"Homer Ridley III had literally gotten away with murder for 23-plus years," prosecutor says.
Homer Ridley III pleaded guilty to malice murder Friday for drowning his next-door neighbor in her bathtub almost 24 years ago in Warner Robins.
Chief Judge Rucker Smith of the Superior Court of the Southwestern Judicial District sentenced the 48-year-old Ridley to life without the possibility of parole.
The sentence was part of a negotiated plea that took the death penalty off the table.
Smith filled in for Houston County Superior Court judges who had recused themselves.
In May 2015, a Houston County grand jury indicted Ridley on one count of malice murder and two counts of felony murder in the slaying of 20-year-old Summer Gleaton.
Gleaton's partially clad body was found in the bathtub of her Terry Street home on Dec. 1, 1994 by her mother. Her wrists and ankles were bound. Her 6-month-old child was in the home but was not harmed.
Gleaton had been arguing with her boyfriend earlier that day and went to Ridley's residence next door to call for help. The boyfriend initially was a suspect but was cleared. Ridley also was suspected at the time, but police didn't have enough evidence to move forward with charges in 1994.
But Houston County District Attorney George Hartwig noted Friday that he had DNA and other evidence had the case gone to trial, including green shoelaces used to bind Gleaton and sweatpants used to strangle her. Both matched Ridley's DNA profile, Hartwig said.
"We felt for a long time - law enforcement and our office - that if the killer was not wearing gloves and actually tied those shoelaces with his bare hands, that there was bound to be some DNA on there once the technology got to the point where they could extract it or recover it, and ultimately, we got to that point," Hartwig told news media after the hearing.
Gleaton's mother and daughter, who were in the courtroom, did not give testimony about the crime's impact on them.
Ridley also did not make a statement when given the opportunity by the judge. His family members were in the courtroom.
Earlier Friday, Ridley also pleaded guilty to a 1988 rape in which he was serving a life sentence until January of this year when he won the right to a new trial. He was transferred from a state prison to Houston County to await trial.
Houston County Superior Court Judge G.E. "Bo" Adams sentenced Ridley to life in prison with the possibility of parole for the rape.
It is the third time Ridley has been convicted of that crime.
Ridley was convicted of the rape by a jury and in the summer of 1995 was sentenced to life in prison. But the conviction was overturned in 1999 by the state Court of Appeals.
In February 2006, a second Houston County jury found Ridley guilty of the rape.
Friday, Ridley entered a "best interest plea" on the rape, which means he was not admitting guilt but thought the plea was in his best interest.
On Aug. 22, 1988, a woman awoke shortly before sunrise to find a man with his face covered kneeling over her with a gun to her head.
The man bound her hands behind her back, and her feet were tied. He took off her clothes and raped her on the floor near her infant son's crib while her other three children slept in the house.
Ridley used a master key of his father's to let himself into the woman's residence, which was under the Warner Robins Housing Authority where Ridley's father worked, Assistant District Attorney Clif Woody said.
The woman was bound with a curling iron cord, and Ridley left a fingerprint on the curling iron. Also, the prosecution had DNA evidence from a vaginal swab from a rape kit that was later matched to Ridley, Woody said.
The woman was in the courtroom Friday but did not make a victim's impact statement.
Ledia Olivera, 19, was found dead in her home Sept. 5, 1992 after being raped, strangled and her head bashed against the bathroom sink. Her 5-month-old child was in the home but was unharmed. Olivera's hands and ankles were bound.
In that case, Ridley pleaded not guilty in November 1995. The case was indefinitely suspended in January 1999 at the request of the prosecution over evidentiary problems.