Morgan County man sentenced to 21 years in death of pregnant girlfriend

September 19, 2012|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |
  • Zell

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. — A Morgan County man has been ordered to serve at least 21 years in prison for the death of his pregnant girlfriend, according to Morgan County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Dan James.

James T. Zell Jr., 24, of Tri Lake Park, pleaded guilty last month to two counts of second-degree murder and one count of concealment of a deceased body.

He was sentenced Monday by Senior Status Circuit Judge Andrew N. Frye Jr. to serve consecutive prison terms of 40 years, 20 years, and one to five years, James said.

Frye accepted Morgan County Prosecuting Attorney Debra MH McLaughlin’s recommendation and ordered Zell to serve a maximum 40-year prison sentence for the slaying of Kelly Elizabeth Butler, a 20-year sentence for the death of her unborn child and a one- to five-year sentence for concealing her body after killing her, James said.

The prison terms are to be served consecutively to a separate one- to 10-year prison sentence that Zell received in a breaking-and-entering case earlier this year, James said.


West Virginia law calls for a minimum sentence of 10 years for a second-degree murder conviction, according to James.

Zell would be eligible for parole after serving 21 years in the slaying case and an additional year in the breaking-and-entering case, James said.

The victim’s mother and brother testified at Zell’s sentencing hearing and were in agreement with the state’s sentencing recommendations, James said.

Deputies with the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department alleged that Zell strangled Butler, 29, at their apartment, then took her body to a remote area of Hampshire County, W.Va., and left it there in an abandoned cabin.

Butler was three to four months pregnant when she was found dead Dec. 23, McLaughlin said.

No DNA testing was performed on the unborn child, but McLaughlin said she believed Zell was the father, based on his statements. 

Police have said Zell confessed to the murder after he was arrested on a DUI charge in Franklin County, Pa. 

Zell told police that the couple fought upon returning home from a bar and that Butler punched him in the face several times, causing him to black out. Zell awoke to find Butler lying dead on the floor with fingerprints around her throat, police have said.

Butler’s body was loaded into a Chevrolet Blazer and taken to a cabin in the area of Slanesville, W.Va., in Hampshire County, which borders Morgan County, police have said.

The couple dated for at least a year, McLaughlin has said.

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