Before sending him to spend four decades in prison, Judge Edmund Murphy told 20-year-old Austin Richard Moores Nelson that he’s a parent’s worst nightmare.
Moores Nelson admitted Friday in Pierce County Superior Court Court that he fatally shot his ex-girlfriend’s mother, 46-year-old Teresa Ryan, outside her South Hill home earlier this year.
Moores Nelson started dating the girl when she was 15, against Ryan’s wishes, and the girl broke up with him days before the shooting.
“It’s a case that just defies explanation,” Murphy said.
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Moores Nelson pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, first-degree animal cruelty, first-degree burglary and second-degree malicious mischief.
Murphy gave him to a high-end sentence of 42 years, eight months.
That’s what Deputy Prosecutor John Sheeran recommended.
Defense attorney Ed DeCosta argued that the punishment was essentially a life sentence for Moores Nelson and said it was disproportionate compared to other cases.
He had sought a low-end sentence of about 35 years.
DeCosta said Moores Nelson initially didn’t seem to understand the gravity of what he’d done when attorneys spoke to him after his arrest. The attorney said it seemed almost as if his client thought Ryan was going to be all right.
“I was just struck by his detachment,” DeCosta said.
Since then, the attorney said, Moores Nelson has shown maturity and taken responsibility for his actions, adding there was reason to think he would continue to mature.
“Over time, he came to realize what it is that he had done,” DeCosta said. “... He is deeply remorseful.”
He noted that, as a child, Moores Nelson suffered physical abuse at the hands of his father and ended up in foster care.
And in his written request for a low-end sentence, he said Moores Nelson’s cognitive function is years behind his age, and that he’d had an individualized eduction plan in school.
“There is good in Austin,” DeCosta told the judge. “He’s worth having some kind of life. … This is a case that I think cries out for the low end.”
His family also wrote the court to ask for leniency.
“Austin is a much better person than the sum of his most recent actions and like all people should have a chance to change,” wrote his stepfather, Stephen Rockwell.
Speaking quietly, Moores Nelson apologized in court.
“I just want to say I’m sorry for what I did,” he said. “... I’m very sorry, and I take full responsibility for what I did.”
He started dating Ryan’s daughter in September 2015, and Ryan told Moores Nelson to stay away from the girl.
You’re a parent’s worst nightmare. It’s a case that just defies explanation.
-Judge Edmund Murphy to 20-year-old Austin Moores Nelson, before sentencing him to more than 42 years in prison
The daughter broke up with him in January, because she didn’t want to keep deceiving her mother. About a week later he flattened the tires of the girl’s SUV outside her school and broke two of the windows.
Several days after that, on Jan. 18, Moores Nelson shot and killed Ryan during an argument outside her South Hill home. Ryan had just returned home with her youngest daughter, age 5, who ran to a neighbor for help.
Moores Nelson then ran into Ryan’s home, fired five shots inside, fatally shot one of the family’s dogs, and later was arrested at his grandfather’s home in Tacoma.
Ryan’s family asked for the maximum sentence Friday, and friends and co-workers also filled the courtroom.
She was an employee of Pierce County District Court, which is in the same downtown Tacoma building as Superior Court, where her killer was sentenced.
A work friend who identified herself only as Jamie told the court Ryan’s pranks filled the office with laughter, and that she loved talking about her kids.
“Five days a week we have to walk into this building knowing she’s not going to be here,” the co-worker said.
As Murphy announced the sentence, several of Ryan’s loved ones started to sob, one yelled for Moores Nelson to “rot in hell,” and some held up photos of Ryan.
As they moved to the hallway, they exchanged hugs and tears.
Meanwhile, guards led Moores Nelson back behind bars, where he’ll likely spend the better part of his life.