Florida man on trial for murder of 16-year-old Justis Marie Garrett
On April 13, 2018, Robert Kern Jr. was due to drive his girlfriend’s 16-year-old daughter, Justis Marie Garrett, to Mount Dora High School, a 15-20 minute drive from his home in Sorrento.
But instead of heading west toward the school, Kern drove east toward Volusia County, Assistant District Attorney Megan Upchurch told a jury Wednesday in her opening statement.
“At this point we know that Justis is losing access to his phone,” Upchurch said. “She’s either drugged, incapacitated and/or, with threats or violence, taken care of because there’s no communication from her phone.”
Kern took Garrett to some woods, raped her and killed her, said Upchurch, who is pursuing the case with Assistant District Attorney Jason Lewis.
Garrett’s body was found several days later on a dirt trail in a heavily wooded area off the service and gas roads in DeLand.
Kern, 43, stands trial, charged with first-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence of Garrett’s murder. Kern faces mandatory life in prison if convicted on the count of murder.
Kern, a handyman, was arrested in February 2019 in Suffolk County, New York. He is being held without bail at the Volusia County Jail.
Circuit Judge Dawn Nichols is presiding over the trial at the Volusia County Courthouse in DeLand.
Kern, wearing a mask, sat quietly at the defense table. His lawyers, deputy public defenders Adam Dala and Cameron Brown, reserved an opening statement on Wednesday.
Prosecutors aren’t sure exactly how Garrett was killed, but the medical examiner has ruled his death a homicide.
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Garrett was attending New Smyrna Beach High School until the family moved to Sorrento in Lake County several months before she was killed. They left New Smyrna Beach because the house they were renting had been sold.
Garrett’s mother, Danielle Pratt, was still working at the Courtyard Grill in New Smyrna Beach, commuting from Sorrento.
Upchurch told jurors that in the weeks leading up to the murder, Kern created a fake social media profile and messaged Garrett.
After raping and killing Garrett, Kern returned to Lake County and the Mount Dora High School area, where he turned off Garrett’s phone and got rid of it, Upchurch said. The phone was never recovered.
Kern returned to the site where Garrett’s body was on Monday, April 16, 2018, Upchurch said. He spent an hour there, Upchurch said.
Bleach was later found on parts of Garrett’s remains and his shoes, prosecutors said.
Two days later, on April 18, 2018, a man who belonged to a tracking-centric social group found the decomposing and partially skeletal remains of Garrett.
Investigators located signs of bleach on Garrett’s jeans and on his tennis shoes, Upchurch said.
Garrett’s mother testifies
Garrett’s mother, Danielle Pratt, testified Wednesday that Kern, who she started dating in October 2017, was her boyfriend at the time. She said Kern lived with her mother in a mobile home park in Sanford.
Pratt testified that on April 13, 2018, a Friday, she needed to get Garrett’s then 5-year-old sister ready for elementary school. Pratt said Garrett had fallen asleep again, so she was late and would miss the school bus.
Pratt said she asked Garrett to message Kern to come to school, but then Kern drove to their house.
Pratt said she said goodbye to her daughter as she drove off with Kern in her old model blue Ford Explorer.
She said that was the last time she saw her daughter alive.
Pratt said Garrett had just received an iPhone 8 as a birthday present in March; she took the phone everywhere and had various social media accounts, like Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook.
Garrett posted a photo of herself in her bedroom on Snapchat at 6:48 a.m. on April 13, 2018.
“This is the last outgoing social media or phone activity from Justis Garrett,” Upchurch said. “Her story shows that, like any 16-year-old, she is an avid user of her phone and social media.”
But after getting into the SUV with Kern that morning, she never posted again, Upchurch said.
And Garrett had been wearing a pair of black Nikes she had bought a month or two earlier.
Upchurch asked how she deals with shoes.
“Like gold,” Pratt said, wiping his eyes.
Pratt said her daughter never ran away and loved going to school.
When she did not hear from her daughter the next day, Pratt reported her missing to the Mount Dora Police Department.
Pratt had wanted to contact the police earlier, but Kern had talked her out of it, Upchurch told jurors.
Pratt testified that she initially told police she was with Kern and that the two dropped Garrett off at Mount Dora High School on April 13.
Pratt told Upchurch she did it because Kern had a suspended driver’s license.
Pratt said she drove around looking for her daughter, went to her friend’s house and handed out flyers to try to find her. She tried to contact her through her iPhone, but it went straight to voicemail.
Lewis called Catherine Slack, vice principal of Mount Dora High School, to the stand. Slack testified that at the request of the police, she checked the video cameras in the student drop-off area and did not see a blue Ford Explorer, like the one Kern drove.
When questioned by Lewis, DeLand police evidence technician Carol Hunter testified that a balaclava and drawstring were tied around Garrett’s remains.
Medical Examiner James Fulcher testified that he could not tell if Garrett had been strangled because a key bone was missing from her neck along with other tissue. He said he couldn’t determine what killed her because of the decomposition.
Fulcher also said Garrett’s nose was fractured. But he couldn’t say how it happened.
Dala asked him if it was possible that Garrett died of some kind of heart attack. Fulcher said it was possible, but unlikely given his age.
Lewis then asked Fulcher if it was likely that someone who died of a heart attack or other natural cause would be found in the woods with their pants down and bleach on some part of their body. .
Fulcher said no.