BENNINGTON — Timothy Butler changed his plea to guilty Friday in the stabbing death of an elderly Arlington woman, thus avoiding a trial in Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division.
Butler, 34, had faced a first-degree murder charge in the death of 81-year-old Helen Jones in her Buck Hill Road home on Jan. 2, 2017.
As part of a plea agreement reducing the charge to second-degree murder, Butler, questioned by Judge William Cohen, admitted stabbing Jones multiple times.
Sentencing will follow a pre-sentencing investigation by the Department of Corrections and a hearing during which family members, friends and others are expected to testify. That session is likely to last at least a half day, said defense attorney Brian Marsicovetere, of the Office of the Defender General.
Cohen said a status conference will be held in 60 days, when a date for the sentencing hearing could be set.
State's Attorney Erica Marthage told Cohen that the plea agreement, which Jones' family members supported after initially wanting to see a life without parole sentence, will spare them a trial. That, Marthage said, would involve some disturbing testimony and "graphic details" and would likely last two weeks or longer.
She said that during the sentencing hearing, the prosecution will be allowed to argue for a maximum sentence of 30 years to life in prison, while the defense can argue for 25 years to life. The maximum for first-degree murder would have been 35 years to life.
After serving his sentence, Butler could then be considered for parole. He has been held since his arrest in early March 2017 following an intense two-month investigation by Vermont State Police and local officers.
A jury trial "also always is a roll of the dice," Marthage said, and any sentence could be appealed, continuing the ordeal for the family.
The victim's daughter, Teresa Jones, spoke for about a dozen friends and family members after the plea conference, saying, "The family is pleased with these developments today, and very appreciative of all the work of the state and local law enforcement. This is the next step in the process, and we will be looking forward to the final step [the sentencing]."
Marsicovetere told the judge that Butler "has accepted responsibility" for the crime, adding that he would reserve further comment about the case until the sentencing hearing.
Marthage recited some of the evidence details in the case against Butler. She said Jones, whose body was discovered after neighbors became concerned and asked police to check on her, suffered at least eight stab wounds to the torso, which proved fatal, and other cuts and "abrasions all over her body."
After Butler's arrest and arraignment, Maj. Glenn Hall, former commander of the Criminal Division of Vermont State Police, said he hoped the Arlington area and the Jones family could begin to feel a sense of closure.
"I would also acknowledge that this crime had a huge impact on the Arlington community, as well as across the state," Hall said at the time, "and we certainly hope we can put some minds at ease with an arrest."
Over the following weeks, "at least 20 detectives at any given time" participated in the investigation, Hall said.
Butler, who had previously worked for Jones at her 440 Buck Hill Road home, first came to the attention of state police investigators a few days after Jones' body was found on Jan. 4.
He was arrested without incident in March 2017 while in a vehicle parked at the Recreation Park off Route 7A in Arlington. Authorities said they had received a tip in late February from a woman who knew Butler and said he apparently had admitted to the killing.
Police later obtained surveillance recordings of a conversation between the woman and Butler, during which he made several incriminating statements, according to a police affidavit.
"Butler said he got scared and one thing led to another," according to the affidavit.
Police said the victim was found on her back in the ground level hallway of her home with multiple stab wounds. They said Butler apparently gained entry to the home via the main door, which he was able to open through a broken window.
Arlington and Northshire residents expressed relief after Butler's arrest.
"I think what I feel, and I heard other people say they feel, is we are very relieved," said state Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington.
It was also a shock, she said, that the person arrested was from the area.
"It's just so awful all around," Browning said.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien