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Urista pleads guilty to charges

BY Kaitlin Gebby - kgebby@chronicle-tribune.com

Roman Cruz Urista Jr. pled guilty to all charges regarding the murder of Betty Payne on Monday.

While the jury for his trial was being selected in Grant County Superior Court III, Urista changed his plea to guilty to all charges, including rape, murder and criminal deviate conduct, bringing the 15-year case to a close.

Urista, 62, of Ohio, agreed to the maximum sentence for all charges, 65 years for murder, 50 years for rape, and 50 years for criminal deviate conduct. He will serve the time for his charges concurrently.

In May 2003, Betty Payne, 81, was raped and murdered in her home at 1001 S. Gallatin St. She lived alone, with the exception of her dog. Her son, local attorney David Payne, found her in the fetal position on her couch the next day, and an autopsy later revealed that she had been strangled.

Her murder was the fifth homicide case in Grant County in 2003, and the third on South Gallatin Street in three weeks time. Now, all five homicide cases have been solved. 

Urista’s DNA connected him to the murder of Betty Payne and later provided prosecutors with evidence that Grant County Prosecutor Jim Luttrull said “gave us a compelling case.”

Police took DNA evidence from the scene and submitted it to the Indiana State Police Laboratory, who later connected the DNA evidence in Payne’s case to a 2000 Collier County, Florida sexual assault case, a 2001 Montgomery County, Ohio sexual assault case, and a 2008 Hamilton County, Ohio sexual assault case. However, his criminal history with sexual assault would not have been brought forward as evidence in his trial, according to Luttrull.

Luttrull said Urista’s guilty plea was due to Collier County Prosecutor confirming that his case in Florida would not be extradited if he were found guilty by the Grant County Courts. He announced his plea change at 10:30 a.m. in Grant County Circuit Court, according to Luttrull.

“We’re very pleased with the way this case has concluded,” Luttrull said. “I think justice was served, and we’re pleased that guilt has been established for her murder.”

Solving the once-cold case of Payne’s murder was one of the promises Luttrull made in his campaign for prosecutor in 2014. He said fulfilling that promise “has been a long time coming,” and that it wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperative effort of Indiana law enforcement.

David Payne was satisfied that Urista would serve the remainder of his life behind bars for his mother’s death, but he felt Luttrull could have done more.

Payne was Luttrull’s opponent in the 2014 prosecutor race, and he ran to pursue his mother’s case and those like it. He said Luttrull barred him from accessing evidence for his mother’s case that Payne intended to use for a private investigation. 

Still, Payne said he is pleased to have some closure.

“Over the years, I often wondered if we’d ever catch him,” Payne said. “At times, I was told the suspect could be a drug user. At that point I feared he’d overdosed some time over the years and my mother’s case would never be solved.”

Payne explained that he wrote a book on his mother’s murder, titled “Murder On Gallatin Street: The Search for John Doe,” detailing how he presumed his mother’s killer would eventually be caught.

“I was sure that he’d commit another crime years later, where they’d take his DNA and it would match my mother’s and other cases,” Payne said. “Turns out it was the other way around.”

The DNA from a rape kit submitted to Collier County was collected in 2000, but sat unprocessed until 2016, matching the DNA collected from Betty Payne’s murder in 2003 and resulting in Urista’s arrest that year.

“I don’t know why that rape kit was sitting there for 16 years,” Payne said. “My mother’s rape and murder could have been prevented if the evidence three years before was processed, they could have caught the guy before he hurt anyone else … I just feel like more could have been done.”

Marion Police Deputy Chief Stephen Dorsey said he’s happy to see the case finally come to a swift close.

“I’m very pleased that after 15 years, we could bring justice to Betty Payne and the Payne family,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey said it was “inspiring” to see the smiles on juror’s faces when they informed the pool selected that Urista pled guilty.

“I learned that some of them had followed this case over the years, and I could tell by their smiles that they were happy to see justice served,” Dorsey said.

Urista will be held in Grant County Jail until he is sentenced. His sentencing is scheduled for May 11, 15 years almost to the day of Betty Payne’s murder on May 12, 2003.