January 3, 2014

KC man admits killing young mother in front of her children

Ja A. Ray pleaded guilty in Jackson County Circuit Court to second-degree murder in connection with the November 2012 killing of 21-year-old Essence Willoughby.

A 43-year-old Kansas City man admitted Friday that he killed his former girlfriend, whom he beat and stabbed as their two small sons watched.

One of the boys, whom prosecutors described as a “brave, brave, young 3-year-old child,” later helped lead authorities to his mother’s body in a wooded area near where they had attended church on the day she was killed.

Ja A. Ray pleaded guilty in Jackson County Circuit Court to second-degree murder in connection with the November 2012 killing of 21-year-old Essence Willoughby.

Ray’s lawyer, assistant public defender Garrett Solomon, said Ray wanted to express his condolences and sympathy to the family.

“I’m willing to admit my wrongs,” Ray said before pleading guilty.

After accepting Ray’s plea, Circuit Judge Sandra Midkiff followed the terms of the plea agreement and sentenced Ray to 25 years in prison for the killing. She also sentenced him to seven years for pleading guilty to possession of PCP in a separate case.

Midkiff also revoked Ray’s probation for a 2010 domestic assault conviction involving Willoughby and sentenced him to five years in that case. All sentences are to run concurrently.

According to court documents, the 3-year-old boy and his 2-year-old brother witnessed the attack on Willoughby. The older boy later told investigators that he had seen his mother “bleeding in her face as she was screaming and kicking in the sticks.” The boy said he saw his father “cutting his mommy in the stomach” while he and his younger brother sat nearby and cried.

He said Ray “drowned her in water, then buried her in the leaves,” according to the documents.

Later that day, Ray told Willoughby’s family that she had left the church with another man but left the children with him. After he later left the children at the home of an acquaintance, the older boy described what had happened and police were called.

The body was found facedown in a creek that ran through woods near the church.

Members of Willoughby’s family who attended Friday’s court hearing did not speak in court. After the hearing, they said they did not want to comment about the plea.

Assistant prosecuting attorney Page Bellamy said after the plea that the family supported the plea agreement. Ray must serve 85 percent of the sentence before he can be considered for parole. Bellamy said he hoped the plea hearing Friday would bring a sense of closure for the family. He declined to comment on how the boys are doing today.

In a written statement, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker praised the actions of the little boy that “brought justice.”

“This outcome saves this strong family of the victim the continuing grief of a trial,” Baker said. “The hero in this case is the 3-year-old who witnessed this horrific tragedy. He was ready to tell the truth about those horrible events.”

Willoughby had known Ray since she was 14. Although she had broken off the relationship, she had agreed to attend church with him and their two sons that day, family members said at the time.

She was taking criminal justice classes at an area community college and hoped to become a police officer, they said.

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