FORT MILL, S.C. — The man who killed a Rock Hill teenage clerk at a popular South Carolina store in January has avoided a possible death sentence after he pleaded guilty to murder, and will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Christopher Benjamin Mendez, 29, pleaded guilty Tuesday in York County court to shooting Karson Whitsell, 19, at The Peach Stand in Fort Mill. He was sentenced to life in prison.
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Mendez and Whitesell were strangers, police and prosecutors said. Mendez walked into the store and shot Whitesell several times.
Mendez was arrested at the scene by Fort Mill police officers moments after people in the store called 911. The gun was next to him, police said.
In court, Mendez addressed Karson's family, telling them: "I wish I hadn't done what I did. I wish I had a better mind at the time. I'm sorry for the pain I've caused you.
Whitesell was a South Pointe High School graduate and a church missionary. Her family spoke during Tuesday's hearing.
Her grandparents asked the judge to sentence Mendez to life in prison without parole while her stepmother, Laurie Whitesell, called Karson the epitome of kind.
"I hope he knows what he's taken out of this world, and I hope he suffers for the rest of his life," she told the judge.
Karson's father, Jason Whitesell, said, "The world has lost the most amazing young woman the world has known, and I'm just happy to be her dad."
Mendez's father also spoke in court and apologized to Whitesell's family, telling them he "wished this was all a nightmare."
He said mental health problems run in the family and his son couldn't get the help he needed because he could not afford the medication.
"What happened to the mental health help my son was supposed to get? It was denied him (by the system)," he said.
Mendez faced 30 years to life in prison with the guilty plea. His public defender asked the judge for the minimum on Tuesday.
By pleading guilty, Mendez avoided a potential death penalty trial.
In a guilty plea, the most severe sentence Mendez could receive is life in prison without parole. Under South Carolina law, only a jury can sentence someone to death after that person is found guilty during a trial.
Mendez was found mentally competent to enter the plea after testing. He had previous mental health problems, court documents show.
Mendez has been in jail since the Jan. 23 shooting. He was charged with assaulting a jail guard in September when he told a guard “I will kill you!” police said.
Solicitor Kevin Brackett said in court Mendez pulled the trigger because he felt “some slight" from Whitesell, despite the two not knowing each other. He said Mendez killed her "because he wanted to know how it felt."
He said Mendez bought the gun only an hour before the shooting, and lied on the form to buy it.
After Whitesell was shot five times, video played in court showed Mendez walking around the Peach Stand. He told investigators he felt "relieved" after killing her.
He told police after the shooting, "I feel nothing."
During the recess, Karson's mother embraced Mendez's mother as both women mourned.
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