Clay Waller pled guilty to the murder of his wife, Jacque Waller, in Cape Girardeau County Court on Thursday, bringing a bittersweet end to one of the most high-profile murder cases in recent Cape Girardeau history.
Waller was charged with second degree murder and will receive a sentence of 20 years. Prosecutors agreed to the plea deal in exchange for Clay Waller providing the location of Jacque’s body and an account of her murder.
Jacque and Clay Waller had triplets who were 5-years old at the time of her murder on June 1, 2011.
A pale, gaunt and shackled Clay Waller could do little more than stare at the podium in front of him as he listened to his former sister-in-law, Cheryl Brenneke. He shuffled his feet and occasionally swayed a little as she berated him during her tearful victim impact statement.
Brenneke said she did not want the plea deal.
“My mother and father and those children deserved to bury her, though,” Brenneke said. “Jacque was in heaven the second you killed her. I personally did not need that. I needed you to suffer the rest of your life. But I love all of them enough to let them have what they need.”
Brenneke and her husband now have custody of the triplets and plan to adopt them. She said Jacque knew Clay was capable of murder, and had endured too many years of his manipulations and threats.
“We only got to bury her because it benefited you. Not because you care so much about your own children and when they were suffering. But because it benefited you,” Brenneke said.
It benefited Clay Waller because instead of possibly getting a life sentence, he’ll spend 20 years behind bars.
Waller told authorities where to find his wife, who he murdered two years ago while the couple was in the process of getting a divorce. He led officers to a Mississippi River beach in Illinois about 2 miles upstream from the boat ramp in Cape Girardeau, near a place called Devil’s Island.
Waller planned the murder, first by digging a six-foot hole the day before he killed Jacque, then by luring her over to his house in Jackson, telling her she needed to pick up one of the couple’s then-five year old triplets. But it was all a trick. That’s when he killed Jacque Waller, beating her and choking her by pressing his forearm against her throat.
Judge Benjamin Lewis told Waller this agreement will have critics.
“However none of those critics could provide the body of Jacque Waller. There will be a number of people who will be critical of this plea agreement regarding the number of years that are imposed. None of those critics could guarantee the conviction, particularly the conviction in a trial without a body,” Judge Lewis said.
While reading Waller's sentence, the judge told him, “This is not what you deserve, but it will have to do.”
Cape Girardeau County sheriff John Jordan said it was a “bittersweet” day because it brought an end to one of the highest profile cases in Cape Girardeau County history.
“Bittersweet. Sweet in that Clay Waller is now a confessed murderer and publicly had to confess his crime in a court of law. It’s bitter in the respect that none of us here believe Clay’s punishment fits his crimes. None of us,” Jordan said.
Prosecutors said Jacque never would have been found, buried under six feet of sand in an isolated area that had already been searched. Her parents believe bringing her home for a proper burial was worth a lesser sentence for her killer.
As for motive, detective David James said Clay feared Jacque would take the children.
“He couldn’t stand the thought of someone else raising his children or that Jacque might have had a boyfriend. He just wasn’t going to have any of that,” James said. “He had said that he had dug many holes in the past and he decided at different times not to carry out what he had planned to do.”
Assistant prosecuting attorney Angel Woodruff said Clay Waller’s attorney approached her three weeks ago, saying Waller was ready to confess in exchange for a lighter sentence. After he led investigators to Jacque’s body, Woodruff interviewed him on Monday. That’s when he told her how Jacque Waller died.
Woodruff said Clay Waller’s primary motivation is Clay Waller.
“Anything that he told us on Monday was certainly geared towards protecting himself as much as possible while still sticking to the requirements of the plea agreement,” Woodruff said. “I have no doubt he lied to us all day on Monday. It was a frustrating process.”
Waller will serve a minimum of 85 percent of the twenty year sentence, and Woodruff said the agreement doesn't keep other jurisdictions such as Illinois or the federal government from filing additional charges.
It’s a tragic ending to the life of this 39-year old mother who, family members say, would rather be dead than continue to be married to her husband. At Thursday’s hearing, the courtroom listened to a taped recording of their son Maddox. Family members, detectives and cops could be seen wiping their eyes as the seven year old told his father he used to think he was one of the good guys. Now he wishes he was never his dad.
Nearly everybody in the courtroom was visibly moved by his son's recorded statements. Everyone, perhaps, except Clay Waller.