documents filed in Kitsap Superior Court.
A Kitsap Superior Court judge on Monday ordered Gabriel Z. Gaeta held for investigation of first-degree murder, felony murder and first-degree rape of a child. Bail for the teen, an acclaimed wrestler for Olympic High School with no criminal history, was set at $1 million.
The teen, wearing an orange jumpsuit and with a jacket over his face, was led into court where his mother and stepfather, and Jenise Wright’s parents, were seated. The judge granted a defense request that his face not be photographed until charges are formally filed.
Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge said Gaeta will be charged as an adult because of the seriousness of the crimes he is alleged to have committed, but he will be kept at the county’s juvenile-detention center until he turns 18 in December.
In an interview Monday, the slain girl’s father said the suspect was a “close friend of the family.”
James Wright said the teen had been to his family’s house “many, many times” and was a friend of their older children.
He had taken the teen under his wing and taught him how to chop firewood to make extra money, he said.
Wright said he and his wife know they will ultimately have to forgive Gaeta in order to heal, but it’s hard.
“It’s devastating. It almost would have been easier if it was a stranger,” he said.
Jenise Wright, 6, was last seen around bedtime Saturday, Aug. 2. She was gone Sunday morning, but her father and her mother, Denise Wright, were not immediately alarmed because she was allowed free range of the mobile-home park. They called 911 when she had not returned by Sunday night, the Sheriff’s Office said.
On Monday, Aug. 4, while the public was still being urged to help “bring Jenise home” and hundreds of law-enforcement agents were converging on the park and its surrounds, searchers discovered child’s clothing, according to the certificate of probable cause outlining the state’s case against the defendant.
It was identified as Jenise’s by her mother, and a field test on the clothing revealed it was stained by blood, court documents say.
That same day, as part of a door-to-door canvas of the neighborhood, FBI special agents Matt Yeager and Mike Baldino went to Gaeta’s house, which is near the heavily wooded perimeter of the park where the clothing was found, court documents say.
The teen was there, but his stepfather and mother said he was “too upset to really speak with” or to give a voluntary DNA sample. They confirmed the boy had been home all weekend, and asked the agents to return later, court documents say.
It is not noted in court documents, but the agents found the teen’s behavior odd and believed he was “someone to keep an eye on,” according to a source familiar with the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A forensic examination of the clothing on Aug. 6 by the Washington State Crime Lab determined the blood on it belonged to a female biological child of James and Denise Wright. It also extracted male DNA from the clothing, police and prosecutors say.
On Aug. 7, the girl’s body was found15 to 20 feet from where the clothing was discovered in a 3- to 4-foot-deep muddy bog on a heavily wooded and overgrown slope, police said.
The body was submerged in mud and covered with a wooden pallet, the court documents say.
An autopsy on Friday determined the girl had been raped, struck in the head and strangled, court documents allege.
That same day, an FBI agent returned to Gaeta’s home and obtained a voluntary DNA sample from the teen, prosecutors said. The agent noted that “he was leaning against the wall, barely able to get out of bed and emotionally upset,” court documents say.
On Saturday, the state crime lab matched Gaeta’s DNA to that found in Jenise’s clothing and he was arrested, court documents say.
Prosecutors said he became upset when asked by investigators about the girl’s disappearance.
He was “crying and had tears streaming down his face, his nose was running and he focused on a spot in the room and did not divert his gaze,” according to the court document.
The teen continued in that manner until they left the room, at which point, he got up, stretched, yawned and wiped his nose, court documents say.
Eventually, the teen is alleged to have nodded his head “yes” when investigators asked him if he was the only one involved in Jenise’s death, prosecutors said.
Police found bloodstained clothing and a blood- and mud-covered towel when they searched his room after the arrest, according to the court documents.
Troy Reynolds, who was Gaeta’s wrestling coach at Olympic High School, told the Kitsap Sun last year that the young man was shy in many ways but was a fierce competitor on the mat.
“He’s the gentle-giant type of kid,” Reynolds told the Sun. “He’s not super aggressive in practice, but in competition, he’s a different animal. He’s freakishly strong. The mat is kind of his canvas.”
On Monday, James and Denise Wright appeared at a child-custody hearing in the Kitsap County Youth Services Center hoping to regain custody of three of their five other children.
The eldest children are adults and live in the Bellingham area, the family said. The third-eldest was staying with his older siblings the weekend that Jenise disappeared. The other two, who are 8 and 12, were removed from the home by Child Protective Services on Aug. 4.
They were also placed with the two adult siblings, James Wright said.
At the hearing, representatives of the Nooksack Indian Tribe, of which Denise Wright is a member, indicated it wanted to be involved in the custody matter and would be bringing the parents up to Bellingham so the family and the community could grieve together.
After the hearing, James Wright vowed to fight for his children and thanked the community for their prayers. He said he and his wife were able to feel the love and concern of every one of them.
He also invited the public to attend a memorial service for Jenise at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at 9256 Nels Nelson Road N.W. in Bremerton.
Seattle Times reporter Andrew Mannix and researcher Gene Balk contributed and to this report.Christine Clarridge: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8983.